Mexico 68

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Radio Announcer:
The United States leads the Olympics in medal awards, and is just about supreme in the sprint races…

Roman Mars:
On October 16 1968, American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, climbed onto the podium at the Mexico City Olympics to accept their medals.

Announcer:
Yesterday, they came in first and third in the 200m dash…

Roman Mars:
Smith had won gold. Carlos had won bronze.

Claire Mullen:
As the national anthem began to play, the men, both African-American, bowed their heads and raised their fists in the black power salute.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer, Claire Mullen.

Claire Mullen:
They kept their fists raised until the last notes of the anthem faded away. The gesture was a statement of black pride and defiance. It’s still considered one of the most overtly political statements made in the history of the modern Olympic Games.

Roman Mars:
But that wasn’t the only politically significant moment at the Olympics that year. A Mexican hurdler named Enriqueta Basilio became the first woman to ever light the Olympic cauldron. A Czech gymnast beat Soviet gymnasts for the overall women’s title, just two months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Claire Mullen:
It was also the first time a Latin American city, or even a Spanish speaking country, had hosted the games. It was a big deal to have hundreds of thousands of international travelers come visit Mexico. The Mexican government saw the Olympics as an announcement to the world; Mexico City had arrived as a major international metropolis.

Roman Mars:
So almost everything about the 1968 Olympics felt revolutionary.

Claire Mullen:
Including the design of it. The images and logos associated with the 1968 Olympics were ubiquitous at the time; they were plastered all over the city. This complete design campaign would become one of the most famous in Olympic history, and it would set a whole new standard for games to come.

Roman Mars:
But these government commissioned designs would also be co-opted by local activists who wanted to reveal the darker political reality in Mexico, that was hidden behind the beautiful glossy imagery of the 1968 games.

Claire Mullen:
In the decades leading up to the 1968 Olympics, Mexico had gone through a period of major economic growth. It became known as the Mexican miracle.

Luis Castañeda:
The Mexican miracle, historians conventionally speak about it as a period standing from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s.

Claire Mullen:
The country had rapidly industrialized, rapidly urbanized, and its capital, Mexico City, had grown into this enormous sprawling metropolis.

Luis Castañeda:
The city grew faster than it ever had in Mexico’s modern history.

Claire Mullen:
That’s Luis Castaneda. He’s the author of “Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda and the 1968 Olympics”.

Roman Mars:
Because of its size and layout, Mexico City was a challenging place to host a major international event like the Olympics. Mexico City was sprawling and spreading, still at the height of its miracle.

Luis Castañeda:
Even until the Olympics are literally about to happen, there are all these doubts about whether the Mexican government will be organized enough to undertake a spectacle of that magnitude.

Roman Mars:
The Olympic organizers needed to show that their metropolis was safe, navigable, cohesive and, you know, exciting. They wanted to create a visual identity for the Olympics, to really sell Mexico City to all these visitors seeing it for the first time.

Claire Mullen:
So, they decided to hold an international competition to find a designer who would create a logo and graphic design campaign for the Olympics. They wanted something that looked cosmopolitan and contemporary, and distinctly Mexican.

Roman Mars:
This is where an unlikely character comes in.

Lance Wyman:
I’m Lance Wyman. I’m a designer, I work here in New York.

Claire Mullen:
In 1966, Lance Wyman was a 29 year old graphic designer. When he heard about the competition, he knew that he and his design partner, Peter Murdoch, had to get on the shortlist of contenders.

Roman Mars:
This list included design teams from all over the world who would come down to Mexico City for a two week trial run. After their two weeks, each team would present their design for consideration.

Lance Wyman:
We got on the list to go down in November of 1966, and Peter and I had just started out. We didn’t have any money, so we could only afford one-way tickets.

Claire Mullen:
They hopped on the plane with their one-way tickets, and landed in Mexico City.

Roman Mars:
By the way, neither of them had ever visited Mexico before. They didn’t really know anything about the country.

Claire Mullen:
If they were going to design a logo to represent Mexico, Wyman and Murdoch would have to learn a lot, and fast.

Roman Mars:
They started where most tourists start, by visiting museums. They spent a lot of time at the Museum of Anthropology, where they studied artifacts from pre-Columbian Mexico, like the Aztec Sunstone, and ancient Mayan murals.

Lance Wyman:
I actually was floored by some of the early cultures, because they were doing things in a contemporary way with geometry, with graphics.

Roman Mars:
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.

Claire Mullen:
Op art, or optical art, uses contrast, geometry and other tricks to give the viewer the impression of movement, and so informed by both indigenous artifacts and modern op art, Wyman came up with a logo that riffed on the five rings on the Olympic symbol.

