Olympic Symbols - the visual language of the Games

easy-to-read, icons, pictures, symbols
Will Stahl-Timmins

Hello, simplification centre blog readers. I'm Will Stahl-Timmins, an information designer / researcher from the University of Exeter. As the 2012 London Olympic Games are starting as I write this, I thought my first post here should take a look at something about presenting and communicating information at the Games. Each of the Games since 1964 has used a set of symbols to represent the different events. For example, here is the running symbol from each year:

Each Olympic Games is an international and multicultural event - attended in the host city by people from all over the world. The idea of the symbols, presumably, is to help guide people around the venues - whatever (verbal) language they speak. This works because of a visual language that is shared by all those that are attending - the body language and positioning of the athletes (and/or their equipment, depending on the symbols used). A single image can be much more effective than a list of 20 different languages for a single event.

Having said that, I wonder how easy it is to understand the symbols themselves - have a try at guessing which event at the 2012 Games is represented by each of the following symbols (answers below):

A: Synchronised Swimming
B: Handball
C: Volleyball
D: Triathlon
E: Cycling - Road
F: Cycling - Track

While some sports may be easier to symbolise in this way than others, you could argue that it might be easier to learn a pictogram than a word in an unfamiliar language. If you need to communicate with a group of people that speak many different languages, ask yourself whether a picture might be a useful way of either replacing or augmenting a text. And Rob Waller blogged about Easy Read a few days ago - a system of communicating with both text and pictures, to make it easy for people with learning disabilities.

But don't assume that it will be clear just because it is a picture. You may have to test it, to explain it and to make sure it doesn't just say what it is, but what it is not. Two key differences between handball and volleyball are emphasised in these symbols: the volleyball symbol includes a net, which handball does not have. And the handball symbol shows the player holding the ball, which is not allowed in volleyball. But of course you'd have to know the rules first.

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