The Olympic collector

Markus Osterwalder owns over 12,000 Olympic items. He talks us through the Games’ visual design history

There are some graphic designers for whom the Olympics are an interest: for others, they are an obsession. Markus Osterwalder grew up in South America. When he was eight years old, his neighbourhood, many of whom were German, organised a ‘Family Olympiad’ to coincide with the 1972 Munich Games in their home country. Osterwalder and his friends ran around their gardens and raced each other in swimming pools. One neighbour had just returned from Germany with a Munich 72 T-shirt and a key chain bearing Waldi, the 72 mascot. And Osterwalder was hooked. Forty years later, he is the proud owner of a massive collection of design-related Olympics material which fills a 70 square metre basement in his home.

Osterwalder’s acquisition of all things Olympic began in the 90s when he returned to his home country of Switzerland to study graphic design. For his dissertation, he chose, of course, the development of design for the Olympics. His research took him to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. There “I had the design manual for Lillehammer in my hands and I fell in love,” he recalls.

And so Osterwalder began assembling his own Olympic collection. But in those pre-eBay days, it wasn’t easy. “It was so, so difficult to find pieces then,” he says. The best place was the annual Olympic Collectors’ Fair in Lausanne, which Osterwalder attends every year and from where he began a collection which is now so extensive that he can’t even put a figure on the number of items in it. Detailed on his website,, Osterwalder’s collection spans everything from design manuals to medals, tickets to torches. His most recent addition is an original poster from the 1912 Games in Stockholm, “which made me so happy, it’s such a wonderful piece”. That basement, he says, “is full from the bottom to the top. After Rio 2016 I will have a problem.”

While by day he runs a small design studio in Switzerland, Osterwalder’s obsession has led to a parallel career as an Olympics design expert. During the 2006 Turin Games he created an Olympic Design exhibition covering 16 summer and winter Games which ran in seven locations around Switzerland. He has produced books on the design of the Athens, Torino and Beijing Games, with another, on Olympics memorabilia, to appear in 2016. And he has lectured widely on aspects of the design of the Games.

For Osterwalder, the Tokyo Games of 1964 marked the starting point for serious graphic design for the Games. “Everything before then had been very similar, nothing really revolutionary, but in 64 it was the first time there was a really reduced logo and the pictograms were in the form that we know them today,” he says. “It was very simple, clean and functional. Then, the real essence of creating a complete graphic look for the Games began in Mexico in 68, while Munich 72 was the first time that a really useful graphic manual was made, which was a real milestone in terms of what we use today.”

Other highlights in the design history of the Olympics for Ostwerwalder include Barcelona 92’s integration of Josep M Trias’s logos for both the main Games and the Paralympics and its use of Mariscal’s Cobi mascot (described as a cubist Catalan sheepdog inspired by Picasso). Barcelona was also the first games to break with the clean, modernist style pictograms introduced in 64 and perfected by Otl Aicher’s team in 72. Instead, for Barcelona’s pictograms, Trias referenced the looser, brush-script style of his logo. The Lillehammer Winter Games of 1994 took the development of pictograms further as design director Petter T Moshus and his team integrated folkloric elements into their design. The pictograms were inspired by a 4,000 year-old rock carving found at Rodoy in northern Norway, which is thought to be the world’s first depiction of a person on skis. Osterwalder cites Lillehammer, along with Munich, as his favourite Games from a design point of view, particularly for the way in which the former created a cohesive, appropriate look for the games using ice crystal patterns and other elements from nature. Athens he also applauds: “Everything was really nice – the venue decoration, banners on the streets, it was a real milestone. Everything was from the same hand.”

Which brings us to London. When he heard London had won the Games, Osterwalder says he was really excited about how it might look. And now? “I’m really disappointed. I like the logo in a way, it is the first time the logo can have content inside which is fantastic, but something is not working. In 50 years’ time, no-one will know when London was. The year and the city have to be clear [in the logo], but you can’t read it. And the pictograms are so horrible, they look like children did them at school. They are not professional and are one of the worst I’ve seen.” Osterwalder is also critical of the standard of merchandise and memorabilia produced for London 2012. “I talked to a memorabilia collector who usually buys a lot of stuff at each games and he said ‘I don’t know if I want to buy anything from London, the things are so ugly’. I talked to someone at the IOC about it but they say it’s up to the organising committee,” he says.

Osterwalder complains that the design of the London Games fails to communicate anything about the city to him. “I miss the stories behind everything. Athens had so many stories, in London there are no stories behind anything. What’s the story behind the torch? Eight thousand holes? China [for its torch] had the paper roll, Greece had the olive leaf, why not use something from the past?” So Olympic design has to draw on the heritage of the host city?  “It should absolutely draw on the culture and the heritage of the city. It’s your chance to show your city to the world, the best chance you could ever have. You could take the word London out of the 2012 logo and replace it with Madrid and it would work also. Something really mediocre happened in London: a once in a lifetime opportunity has passed by and that’s really bad.”

Having extensively studied the Games, Osterwalder believes there are certain key criteria for a successful Olympics from a design point of view. Firstly, it is that every Games needs a single design director. “If you don’t have a really good design department headed by a professional person, you don’t get that homogeneity. What I see really clearly from my collection is that if I get the impression that it was done by ten different people then I can see that this was bad work. The person in charge of design should be there from the beginning, before they choose the logo,” he says. “That person should have the ability to say ‘no’. And they have to understand how the Olympic system works. The person in charge should also be the one to decide things, but usually this is done by people who have no knowledge of design or how it works.”

Interestingly, in a talk on their work for 2012 at Wolff Olins’ offices on July 4, WO chairman Brian Boylan said that the biggest lesson he had learned from the London Games was that there must be a senior person responsible for the visual communication of the brand. Wolff Olins, he said, should have insisted on that from the beginning, confirming Osterwalder’s view.

Osterwalder has no objection to logos being chosen by competition, but “I don’t think the public should choose because they don’t have the knowledge. The best way is an open competition for professionals judged by a professional board. In London it was just one company that was involved – this is wrong. You don’t get the range of choices that you get from an open competition.” Osterwalder also believes that such competitions should be open to designers from outside the host country. “This is a very international world, I don’t see a problem with another country doing it. The logo for Nagano [98] was designed in Atlanta,” he points out.

What about Munich 72, the Games that almost every graphic designer holds up as the perfect scenario? Should that be the model for all Games? “I don’t think it is possible to do a Games today like in 1972. The times have changed so much,” Osterwalder says. “If I look at my collection from 72, it misses a lot of pieces that you need today. There was no overall look for the Games: you can’t do the Games with just a logo today. You need a lot of extra elements  – TV, electronic elements, they were not an issue in 72.”

The Games must move with the times and their visual communication respond to a changing world, of course, but in Osterwalder’s huge collection of Olympic design work, he thinks, lie the clues to future success:  “You have to take the good things from the past and use them to make a better future,” he says.

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