Lance Wyman:
I realized that the geometry of the five rings could be integrated with the year of the event, ’68.

Roman Mars:
He superimposed the digits, 6 and 8, over the classic Olympic rings. The circles on the rings radiated out from the circles in the digits, and it created a hypnotic stripe effect.

Lance Wyman:
From then, I developed the typography to make the word Mexico.

Claire Mullen:
It’s this very groovy looking typography, made of three parallel stripes. Wyman created a logo that he considered both very modern and quintessentially Mexican.

Lance Wyman:
The end of the two weeks came, and we started making prints of the Mexico ’68 logotype, and people from publications and people from the public relations, they wanted copies of it. We were working like crazy, making copies and doing all of that.

Roman Mars:
Then, Wyman realized that no one actually told him yet if he had the job, so he asked one of the organizers.

Lance Wyman:
I said, “Did we win?”

Lance Wyman:
He goes, “Oh, I guess so.”

Roman Mars:
Wyman had created this stunning logo and typeface for the competition, but choosing this white guy who had never been to Mexico before was a bit problematic.

Luis Castañeda:
It’s not that unusual for people not born in Mexico, for artists, and people in culture and the arts to be involved with these kinds of state-sponsored campaigns. It’s not entirely unprecedented, but it’s still a very unique situation, especially given the fact that this is a very, very significant project.

Claire Mullen:
That’s author, Luis Castaneda again.

Luis Castañeda:
What is very striking, almost shocking perhaps, is the fact that of course Lance Wyman is very much unproven as a designer, he’s very young. He hasn’t had much time to do much yet, and yet somehow he’s given this very high degree of responsibility as part of the design campaign.

Claire Mullen:
Wyman and Murdoch ended up staying in Mexico for two years to work on the campaign, and, along with a team of designers, many of them Mexican, they came up with ways to use their typeface, logo, and other designs all over the city.

Roman Mars:
The hypnotic stripes were turned into striped uniforms for the event’s workers and volunteers. The patterns and colors used in the logo ended up on hats, posted stamps, balloons, all sorts of products to hype the impending games.

Luis Castañeda:
These objects ranged from very small objects, all kinds of memorabilia, things from ashtrays and furniture or apparel all the way to the stadiums.

Claire Mullen:
Stadiums across the city were painted with these radiating op art patterns. Bright colors decorated sidewalks and walls and plazas.

Roman Mars:
These bright, hypnotic designs didn’t just give the Olympic Games a visual coherence. The graphic design language of the Olympics expanded into an entire system that helped visitors navigate the massive metropolis.

Claire Mullen:
To do this, Wyman made simple color coded icons to represent every sporting event.

Lance Wyman:
They were not stick figures, but they were focused more on a part of the body or a piece of the equipment, or a combination of the two.

Roman Mars:
Gymnastics, for example, was represented by a hand gripping a single suspended ring.

Lance Wyman:
Track and field had its icon, boxing had its icon, so on the ticket you knew what your ticket was for by the icon only.

Roman Mars:
So if you were visiting from Japan and didn’t speak any Spanish, you’d see, say, the soccer icon on a green background, and you’d follow the green signs to the stadium where the soccer would be.

Claire Mullen:
This system wasn’t just for sports. Wyman and the team made universally understandable icons for 19 cultural events happening around the city as well.

Lance Wyman:
We had children’s painting. We had folk dancing. We had science programming.

Roman Mars:
By following these cultural icons, visitors could continue to entertain themselves, and explore the city after the sporting events were over.

Claire Mullen:
The 1968 Olympics had been decreed “Los Juegos de la Paz”, the “Games of Peace”, so Wyman designed a little outline of a dove, which shop owners all over the city were given to stick in their windows.

Roman Mars:
Between the logo, the typeface, the colors, the icons and the doves, Wyman created a visual identity that saturated the whole city. It was everywhere. It was a total design campaign.

Luis Castañeda:
Total design campaign, right? The idea of total design, that every single thing, idea, place, object associated with the Olympics is immediately and powerfully recognizable as part of a whole.

Roman Mars:
The completeness of the campaign would set a precedent for years to come.

Luis Castañeda:
I think it’s safe to say that although design and architecture and the arts in general had been very powerfully associated with Olympics before Mexico ’68, it’s really after Mexico ’68 that it becomes a kind of standard expectation of design campaigns associated with these kinds of events.

Claire Mullen:
While Lance Wyman was designing this extensive campaign, he was holed up, swamped with work, and he really didn’t get a chance to go out much.

Lance Wyman:
Nose to the grindstone, really, almost through the whole thing. We were pretty isolated at the Olympic committee.

Roman Mars:
He didn’t see the protest movement growing in the city around him.

