All posts by Rick Cole

About Rick Cole

Rick is a Social Media Strategist and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

Stop Motion

Action, art and language in Olympic pictograms.

I was delighted to see live performers interpret 50 Olympic pictograms during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremonies. The super-imaginative reverse engineering of these uniquely Olympic symbols—from motion to symbol and back to motion—was both thrilling to watch and illustrative of the power of these graphic designs.

In case you missed the original broadcast.

Olympic pictograms

It’s fitting that Tokyo should prominently celebrate Olympic pictograms because this concept was first introduced at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Design lead Katsumi Masaru used ekotoba (pictograms) to deal with a huge language barrier:

“Symbols such as international traffic signs need to be easily understood, accepted by authorities and civil citizens, and be practical. This was achieved in 1964 at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Few tourists understood Japanese. Other languages were not commonly used. The Olympic committee took this problem seriously, and new designers led by Katsumi Masaru designed game symbols and other signs. I hope that these symbols will be used in the next games so that they will be polished to be the perfect universal visual”

1964 quote from design critic Stanley Mason. Traganou, Jilly. “OLYMPIC DESIGN AND NATIONAL HISTORY: THE CASES OF TOKYO 1964 AND BEIJING 2008.” P. 68
Pictograms from 1964 Tokyo Games

The success of the Tokyo team’s design philosophy carried over into and evolved in the 1968 Mexico City Games. For Mexico City, graphic designer Lance Wyman incorporated elements of indigenous folk art and psychedelia into his pictograms. The legacy of his Mexico City design can be traced throughout the 1970s. Check out more of this revolutionary design work.

Pictograms from 1968 Mexico City Games.

For the Munich Games in 1972, Otl Aicher took pictograms to a new level by placing geometrically complimentary lines within a grid system that provided structure. The Munich design has become the standard system we see at Olympic Games today.

Pictograms from 1972 Olympics

Essentially human

Olympic pictograms facilitate a global audience, gathered together in a foreign locale to enjoy shared experience. A tall order. To do that, they sidestep language altogether. Instead, referencing the root, pictograms look to the reality words represent. They present that reality using the near universally recognized shape of the human body, placed in different positions and contexts to indicate an event.

When you think about the problem, the solution seems so simple, so obvious—the revival of a fundamentally human language.

Our most ancient ancestors used pictograms to record their most important memories and hopes.

Chauvet Cave, over 30,000 years old.

Almost any kindergartener will show you that using small drawings to capture people, places and things is basic to human communication.

Pictograms are as essential as human speech.
photo by Jerry Wang

Archeologists believe modern alphabets evolved from the sounds and shapes associated with hieroglyphs.

Our letter A started with from the shape of an ox’ head which corresponded to the word for ox, Aleph.

Today, pictograms remain ubiquitous in all of our modern landscapes—as much a part of our language as the letters on this screen.

Graffiti, emoji and signage.

Ways we read pictograms

The concept of visual literacy is complex and can be controversial. Though not a subject this article, there is some “grammar” involved in reading pictographs.

Pictograms are designed to transcend written language. They are images that take the place of words. They are for communication, not art. They aren’t open to individual interpretation. If you “interpret” a sign designated for diving is the sign for long jumping, you will end up at the wrong venue.

“Information consists of differences that make a difference.”

Edward R. Tufte—Envisioning Information p.65

Sports are represented symbolically, not precisely, with pictograms. It isn’t important to show precise details of a sport or action. Rather, showing a moment or element that both represents the sport and is distinguishable from related activities is key.

Can you tell the difference in these three separate sports; Judo, Karate and Taekwondo?

Stop action is the most familiar form for an Olympic pictogram. As if illuminated by a strobe light, the pictogram reimagines a singular moment of athletic motion.

Designers take the most iconic and recognizable moment of an athletic movement to create a pictogram.

