Total design Tokyo style

The year the Olympics ‘got’ modern design was 1964, via Yusaku Kamekura’s logo for the Tokyo games

Faced with an identity for the London 2012 Olympics that has failed to set their pulses racing, sections of the British design community have been casting longing looks back at visual systems for previous Olympic Games, and at one in particular.

Otl Aicher’s identity scheme for the 1972 Munich Games took design for the Olympics, and, it could be argued, the implementation of identity per se, to a new level. Booklets, timetables and posters from the all-encompassing programme have been pawed and pored over with almost religious reverence. Neatly timed on the eve of this summer’s Games, there was even a day-long symposium at UCA Canterbury, examining Munich 72’s legacy.

From Aicher’s ‘solar’ logo (reinterpreted to form the final emblem by designer Coordt von Mannstein), to the smallest label or leaflet, everything was mapped precisely into the design commisioner’s rationalist vision. But if we’re looking for when and where the Olympics first ‘got’ modern design, we should be looking at Tokyo, eight years earlier.

A new approach

Tokyo 64 was the first time that a ‘total design’ approach was applied to the Olympics, led by critic Masaru Katsumi and a team, including Ikko Tanaka and Hiromu Hara, that started work five years before the opening ceremony. It was here that pictograms were first introduced to the Games, Yoshiro Yamashita’s icon set establishing a sign language along the lines of Otto Neurath’s isotype figures to overcome the problems that non-Japanese visitors would encounter in seeking out the table tennis or weightlifting.

But the arrival of modern, universalist design principles is encapsulated in the logo for the Games, designed by Yusaku Kamekura, one of the giants of Japanese graphic design. Kamekura’s geometric symbols and Western-style logotypes for Japanese corporations over four decades were vital in gaining them international recognition. His was the looping, egg-like logo for NTT , Nikon’s and Meiji’s italic wordmarks, and the crystalline hexagon for TDK (shown below) that once drew makers of compilation tapes like a magnet.

The red of the sun

His emblem for the Tokyo 64 Games, although apparently directly inspired by the Japanese flag, helped to modernise the world’s post-war view of his country. The logo for the previous Olympics, in Rome, had gone for classical imagery in the form of the Capitoline she-wolf feeding Romulus and Remus. Kamekura’s was strikingly modern in contrast: a large red disc over gold Olympic rings and ‘TOKYO 1964’ in a condensed western sans serif.

In his logo designs, Kamekura was heavily influenced by the composition of Japanese heraldic crests (mons), which usually comprised simple, stylised images of natural forms such as flowers within a circular roundel that were applied to flags, clothes, tents and equipment as a means of identification. Kamekura saw the direct relevance of this focus on a single, central, eye-catching image or icon to modern design.
Although the organisers praised the emblem’s ‘renewed appreciation of the Rising Sun’s dynamic simplicity’, Kamekura preferred to avoid the national significance of the symbol and highlighted his modernist re-presentation of it. For him the red of the ‘sun’ embodied the passion and excitement of the athletics competition, and its shape provided a formal echo of the rings below. The emblem’s vertical composition was different to the national flag. The non-Japanese, Kamekura was sure, would only see the sun, and not the Japanese flag, in his emblem.

The logo was applied widely on printed material for the Games and on the medals, but most memorably on three posters, also designed by Kamekura. One of these, The Start of the Sprinters’ Dash, featuring a full-bleed image looking across a line of athletes as they rise from the blocks, is a classic of modern poster design.

A landmark year

Kamekura found a way to combine Japanese iconography and modernist design principles, and in doing so, caught the world’s eye. Tokyo 64 confirmed the view of Japan as a rising power in technology, design and enterprise, replacing that of a land of pagodas, geishas and chrysanthemums. It set a new standard for the design of the Olympic Games. Without Tokyo 64, there wouldn’t have been Munich 72. Will London 2012 have an influence – on design, on national image, on Olympic identity – to compare with either of them?

Michael Evamy is the author of Logo and the forthcoming, Logotype, both published by Laurence King. See More of Yusaku Kamekura’s work can be seen at, which also features a brief biography of the designer

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