Claire Mullen:
The movement was led by students who believed the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party catered to wealthy Mexicans rather than the poor, rural and working class. The country had been experiencing huge economic growth, but millions of people had been left behind. The Mexican miracle hadn’t reached everyone.

Protester:
The government was talking of the Mexican miracle, even though in the reality of those days, things were not as happy as they appeared.

Roman Mars:
These are excerpts from interviews with students involved in the protests against Mexico’s single party government, courtesy of our friends at Radio Diaries.

Protester:
In the ’60s, we were a still a country where the government controlled everything. Presidents were equivalent to monarchs. It was forbidden to demonstrate. You could not go and express your dissent.

Claire Mullen:
For the students, protesting the government meant protesting against the Olympics themselves, the so-called games of peace.

Luis Castañeda:
Olympics are, I think, maybe by design, by definition, always about propaganda on some level or another, and so what the Olympics sought to present as a happy picture of social harmony and as a very sanitized idea of how modernization happens was of course not the reality of what many of these inhabitants of the city experienced.

Claire Mullen:
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets repeatedly throughout 1968.

Protester:
We were urban middle class, low middle class, bunch of drunk people. It was, in a symbolic way, the clash of a new Mexico and an old Mexico. You have the middle class with eyes closed, and a group of students saying, “This was not a democracy, and this is not working.”

Roman Mars:
Again and again, police had come out and violently dispersed protesters with clouds of tear gas. As the Olympics neared and as international attention turned towards Mexico City, the government was desperate to make the unrest go away.

Claire Mullen:
On October 2nd, just 10 days before the “Games of Peace” were set to begin, thousands of students gathered at a local square in the northeast of Mexico City to demand the release of people who had been locked up at a previous protest. It was a quiet gathering of people with signs, walking slowly around the plaza.

Protester:
We looked back, and there was all this infantry troops. They started to advance towards the crowd, and at some point we heard some shots. We didn’t know where they came from, and seconds later, how do you say in English, all hell broke loose.

Claire Mullen:
Soldiers opened fire on the protesters. To this day, we don’t know exactly how many students died in the massacre, but the number is likely in the hundreds.

Roman Mars:
The scene was cleared before there could be an accurate body count. The blood was washed away. Thousands of protesters were arrested and locked up. The government took great pains to cover their tracks.

Luis Castañeda:
The amount of students who were shot, and many others were imprisoned for quite some time, was covered up.

Roman Mars:
The government claimed that the students had fired first to provoke the military. Evidence has since come to light that disproves that claim.

Luis Castañeda:
It’s an extremely shocking event. For a long time, suppressed in Mexican national memory, and in many ways it is the crux of the crisis that sets the stage, in a very dramatic sense, for the Olympics themselves.

Claire Mullen:
The massacre was so horribly devastating that of course Lance Wyman heard about it.

Lance Wyman:
When I heard about it, how severe it was, it was a difficult situation because I felt I was working for the government, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

Roman Mars:
But he says he really empathized with the students.

Lance Wyman:
I wasn’t much older than they were, so I had that feeling, like I might’ve felt good if I just walked away from the whole thing.

Roman Mars:
Wyman felt stuck in the middle, 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.

Claire Mullen:
Students began imitating Wyman’s images and co-opting them. They took a poster he made, with a silhouetted image of runners racing, and turned it into silhouettes of troupes beating people with batons. They used his signature typography to create anti-government posters.

Claire Mullen:
That very simple image of a dove in all the shop windows? Students went around the city, spraying a small burst of bright red paint over the dove’s chest, like it had been shot. They were playing with the propaganda of the Olympics, and hinting at a darker political reality.

Roman Mars:
And Wyman, he liked it. He made a design campaign so ubiquitous, so resonant that the resistance could use it too.

Lance Wyman:
I’ve always been questioned, “Why do you feel good about that?” I guess that’s why, because I was in a situation where I was kind of torn. I was very sympathetic as far as what was happening to the students, but I was also very not wanting to see the Olympics be stopped.

Claire Mullen:
And they weren’t stopped. On October 12th 1968, the games began on schedule, as if nothing out of the ordinary happened.

Roman Mars:
The 1968 Olympics went on to become one of the most important in the history of the games, marked not only by athletic achievement but by open political defiance.

Interviewer:
Do you think you represented all black athletes in doing this?

Olympian:
I can say I represented black America. I’m very proud to be a black man, and also to have won the gold medal.

Claire Mullen:
Mexico ’68 also set a new precedent for how governments would use design to promote their country’s image to the international community, for better or for worse.

Roman Mars:
The ’68 games also left a permanent mark on Mexico City’s infrastructure.

