This is 1968. . .This is Mexico
Linking Huichol imagery to Op Art gave the Mexico Olympics a memorable graphic identity
Of all Olympic events staged in living memory, Mexico 1968 – the XIX Olympiad – is one of the most fondly and best remembered. Not because it was the Olympiad where a woman first lit the Olympic flame, nor because more world records were broken in Mexico than in any other prior Olympiad, nor even because of the clenched-fist, Black Panther salutes of two African American athletes whose names almost nobody now recalls. MEXICO 68 sticks in the mind because the originality and cogency of its system of communication converted it into a paradigm of modern graphic and event design.
If we define communication as ‘a connection allowing access between persons or places’, then MEXICO 68 communicated supremely. It connected people with people, places with places, and each with the other as logically, elegantly and joyfully as may be possible.
Above all, the value of the design was in the concept and construction of a graphic system within which every design element was integrated into a general proposal. The proposal delivered a jolt through the ingenuity of its imagery.
Beneath the general proposal, there was a profound aesthetic sensation: contemporary Mexico. The perfectly balanced combination of the general and the subliminal generated a secret and immediate influence: the graphic surprise.
The visual publicity contained a language created from provocative images; and yet from one image to another, within the eye of any beholder, anywhere, it produced a state of constant enunciation: ‘This is the Olympics. This is Mexico. This is 1968.’
In July 1966, when Arquitecto Pedro Ramírez Vázquez was suddenly and unexpectedly appointed to take over the presidency of the Organising Committee for the Games of the xix Olympiad (after the original head stood down due to poor health), he understood quite clearly that his overarching responsibility was the presentation of Mexico’s image in the world. ‘Of least importance was the Olympic competition; the records fade away, but the image of a country does not,’ he recently told us.
In a number of big cities, on more than one continent, 1968 was a year defined by intense social restlessness. In the face of Mexico’s own student-led, anti-government, pro-social justice movement (that just ten days before the Games started, resulted in a military massacre of more than 300 persons, which very nearly caused the Games to be cancelled), and confronted with the rejection of Mexico as a viable Olympic site by much of the world (due to Mexico’s cited ‘Third World’ status, its lack of basic infrastructure, and the oxygen-thin altitude of a capital city plagued by chronic material poverty), the Mexico Olympics were born. As Ramírez Vázquez puts it: ‘The challenge in 1968 was not the sport; for Mexico the challenge was to stage the Olympics.’
This was the primary motivation for shaking the viewer with surprising graphic images – images that were held in place by a communication system encompassing every aspect of design – from stamps, cultural events programmes, posters, uniforms, sculptures, signage and bumper stickers to balloons, street lighting and souvenirs.
Alfonso Soto Sorio
The Huichol Source
When did Pedro Ramírez Vázquez first invite you to collaborate on the Olympic programme?
In 1966, after he took over the Games. I was working at the National Museum of Anthropology. He knew that among other things I had designed and mounted the Museum’s Huichol exhibits. So one day he called to ask me if I could bring some Huichol to help develop the logotype. And so I made contact with them.
How did your relationship with the Huichol start?
I was travelling in their territories in the 1950s, when it was very difficult to reach them. And in 1962 I was responsible for organising some of the first exhibitions of Huichol art.
Ramírez Vázquez mentioned one Huichol in particular who worked on the Olympic identity.
His name was Pedro De Haro. He was chief of a Huichol community called San Sebastian, el Haute. Most of the Huichol are divided between five towns, and the most traditional is San Sebastian, in the state of Jalisco. Pedro De Haro was my assistant when I was designing the Huichol room in the Museum of Anthropology, and working alongside him at that time were a group of young Huichol. They carried out the reconstruction of traditional Huichol dwellings.
What was Pedro Ramírez Vázquez’s original proposal?
He suggested we develop some ideas for the Olympic identity, along the lines of the art the Huichol normally create: using lines and the sorts of colours they like to use.
How did you start to work?
I made contact with Pedro De Haro, and I explained that we were attempting to create a logotype for the Olympics and Mexico, and that as part of this process we were looking to produce a series of Huichol tablas [small squares of wood covered in a sticky resin; into this resin the Huichol push coloured beads or lengths of dyed yarn]. For this reason De Haro came to Mexico City with two Huichol. But there were others living here at the time, too. And so the Huichol artists followed his ideas, and between them produced a series of tablas, integrating the number ‘68’ with the five Olympic rings.
When was the first time you saw the ‘6 ‘and the ‘8’ integrated with the rings in this way?
In Ramírez Vázquez’s office. One day he picked up a pencil and sketched this idea. But in reality the fusion of the numbers with the rings was perfected by the Huichol in their tablas, because they work with concentric lines as a matter of course. The fusion was essentially created through their way of seeing the world.