Context situates the particular pictogram within a specific game and country. Olympic pictograms are not a single form. For each game, the designers imbue the pictograms with elements from their culture, from the history of the games, the tradition of pictograms and the event they are representing. Knowing something about these elements is vital to being able to read pictograms.

If you don’t know about pitching, you might be confused by which sign is for baseball and which is for softball.

Abstraction is also a key element of pictography. For each Olympic Games, the host city redesigns pictograms to add design elements unique to the that city. These are often cultural clues drawn from history or geography.

To fully appreciate the abstract forms of the 2008 Beijing pictograms, you need to know something about Chinese writing.

Learn more

There are so many layers to graphic design. I hope you found something new and intriguing in this short article.

I love this subject because I believe communication is key to being human. Visual communication is complicated because it’s abstract and more subjective to the receiver than are written words. We each see through a lens colored by personal experiences, psychology, culture and more. Unravelling this is kind of mysterious and fascinating.

The I.O.C. has a wonderful history of Olympic pictograms.

More Ideas

The Global Brand

An appreciation of the Olympic rings.

The world’s finest athletes are currently gathered in Tokyo to compete in the delayed 2020 Olympic games. As a fan of both athletics and design, I want to recognize an easily overlooked champion. The Olympic rings, one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

According to IOC (International Olympic Committee) research, the Olympic logo has reached “global” status, with 95% of the world recognizing the famous five rings. High ideals associated with the rings include “inspirational, excellence, optimism and diversity.” (1) Any global organization aspires to brand associations like these.

Brand recognition this strong doesn’t happen overnight. It takes about 100 years.

Man, mission and mark.

The father of the modern Olympic Movement was Pierre De Coubertin. A scholar in the field of education (particularly the role of physical competition), Coubertin reimagined the ancient Grecian Olympic games as a vehicle for elevating humanity, promoting peace and creating cross-cultural understanding. He was not so much an athlete as a philosopher of sport (although he did win an Olympic gold medal in Literature in 1912, when arts were included in the games).

Statue of Pierre De Coubertin outside National Stadium in Tokyo.

Olympism did not reappear within the context of modern civilisation in order to play a local or temporary role. The mission entrusted to it is universal and timeless. 


De Coubertin envisioned, and tirelessly promoted, the revival of the Olympics as a permanent fixture. He understood that building a movement and brand takes time and commitment. He also understood symbolism. The games themselves, while true competitions, are also symbolic of human ideals, both of character and community.  

Original 1913 Pierre de Coubertin drawing of Olympic rings.

De Coubertin’s idealism and philosophy can clearly be seen through his inspired design of the Olympic rings. In it we find global reach, inclusion and a connected whole built by collaborative competition, all markers of the Olympic ideal. De Coubertin was not a graphic designer. He was a true believer. Passion, vision and imagery empower movements. That he was able to capture this vision in a clean and minimalistic design is also an amazing feat for an amateur. 

Interlaced meaning 

The Olympic logo, (known within the IOC as the “Olympic rings”) consists of five interlocking rings. Originally the five rings stood for the five areas of the globe from which athletes competed: Europe, The Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. 

The Olympic rings contain five colors (from left to right, blue, yellow, black, green and red) against a white background. These do not relate directly to the geographic regions that the five rings represent. Instead, the colors, including the white background, are drawn from the flags of every nation competing in the games. 

IOC official color palette.

Interlocking rings express the unifying vision of the games. Each individual ring maintains its integrity as it links together into a freshly defined and expanded whole. None of the rings is forced to lose its integrity, nor is any ring greater than the collective whole. 

Careful attention is given to the intersection of the rings.

This is an important distinction. In most corporate brand marks, the aim is singularity and distinctiveness. Ford’s logo stands for Ford Motor company, not Ford and all of its suppliers and dealers. Companies strongly defend themselves against any alternative definition. Generally, brand marks never show the underlying and/or tangential assets from which they emerge. 

The Olympic rings, on the other hand, represent and celebrate an open collaboration between people and nations. The brand suggests that the strength is in the coming together of competitors from disparate places and cultures. Without this collaboration there can be no Olympic event. 