Roman Mars:
Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world. It’s the largest metropolitan area in North America. Around 4.4 million people ride on Mexico City’s metro system every day, including producer, Claire Mullen, who visited a couple months ago.

Claire Mullen:
I’m in the Metro on the pink line at Cuauhtémoc, which has an eagle icon.

Roman Mars:
Mexico City’s Metro is incredibly crowded and very extensive, and yet it is often recognized as one of the easiest rail systems to navigate, partly because of its iconography.

Claire Mullen:
La Católica, which is a big ship, it looks like a pirate ship without the pirate symbol, and then we have Merced, where there are six apples in a crate…

Roman Mars:
Those icons are there thanks in part to Lance Wyman. The Metro was supposed to make its debut during the Olympics, but excavators kept unearthing ancient architecture in the path of the tracks, and the opening was delayed. But Wyman was still involved in its design, specifically its map. He employed the same visual system he developed for the Olympics to help international visitors navigate the trains.

Lance Wyman:
In the Olympics, we’ve relied on the graphics, and I thought, “Well, why can’t a city do that?”

Claire Mullen:
Wyman color-coded each line, and created a unique icon for every single stop. So, even if you’re visiting from Japan and can’t read any Spanish at all, you can say to yourself, “I want to take the pink line to the stop with the grasshopper on it.”

Lance Wyman:
The station that stopped at Chapultepec Park… Chapultepec means grasshopper hill in the Nahuatliestic language, so I used a grasshopper.

Claire Mullen:
Again, some Mexicans took issue with this young foreigner coming in to design something that would be such a huge part of their city, but eventually Mexican designers took up the project and made it their own.

Lance Wyman:
I designed the first three lines of the Metro. They have 12 lines now, and they were designed by Mexican designers, and some of these are better than I did in the original line.

Claire Mullen:
After the Olympics, after the Metro, Wyman did some more work for Mexico, like the design for the 1970 World Cup, but he went back to the U.S. Wyman went on to design more maps, big ones, like for the National Zoo and the DC Metro System, although none of them used symbols and icons and colors as completely as in Mexico City.

Roman Mars:
The clear iconography of the Metro System is a reminder of a complicated and sometimes terrible period in Mexico City’s history. It’s a simple design that invites you to explore the massive and complex metropolis. It’s a design that assures you that if you get lost, no matter where you’re from or what language you speak, you can find your way around, and see the city for yourself.

Comments (14)

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  1. Josuel Servin

    You manage to capture a bit of Mexico often difficult to convey, and do so in a beautiful way.
    As a Mexican I can only say thank you for this episode.

  2. It’s incredible to see how well Wyman’s design has aged. As a former Mexico City inhabitant and designer, his style of abstraction and refinement are a standard I always pursue.

    Kudos on a fantastic episode and for being a continuous source of inspiration.

    1. That’s me! Thanks for mentioning me; I created the map on my site and featured in this article because, shamefully, the official map does *not* use the logos! I have never understood why. You can read more about it Mark Ovenden’s Transit Maps of the World book; the 2nd edition includes my map in it too. :)

  3. Yes! Thank you, Roman Mars – just started living in Mexico City a half a year ago and nice to have my home podcast of the Bay Area extend to my new home here. I’ve always wondered about the Metro icons… didn’t realize there was that American connection until hearing this.

  4. Weixi Zeng

    A great episode that feels classic 99PI!! Love how everything is seamlessly combined into one episode. Thanks Roman and the team!

  5. Axel Elias

    Very interesting episode; however, I feel it is reconstructed from a narrow perspective. The preparation for the Olympic Games, 1963’1968, certainly had an impact on the political participation in Mexico. The graphic designers´ work was fundamental to promote a different image of Mexico with the Games, and was co’opted to communicate resistance. Nevertheless, the crafting of the nation went beyond Wyman´s and Murdoch´s work. There was a whole team behind the ´Project of Olympic Identity´, and the protesting students used other elements to criticise the government and the IOC. The episode is interesting because it helps in the reflection of the politics of sport in society.

  6. Ava Butzu

    I’m learning so much about how to think about the logic and aesthetics of design – and I’m learning history. I love your podcast – it’s a highlight of my day every time I tune in. Thank you for this episode in particular. I can’t stop thinking about how Wyman changed how we navigate places we tour – and also, how design can be so cultural and versatile.

    Your work matters – so much!

  7. Sean Carver

    This was such a great episode, I was reminded of it while watching this mini-special NBC is showing during the final day of the 2018 Winter Olympics. It’s a nice complimentary piece on the 1968 Olympics, narrated by Serena Williams. Maybe they even listened to the 99PI episode when doing their research!

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