Pedro Ramirez Vazquez
What was your immediate intention when you accepted the presidency of the Olympic Organising Committee?
When Mexico was granted the Olympics in 1964, the whole world protested about a ‘Third World’ country having been given the honour of staging the Games. I was worried about international rejection. So in 1966 my primary intention was to find an image for Mexico. I had to give it an image that would immediately provoke surprise, an image that was effective. ‘We are going to need very good publicity,’ I thought.
How was the graphic design concept originally defined?
Reflection on the concept was very easy: we were going to address the whole world. So we had the task of finding a language that the whole world could understand. We needed everyone to identify us as ‘Mexico’, but also as a modern, current, contemporary country. At that time, in New York, in Paris and London – throughout the Western world – popular art was Op Art; that was the language of the time. And looking at it more closely, I realised that Op Art uses convergent, divergent, parallel and concentric lines, just like art of the Huichol Indians. In the late 1960s the two styles collided. And so the concept was born from this coincidence of time, you could say. Having decided this direction, with Alfonso Soto Sorio’s help we had Huichol artists work out the first drafts of the logotype design. Once we had the basic design concept down, the next important aspect of its development was the extension of the letters. It certainly wasn’t easy, and this idea was developed by Eduardo Terrazas. The application of the concept was then realised by Lance Wyman.
How did you begin to spread information on an international level?
First we made a small folded pamphlet which contained both cultural and logistical information. In it we included an impression of Mexican culture – architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, whatever – alongside a description of the preparations being made for the Olympics. In collaboration with ibm, we drew up a directory of the 106 International Olympic Committee member-countries that were going to participate in Mexico. And every fifteen days we sent a pamphlet to selected people in these countries, with 28 countries targeted as the most important. We asked each country’s embassy for a list of their most influential citizens – bankers, businessmen, writers, journalists, athletes, professionals of all types – we sent a copy of our bi-monthly pamphlet to each one of them personally. At the time I thought: ‘After seeing the pamphlet so many times, people are going to ask, “What is this country? Mexico? What are they doing with the Olympics?”’ That is how we began to disseminate information on an international level. The envelope we sent also included a little bell as a gift. In this way we lingered in the minds of influential people all over the world. And that was the beginning of our integral design system.
What exactly do you mean by ‘integral design’?
I mean that we were attempting not only to develop a sign or a pamphlet or a poster, we also had to find a way to adorn the city; a way to design the transportation; we had to design sales kiosks, stamps, tickets, uniforms, street signs; everything! You name it! We wanted the whole world to remember the event and through the event to remember Mexico. That is how it became ‘integral’. I remember calling Eduardo Terrazas. I told him we needed to develop such a system; to develop something that hadn’t been done before in any Olympics. I explained to him that we needed to demonstrate that Mexico could put on a very original Olympics. Not only for the sports events, but in all ways, in every aspect of Mexican life. Terrazas finished things he was doing in New York and started work with us. And his vision was hugely important for the whole development of the idea of integral design.
What was the background to designing the symbols for the sporting events?
The background for these symbols – as well as the twenty cultural event symbols – can also be found in our pre-Hispanic past, in its glyphic systems of communication. Initially, when we had to design the symbols for the twenty sports, I met a designer called Jesús Vilchis. He was working with Manuel Villazon at the Iberoamericana university. Well, Jesús suggested something very intelligent; he said, ‘Each sport has a very different physical movement, but each sport also has a tool.’ What is the basic tool of cycling? The bicycle. What are the basic tools of swimming? The arm and water. What about boxing? Two interconnected arms. Jesús’ suggestion underlines that what is important in design, first and foremost, is the concept; the concept gives any design its foundations. That concept was created by Jesús Vilchis. He came up with the concept and ordered the designs drawn up by the draughtsmen.
And where was the MEXICO 68 lineal typographic font used?
Everywhere. The uniformity of the typography was a great device. People saw it and instantly knew that this or that place was an Olympic location. For example, we put up a sign saying ‘Village’. It wasn’t necessary to write ‘Olympic Village’ because the typography instantly identified it as such.
How did you go about decorating the city?