When I watch the Olympics, I see an idealistic world event. I see a hopeful gathering that reaches peak goodness when it’s attended by every possible competitor and every country. I see idealism in the games, and I see idealism in the Olympic rings.

Protecting an expanding brand

The IOC maintains strict guidelines for the use of the Olympic rings. These apply to host cities, broadcast partners, sponsors, businesses selling licensed merchandise and even athletes. Some critics feel these restrictions are excessive and negatively affect people’s perceptions of the games. A specific concern involves the IOC vigorously enforcing their brand controls⏤even on casual, non-business-related, usage of Olympic material by fans on social media.   

Professionally, I recognize and support protecting the image, marketability and future of the games. Trademark and brand integrity require huge investments and are central to the IOC’s mandate. Considering the many political and economic upheavals of the last 120 years, I’d say they are savvy stewards of the brand and I believe they’ll find their way through social media mine fields.  

Under tight control, the Olympic rings are still found on everything from the sides of mountains, to licensed swag, to athletes’ tattoos. In our next article, we’ll look at how Olympic design evolved into the immersive experience that accompanies all Olympic games and their host city. 

Whether expressed in medal design, architecture, video games or even Kim Kardashian lounge wear, the unifying anchor of all Olympic design remains the Olympic rings, their history and vision for a better world that they embody. 

(1) OLYMPIC Brand and Activation Guidelines. International Olympic Committee. (2013) p. 33

More Ideas

Take a Bigger Bite

When snackable content won't satisfy, consider long-format podcasts.

We’ve all heard about snackable content⏤six-second videos, memes, SMS surveys, etc.⏤short, dynamic, often interactive, content packets meant to entertain or entice audiences toward further engagement. All good. 

Snackable is a huge part of social media content marketing. It’s especially effective for mobile, consumer audiences. We create snackable content for our clients to help drive employee engagement and to push specific campaigns, like annual enrollment or wellness initiatives. For internal audiences, the goal of snackable content is not entertainment. It is to promote long-form content designed to forward important organizational goals. 

Think of it more as an appetizer. Because sometimes you need a little more to chew on.  

Slow down, take time, dive deep. 

Only small bits of information are presented in snackable content. However, many topics worth communicating to employee audiences are significant⏤situated in organizational history, strategic thought and planning. Consider the communicative value that is lost when much of the exposition and reason underlying decisions is left blank. We are living in an age when audiences want more information, not less. The same is true for employees. Better information, better engagement.  

Sure, long-form content takes a little longer to consume, but the payoff is worth it. There’s time to dig a little deeper. There’s time for managers and employees to broaden their perspectives on the inner workings, challenges and strengths of your organization. 

There’s time for long-format podcasting.

A long-format podcast engages the listener with conversations that either thoroughly cover a topic or continue as ongoing discussions. There are many ways these conversations can be formatted. They can be 10–15-minute episodes serialized for as many as necessary to cover the topic; regularly scheduled ongoing conversations lasting 20 to 30 minutes; or 60-90 minute panel discussions about very technical subjects. Time is not the issue. Depth is. 

Side-by-Side (a demo)

Below I found two pieces of content that promote long-term savings for and financial independence for younger people. The first is from financial trainers and authors, MyFi, Inc. They created a “snackable” video illustrating a familiar truism of saving and compounding interest to promote their book and services. The second is a podcast episode from the “About to Launch” podcast, a very successful financial podcast created and hosted by Jamila Souffrant. 

Check them both out and consider which one would best drive employee participation in a 401(k) or other ESP. 

Push here to play short video.

Podcasting is now.

When they first started, podcasts were an obscure way to listen to audio files on devices, like Apple iPods. Early content was generally repurposed from public radio, sports radio and other talk radio programs. Universities also made educational resources available in the form of lectures and seminar discussions.  

