1968 Mexico City Olympics

Summer of ‘68

Almost a half-century later, Lance Wyman’s graphics program for the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games is still considered Gold medal-worthy.

In 1963, Mexico won the bid to host the XIX Olympiad, becoming the first Latin American site for the Games. Staging the Olympics gave the country a unique opportunity to showcase Mexico City as a modern capital with far more to offer than piñatas and fiestas--including a 7,350-foot altitude that supported record-breaking athletic performances.

Mexico’68 also posed daunting challenges, as Lance Wyman learned upon becoming director of graphic design for the games. With sport venues situated at the city’s heart, multilingual crowds would have to navigate one of the world’s most populous urban environments. The organizers’ budget, a fraction of that spent on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, also limited new building construction. While design ingenuity successfully addressed these limitations and won deserved attention, no one could foresee that political unrest would nearly undermine the event.

Rocked by turmoil, 1968 signaled a turning point. Newsweek declared it “the year that made us who we are,” a global culture of high and low extremes. By December, glowing portraits of a placid Earth beamed in by the triumphant Apollo space mission could not erase memories of rising Vietnam War tolls, assassinations, convention violence, and political unrest. Even the summer games became associated with athlete protests and a bloody student insurrection. Despite this aura of controversy, Mexico’68 is best remembered for a remarkable, joyous design legacy still considered gold medal-worthy.

Spring training

When Adolpho López Mateos, original chairman of the Olympic organizing committee and former Mexican president, took ill, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez replaced him. A distinguished architect and masterful organizer, Vásquez had recently designed the Mexican Pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair as well as the national anthropological museum for Mexico City. In what turned out to be a remarkable stroke of fate, Vázquez’s appointment ensured that design played a priority role in shaping and promoting Mexico’68.

Enter SEGD Fellow Lance Wyman, then a young designer at the George Nelson office in New York City who had worked on the Chrysler Corporation’s Pavilion for the same 1964 World’s Fair. Upon learning that Vázquez planned to hold an international design competition to develop the summer games logotype, Wyman requested and received the go-ahead to participate. He hastened to Mexico in November 1966, calling in colleague Peter Murdoch, a British industrial designer, to collaborate. After Wyman designed the winning logotype during a two-week trial period, the pair was selected to craft the basic visual language for Mexico’68. The Olympic branding, referred to at that time as a “look,” soon appeared all over Mexico and in the media.

Any Olympic host country hopes to net as much publicity as possible, but prior to 1968 design rarely represented a compelling story. In December 1967, New York Times art critic John Canaday described how Vázquez organized “a controlled program of design… that will express to visitors the standards by which Mexico wants to be recognized around the world.”

Canaday continues, “Neither New York nor Montreal [Expo 67], with their fairs set off in nearby meadows or islands, had to meet the problems of fusing with the normal life of the city the complications of these games that will be played in areas around Mexico City and in its environs. ‘Design,’ when the Mexicans took a good look at the problem, went beyond the business of posters, programs, advertisements and other self-contained visual material and impinged on the area of urban logistics.”

To realize his ambitious vision, Vázquez needed talent capable of problem-solving with limited means. He assembled a small army of designers, architects, urban planners, and other creatives led by directors Eduardo Terrazas (urban design), Beatrice Trueblood (publications), Manuel Villazon (the student team), and Wyman, who headed the graphic design team with Peter Murdoch later directing special projects.

Branding Mexico ’68

The armature of the Olympic brand is Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s 1913 symbol of five interconnected circles representing continents. Welding compasses and ruling pens, Wyman introduced numbers into the lockup by adjusting line widths and counter spacing. He recalls an epiphany: “Discovering that the geometry of those five rings could be expanded into the 68 was like a miracle!” Miraculous indeed, considering that no one has been allowed to reconfigure the official symbol so overtly ever since.

The next design iterations add the word MEXICO plus an infinite field of lines radiating outward that proved particularly effective for animation and supergraphics. Wyman relates the pattern to sound waves spreading outward but its concentricity also resembles a target focusing attention at the center. Very much of the moment, the logo channels the Museum of Modern Art’s influential 1965 Responsive Eye exhibition, which featured dazzling Op-Art works by Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely, and Richard Anuszkiewicz.

A New Jersey native first exposed to pre-Hispanic culture in Peru, Wyman immediately fell in love with Mexico and emigrated there with his wife Neila. They started a family and stayed on after the Olympics for Wyman to work on graphic design for the Mexico City Metro and 1970 World Cup event. Wyman acknowledges the influence of pre-Hispanic indigenous art on the Olympic brand and symbol design, particularly Mayan glyphs featuring linear patterns. A similar linear motif distinguishes traditional folk art created by the Huichol people of western Mexico. Huichol artisans even collaborated on Olympic color studies.

The design team rapidly applied the Mexico’68 branding scheme to publications, posters, stamps, signage, and symbol systems facing deadlines as challenging as a relay race. Otl Aicher, influential designer of the 1972 Munich Olympiad who paid a site visit, briefly unnerved Wyman by declaring that the German design team was already further ahead with years still to go. Another visitor casually commented that his Mexico’68 Olympic lettering was illegible. Fortunately Wyman ignored the criticism, ultimately producing a lively and memorable alphabet suitable for identifying sports venue names at long distances.