We began by putting an orange stripe on the lamp posts along the Periferico [ring road]; a pink stripe on Churubusco; a blue stripe on the way down to Xochimilco. Every lamppost had a stripe of colour. And when people saw these striped lamp posts they asked themselves, ‘What is this all about!?’ ‘Ah, it must be something for traffic control,’ some people probably thought. Not true. The point was for people to think about the Olympics every 30 metres. Billboards were also placed on rooftops. I asked Abel Quezada – a well known cartoonist at the time – to conceptualise them. I said, ‘I don’t want Olympic rings, and I don’t want you to write the name of the Organising Committee anywhere.’ So Quezada depicted joyful scenes that read, ‘Everything is possible in Peace.’ And that phrase announced the Olympic ideal. We wrote it in English, French, Arabic and Chinese, as well as in Spanish. And when our people saw the billboards in other languages they thought, ‘What does this mean!?’ ‘What are they saying!?’ But then they saw the phrase in Spanish they said, ‘Ah! This must be for the Olympics, because foreigners are coming from all over the world.’ They thought about the Olympics, though we never directly said, ‘Think about the Olympics.’ Through these kinds of techniques we got people thinking about the Olympics 30 or 40 times a day, for many months. [...]
Redeeming popular Mexican art
Before you started work, did you and your colleagues make a careful, even ‘scientific’, analysis of previous Olympic design?
We looked at some things from Tokyo, and we had a little book about Rome. That was all, I think. And maybe something from Melbourne. But ‘scientific’, no. Some designers do these ‘scientific’ analyses when they design juice cartons, or whatever. But they are selling a product, and need to justify their decisions to a client. We were not selling anything and were lucky enough not to have to justify what we did.
Did you not feel you were selling Mexico, or at least selling the Games?
Well, the Olympics have to resolve a lot of problems. They have to resolve all the problems related to the architectural infrastructure; they have to provide information to the world and the country about what is going on; they also have to know how to cope with the whole logistical nightmare: 125 nations and their thoroughbred sportspeople and diplomats, 4000 journalists, hundreds of thousands of tourists, etc. And then there is an image which has to satisfy the world, as well as the country itself. It has to be conceived, developed, produced and disseminated in such a way that it helps resolve all these problems and its own internal ones.
Good design synthesises these things, but is also a thing in itself. Culturally, logistically, politically and aesthetically it is more complex than ‘selling’ anything.
What for you was the strongest part of the MEXICO 68 graphic image?
MEXICO 68 was not a graphic image per se. It undervalues it to think of it in this rather limited way. What people forget is that MEXICO 68 was not just graphic design. It has been presented as that by Lance [Wyman] and a few others, because they are graphic designers, and they understand things only from the graphic design point of view. But MEXICO 68 was much more than a ‘graphic image’.
Could you summarise, then, what MEXICO 68 implied for you?
Above all, as far as I was concerned, it was a political and a cultural statement. Or rather, it was an opportunity to make a political and cultural statement.
Look, whatever we call ‘politics’, Mexico has forgotten that. In the 1930s, the Muralist movement – with [Diego] Rivera, [José Clemente] Orozco, [David Afaro] Siqueiros – began as a political movement. And not just muralists, but architects, illustrators, etc. They were ‘involved’, with a social responsibility, involved with politics and with the people. I think we – some of us Mexicans working on the project – were probably the last of the generation that was dedicated to Mexico. Everything we did was in order to benefit the social and economic situation of Mexico. Today the vast majority of creative people in Mexico are doing things for themselves. They’re not doing things for the people. There’s just no concern for others.
So you saw the Olympics in essentially political terms?
Absolutely! It was the parting of the waters. The point where something ends and something else begins. When we were doing the Olympics, the last thing that crossed our minds was, ‘Oh, we’re the greatest designers.’ We were trying to organise something that made sense, that had a kind of cultural logic.
How do you perceive the special talent of
Ramírez Vázquez in terms of MEXICO 68?
Ramírez Vázquez was a son of the Revolution; he was born around 1917. And he poured into architecture all the ideals of the Revolution – or at least what the Revolution was supposed to be about: a modern, democratic Mexico. And Ramírez Vázquez had good political sense – in knowing what this country needed at all times.
He was involved in making the University city; he did the Museum of Anthropology; the Museum of Modern Art; and 35,000 prefabricated rural schools, which were built in just one year! And many, many other projects. Ramírez Vázquez was the only person in Mexico who could have got us to the Games.
I’d like you to talk a little about your passion for Mexico’s popular arts.
In the 1920s and ’30s there was a mini-Renaissance here in the popular arts, with Frida Kahlo and the bohemians of the time. A store even opened in the downtown selling Mexican craft objects. That had never happened before. For most people in Mexico, though, these things were and are considered very far from ‘art’.
And for me, too, at one point. I have to say that when I was young – before I lived abroad for six or seven years – I thought the popular, folk arts were shit! But outside Mexico – especially in the Soviet Union, where we organised a phenomenally successful exhibition at the Hermitage – I began to appreciate popular art through the appreciation of others. When I came back to Mexico I wanted to transform Mexico’s perception of its artisan crafts.