Two things happened over the past fifteen years to help push podcasts to the upper tier of popular digital content. First, there was the explosion of smart phones. Remember it wasn’t that long ago when most people only had cell phones. Then came the DIY movement popularized on YouTube, whereby everyday folk demonstrate their talents, discuss their interests and chime in on subjects they care about. Podcasting, both video and audio, emerged within these trends. 

Only five years ago, creating a great-sounding corporate podcast meant renting, or creating, a designated recording studio space. This made podcasting expensive, unwieldy and difficult to coordinate.

Today, podcasting is very accessible. Technology has evolved on similar tracks to other cloud-based collaborative tools like Zoom. Smith uses technology that allows our clients to create great-sounding podcasts from the comfort of their office or their home. The recording is done remotely, with Smith production staff and consultants. Prep time is minimal and editing tools allow us to turn around complete episodes quickly. We also host client podcasts on secure, private platforms so client content is only viewed by intended audiences.    

Where podcasts can help.

Areas within your organization that require deep knowledge, cross-departmental understanding or increased transparency are excellent candidates for podcast conversations. 

Setting Direction: Top-level decisions are often disseminated through various indirect channels resulting in incomplete information and decisions that appear devoid of supporting facts and logic. A regular C-suite podcast can put everyone on the same page, understanding not only the direction of the company but how and why a decision was reached.

Educating Employees: Employee education is a never-ending process. Information is only part of the education process. Other important aspects of effective learning involve presentation, accessibility and engagement. Whether the subject is changing processes, organizational transformation or employee benefits, creating a podcast can help support your internal educational goals.   

Increasing Collaboration: Does your left hand know what your right is doing? In large organizations, the answer is very often “no.” New ideas emerge when new inputs and perspectives meet existing knowledge. Opportunities to collaborate toward innovation are often missed because of a lack of cross-departmental communication. Challenges like a silo-mentality that ends in groupthink and even inter-departmental obstruction can be transformed through conversations dedicated to cooperation. 

Five Styles of Podcasts

Interview: The interview is a very familiar style of podcast. A host asks questions of guests, often subject matter experts. (Clients have used these to help explain difficult legal and investment issues surrounding retirement.) The person conducting the interview needs a solid understanding of the subject to get the most from the guest. Loosely scripting these talks can be very useful. 

Panel: This style of podcast is well suited to highly technical issues and for collaboration. Panel discussions should have a moderator/host and subject matter experts with different perspectives. One key benefit of the panel discussion is that knowledge is spread across various panelists. This takes the content load off any single person, and it often leads to surprising new perspectives and shared understandings. 

Solo: While this style has the advantage of being the easiest to schedule, produce and edit, the presenter has a difficult job. The solo presenter must hold the attention of the audience without any help. Unless you have a very talented speaker on staff, this podcast is best suited for CEO or other high-level executives. However, beware of over-exposure for key executives. A frequency of quarterly or monthly podcasts is best.

Ongoing Conversations: Unlike a serialized topical discussion, these podcast don’t have an end. The idea is to have two or three trusted voices that become familiar fixtures within the organization. Ideally, they each bring unique, yet complementary, perspectives. For example, one person may continually take the side of the customer, while the other the side of production or marketing. Together they work through challenging issues from familiar perspectives. 

Any department can host its own podcast; e.g., HR, Compliance, Marketing, Research & Development, etc. Because audiences can be very targeted, there is no need for the entire organization to hear every show. Depending on the amount of information you need to cover and the pace of change, weekly or monthly episodes can be a part of employees’ lives.  

Repurposed material: This style of podcast allows you to assemble company talks, learning sessions, outside presentations, videos and other material that different departments generate. Transforming this existing content can eventually create a singular archive for preserving organizational memory and tracking transformation. 

Getting Started

Smith can help your organization strategize and implement your internal podcasts. Contact us; we’ll listen to your specific needs and give you a more detailed presentation of our ideas and capabilities.

More Ideas

Please rate your last straw?

Loads of online surveys are destroying your engagement measurements.

