On October 2, 1968, just a week and a half before the start of the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, mounting tensions between student demonstrators and the government-backed police force erupted in violence at Tlatelolco Plaza that left hundreds of people dead. The massacre was an inauspicious start to what was ironically being called the Games of Peace.
What’s more, since local leaders saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to show off their city to the rest of the world, a cover-up was enacted: official reports stated that only four people were killed and 20 injured; eyewitness accounts described hundreds of limp bodies being hauled away in trucks.
Into the maelstrom walked Lance Wyman, an ambitious 29-year-old graphic designer who worked for the George Nelson office in New York City.
Having been involved in Chrysler Corporation’s Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair, his appetite for grandiose projects had been whetted.
It is perhaps that experience that gave the young designer the confidence needed to buy a one-way plane ticket to Mexico City in November of 1966, where the International Olympic Committee was holding a competition to establish the graphic identity for the Summer Olympic Games.
Given just two weeks to develop a logotype per the contest rules, he and a colleague–the British industrial designer Peter Murdoch–holed up in the Hotel Montejo in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa to brainstorm ideas. Working day and night, the pair eventually came up with a solution based on simple geometry.
“[It] happened in a very logical and intuitive way. It started when I realized the single lineal geometry of the five-ring Olympic logo could be central to constructing the number 68, the year of the event. The resulting three-line structure of the 68 numbers became the typography for the word ‘Mexico,’ and the logo was born,” he told Walker Art Center.
Once selected, Wyman joined an international team led by the Chairman of the Olympic Organizing Committee, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez. An architect by trade, Vázquez had designed the Mexican Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City and the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City.
Eager to present his country’s capital as a modern and sophisticated metropolis on par with cities like Paris and Rome, Vázquez made the visual identity of the Olympic Games a top priority.
His brief was simple: “Create an image showing that the games are in Mexico that isn’t an image of a Mexican wearing a sombrero sleeping under a cactus,” Wyman recalled him saying.
Joining them were Eduardo Terrazas, Director of Urban Design, and Beatrice Trueblood, Director of Publications.
Since Vázquez only had two years to pull everything together from the time of his appointment in July 1966, it was important for him to assemble a team of tried and trusted collaborators. Having worked with both Terrazas and Trueblood in the past, he knew he could rely on their expertise to help meet the tight deadline.
To help put their time frame into proper context, Wyman explained, “I remember Otl Aicher, designer of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, visiting our studio and saying they were further ahead than we were.
We had 18 months to go at that point, while Aicher had 18 months plus four years.” Despite the intense pressure (the International Olympic Committee threatened to withdraw from Mexico several times) combined with mounting political turmoil in the streets, Vázquez and his team pulled it off.
The now-iconic Mexico 1968 logo combined elements of Op Art with Huichol Indian handicrafts, resulting in something that was of-the-moment while simultaneously paying homage to ancient Mexican culture.
Op Art, which combined geometric shapes and abstract patterns to create the illusion of movement, gained popularity throughout the late 1950s and early ’60s, culminating in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City called The Responsive Eye (1965).
Though panned by serious critics who dismissed it as gimmicky, there is no denying Op Art’s pervasiveness in pop culture in the 1960s. According to Vázquez, “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; and looking at it more closely, I realized that Op Art used convergent, divergent, parallel, and concentric lines, just like the art of the Huichol Indians.
In the late 1960s, the two styles collided. So, the concept was born from this coincidence of time, you could say.”
Year of Protest
In addition to the graphics, Mexico 1968 is also remembered as the year of protest:
Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the U.S. track team each raised a fist overhead during their awards ceremony in a tribute to Black power and civil rights.
Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska turned her head away from the Soviet flag during its national anthem as a condemnation of the invasion of her country two months prior.
Last, a group of students flew a black dove kite overhead during the opening ceremony as a symbol of repression and a stark reminder of the Tlatelolco Plaza massacre.
Wyman, hunkered away in his Olympic bubble, was well aware of what was going on in the outside world, and working for the Mexican government at that time made him feel “dirty.”
His wife, who accompanied him to Mexico City, told him of the granaderos and tanks in the streets. “You could cut the atmosphere with a knife,” he said.
At 30, Wyman was not much older than the student protestors, and he “related to them deeply.”
In recent years, Wyman’s legacy regarding Mexico 1968 has undergone scrutiny because he has been portrayed as the sole designer.
There is no denying that the work needed to create a complete Olympic graphics system was a collaborative effort with Vázquez, Terrazas, Trueblood, Wyman, and others making essential contributions.
Nevertheless, his legacy will endure not just through his involvement with Mexico 1968 but the Mexico City Metro, World Cup 70, and dozens of logos spanning a 50-year career.