Lance Wyman was an aspiring graphic designer in 1966 when he learned that the International Olympic Committee and the Mexican Olympic Committee were looking to hire a team to create the emblem and associated design concept for the entire 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.
He and his partner, Peter Murdoch, thought to themselves, why not us? They booked a one-way ticket to Mexico City, which is all they could afford, according to this brilliant podcast from 99 Percent Invisible, hoping to make a name for themselves.
One disadvantage the two American designers may have had initially was that they had never been to Mexico, and knew practically nothing about the country’s culture or history. So they embarked on a crash course immediately. When they visited the Museum of Anthropology, examining the stone murals of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, they were struck by the similarities in artwork centuries before to the 1960s, when op-art was a popular form of expression.
“I actually was floored by some of the early cultures,” says Wyman in the podcast, “because they were doing things that we were doing in a contemporary way with geometry and with graphics.” The podcast went to explain that the bold lines and bright colors and geometric shapes reminded Wyman of the kind of Op art that was popular among contemporary artists back in New York.
Wyman thought that they should take advantage of the circles in the digits of ’68, which is the year of the Mexico City Olympics, and blend those circles into the five Olympic rings. Additionally, the techniques of op-art, also known as optical art, which uses techniques of contrast and geometry to create an illusion of movement, were employed as waves of lines surrounding the text and numbers. Those lines were based on a new font Wyman and Murdoch created, made up of three lines that always curved, but never bent.
Their design was so impactful, that the Olympic organizing committee began employing their design in collaterals even before they informed Wyman and Murdoch that they had won the competition.
But the reason why the 99 Percent Invisible podcast is so fascinating is that Wyman’s design concept was so powerful, it was co-opted by a group in some ways trying to undermine the Olympics. And Wyman didn’t mind.
Mexico was undergoing a significant socio-economic and political transformation, brought on by a stronger economy. But there was reason to believe that the fruits of the growing economy was not trickling down to the middle classes or the masses, or at least not fast enough. In Mexico City, anti-government protests were happening frequently enough in the summer of 1968, that the government began to get uneasy that their Olympic Games, scheduled to open in October of that year, were under threat.
As related in a previous post, a series of anti-government protests in Mexico City culminated in a protest where around 10,000 university and high school students met at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on October 2. The government decided enough was enough, and sent armed troops through the crowds and opened fired. Only 10 days prior to the start of the Mexico City Olympics, dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands were killed that day.
As the podcast explains, students began to co-opt Wyman’s designs. One common image was one of a white dove that was ever present in Mexico – a white image on black. The students went all over town painting red splotches on the dove’s white breast as if it had been pierced by a bullet or a knife.
As this 99 PI article describes, Wyman’s designs were so universal they could serve both sides of the political war:
Despite his relative isolation at work, Wyman heard about the massacre. “When I heard about it and how severe it was it was a very difficult situation because I was working for the government and I couldn’t do anything about it,” he says. He empathized with the students and had mixed feelings about continuing his work. But, in a way, he didn’t need to choose between the government and the protesters. His designs found a way to serve both sides.