In just the last two weeks, I’ve received 17 marketing surveys through email and/or text messages. More than one a day from companies large and small— my electric utility, a golf course, my insurance company, multiple online vendors, a coffeeshop, SaaS providers, etc. It’s like they are being piled on until I finally buckle under the load. Two in particular became my last straws. 

The first was from my dentist. She’s a fabulous dentist. An accomplished DMD, educator, former head of our state’s dental association. The perfect dentist. Except, she recently purchased a marketing package that facilitates (promotes) the use of digital surveys. They go out whenever you make, change or go to an appointment.

The second straw was from a roadside vendor who sells raw, local, and wild honey. So now the raw honey dude, selling off his truck’s tailgate, is push-marketing in my phone with SMS surveys? 

Enough, already!

Just because you can, should you?

This question should be the first hurdle any digital communication feature needs to clear before adoption. There are countless companies inventing new ways to push, pull, track, fence, compile and report endless streams of user/consumer/employee data. 

With more and more digital solutions coming online every year, we must think critically about these technologies. How are they received and perceived by the actual humans engaging with them? And how does this communication product/feature help us achieve our goals?

Today’s survey explosion is facilitated by platforms like Shopify, Facebook and Workday. What used to be a discrete function of a company like Survey Monkey, has been integrated into most major social media, online sales and human capital management platforms. These tools make creating and distributing surveys easy. Technically easy, that is. Creating and conducting surveys that yield valuable data still requires strategic thinking and implementation. 

Take my two surveys as examples. Does my dentist think I’m going to be more loyal or get more “dental care” because she asks about my wait or if the office is “nicely appointed?” The office is comfy, fully staffed and I never have to wait more than five minutes. She knows these answers before she asks them. She likely believes she’s increasing appreciation between her office and me. When, in fact, she is annoying me. 

What about the honey dude? He definitely prefers cash, but begrudgingly takes credit cards with a swiping device on his phone. His survey is likely generated by the credit card vendor, for their own purposes. There wasn’t a single question about the honeycomb/honey ratio (the only important question) or the wait times at the tailgate. I doubt he even reads the survey results.

Why are these two sending a survey after every interaction? Just because they can.   

Combatting Survey Fatigue

Unlike the honey dude, our clients create employee engagement surveys that are both important and well thought out. Unfortunately, empty marketing surveys are diluting the effectiveness of these important information-gathering tools.

When employee surveys suffer from reduced participation, disengaged responses and false data points, the culprit is likely survey fatigue rather than the quality of the survey architecture.

All effective communication adapts to the environment. To be heard in a loud room, you raise your voice or lean in closer. Signs on 70 mph roads need to be larger than those on 30 mph roads. And surveys conducted in an environment overrun with surveys need special attention to resonate.

You can elevate your engagement surveys in the minds of your employees, even when they are barraged with useless surveys.

Limit the frequency of your engagement surveys.  

An annual survey can be framed as highly important to the direction of the company. Quarterly surveys monitor employee attitudes and progress toward goals. Monthly surveys are not typically effective. It is very hard to institute meaningful change on a month-to-month basis and you dilute participation. 

Acknowledge survey fatigue.

Establish a limited survey schedule and let employees know that schedule in advance. Frame your surveys as important to the direction of the company. Let employees know that you are aware of the potential for survey fatigue and that you will not waste their time on activities that are not important. Employees are the only source for certain feedback. Tell them why they’re important and they’ll participate.

Make your survey relevant.

Surveys not only gather data they also communicate your organization’s values and business interests. Be certain your survey isn’t merely an exercise in polling employees. Make it a thoughtful process, transmitting important information between management and your workforce.

Employees want to be relevant to their company. Show them how their survey responses inform decision. Take the time to promote engagement surveys as vital to the ongoing success of your organization and employees will understand that these surveys aren’t the same as the throw-away versions they experience every day. 

Let’s Connect

If you want help designing and implementing employee engagement campaigns, we can help. We’d love to hear from you. 

More Ideas