In a 2004 Design Observer posting, Pentagram partner Michael Bierut sums up the populist appeal of the Mexico’68 brand, equating its joyful exuberance to the “festive federalism” of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics designed by Sussman/Prejza and the Jerde Partnership. “Wyman, in collaboration with Pedro Rámirez Vázquez…and Eduardo Terrazas, worked out a geometric fantasia of concentric stripe patterns that expanded into a custom alphabet, groovy minidresses, and eventually entire stadia.”

A celebration of symbols

Wyman visually coordinated three symbol sets that signify individual sports, cultural programs, and regulatory messages. He followed a design rationale already in place before he arrived that prescribed using a recognizable gesture or equipment detail to represent each sport. By emphasizing bold and simple forms, the system integrates well with a symbol-rich visual culture like Mexico’s. His saturated and diverse color palette is also appropriately festive rather than doggedly functional. Often displayed together, different symbols nestle or stack comfortably in radius-cornered square frames evocative of today’s iPhone icons.

Garry Emery, Principal of emerystudio in Australia and designer of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, praises Wyman’s achievements. “As Wyman says, ‘Graphic design became an important visual ambassador.’ His bold and brightly coloured cubic totemic environmental graphics contributed to the ambiance of the Games. The clear pictograms and distinctive colors on these totems helped to reinforce a sense of place and create a memorable Mexican identity.”

Confronting a common assumption, Wyman objects that illiteracy drove Mexico’68’s reliance on pictographic means of communication. “A person who doesn’t speak the local language is just as illiterate in a strange country as someone who can’t read at all. We’re all illiterate if we don’t understand how information is presented.”

Required to translate all text into Spanish, French, and English, the designers used icons to minimize verbiage. While Wyman raised the bar for coordinated Olympic pictographic design, earlier precedents exist. (The Nazi regime, for example, produced a carefully detailed and orderly system of sports symbols for the Berlin 1936 Games.)

Crowd control

Faced with directing multilingual crowds to venues spread around Mexico City, the team also favored a nonverbal wayfinding approach whenever possible. Murdoch developed a modular system of signage hardware to display icon panels grouped on pylons or standing signs with minimal text. In a 1968 Industrial Design article, J. Roger Guifoyle describes the “multi-use display system” as comprising two basic support elements: poles (both side- and top-mount) and modular frames. The system could accommodate phones, mailboxes, maps, backlit display boxes, drinking fountains, wastebaskets, and clocks, and could even be modified into information kiosks and newsstands.

Guilfoyle continues, “The modular system is so well-designed that it represents a great step forward in street-furnishing design. Its flexibility and almost infinite variety is such that it would be a pity if the Mexicans scrapped the system at the close of the games…. In fact, the various elements of the display system would be adaptable for use anywhere. The flexibility of Murdoch’s system is its greatest charm—it can have any combination of elements and offers configurational variety.”

In addition to signage, the wayfinding system encompassed a transportation map, supergraphics, and floating balloons to identify stadium entrances, plus a highly efficient ticket design. Color-coded by day, each ticket displayed the brand, stadium name, sport icon, date, time, and ticket price. At the stadium, visitors used the ticket to guide their journey from gate to seat, keeping the stub as a colorful keepsake.

Home stretch

A teacher at Parson’s School of Design for nearly four decades and principal of his own design practice in New York, Wyman is a natural raconteur with a gift for bringing the 1960s back to life. In an extensive interview with editor Milton Curry for the new journal Critical Productive, he recalls working on the Olympics as a young designer in a foreign culture enveloped by political unrest.

Televised to huge audiences, Mexico’68 became irrevocably associated with protest. African-American members of the U.S. track team, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised a black power fist salute during their award ceremony. Vera Caslavska, a Czech gymnast with four golds, made her own gesture of solidarity in support of the infamous “Prague Spring” that roiled Europe earlier. Germany, previously forced by the International Olympic Committee to compete as one team, was finally divided into East and West factions.

While the media immediately picked up these stories, the Mexican government managed to suppress reports of a student massacre that occurred on the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas 10 days before the games. While the numbers are still in dispute, at least 40 people are known to have died. Avery Bundage, president of the IOU, did not cancel the games. During the opening ceremony, students flew a black dove kite over the presidential box to silently protest the repression.

Wyman appreciates Mexico’68 as one of the last Olympiads to downplay corporate sponsorship but admits that the government’s heavy-handed damage control unsettled him. Working under deadline, the design team operated inside an Olympic bubble but, once outside, “you could cut the atmosphere on the street with a knife.” His guilt about “feeling dirty and conflicted” during this period was relieved after returning in 1985 to address a University of Mexico audience. The president, a former student protestor, presented Wyman with a book of propaganda art based on his Olympic designs.

Back to that Newsweek cover, it’s tempting to call 1968 the year that made Lance Wyman who he is. The Mexico’68 creative legacy continues to excite design students and raise enthusiasm for the Olympics. In A History of Graphic Design, the late design historian Philip B. Meggs positioned it as one for the record books: “Measured in term of graphic originality, innovative functional application, and its value to thousands of visitors to the Nineteenth Olympiad, the graphic design system developed by Wyman and his associates in Mexico was one of the most successful in the evolution of visual identification.” 

After more than four decades at his own game, this prolific designer continues to deliver, having recently created a new edition of his popular Washington DC Metro map designed in the 1970s. 1968 was just the starting line.

--By Juanita Dugdale, eg magazine No. 01, 2012 

Editor's note: Juanita Dugdale is a writer, editor, and former SEGD board member who directed a history research project for the SEGD Education Foundation.

 

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