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Pictograms break down language barriers

Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Drawing artistic attention to a part of the Olympics that often goes unnoticed, South Allegheny teacher Jayne Sweet is teaching students to make the pictograms that help athletes and spectators locate everything from games to restrooms and dining areas.

“Not everyone speaks the same language,” Sweet said. “If I speak Chinese, English or French, I can look at a picture and recognize ice skating, bobsledding or skiing. It's a universal language.”

First used in the German games of 1936, pictograms began representing sporting events in the same way travelers would recognize a restroom sign in an airport or signs for hospitals or lodging along a highway. They became standard after the Tokyo games in 1964.

Sweet's students learned these facts as they watched a short documentary segment called, “Olympic Pictograms Through the Ages.”

“The twentieth century has been the age of brands, and the Olympics have been no exception,” noted narrator Steven Heller. In addition to the traditional logo of Olympic rings, Heller explained there are trademarked posters, flags and even mascots from event to event.

South Allegheny seventh-grader Payton Bradley said she never would have noticed the change in pictograms over the years if it wouldn't have been the focus of a school project.

“We're learning about things that we didn't know were part of the Olympics,” she said. “I would have had no idea.”

Classmate Kennedy Lawson said students now have a better understanding of Olympic planning and how much of the games are immersed in a host country's culture.

“We're learning how simple shapes are used to share a message, and we're learning what the designs inside mean,” Kennedy said.

The standout artistic expressions of each Olympic event can be found in its pictograms, which allow each host nation to design logos that embrace their culture as well as the games. Students followed pictograms from their simplest forms through artistic and social trends.

The 2014 Sochi games use simple round figures whose bodies are patterned with complex Russian craft work.

“For this Olympics, they went back to the drawings used in Moscow in 1980,” Sweet said. “They used the same kind of figures, but took them from summer to winter games. They took the 16 national crafts of Russia, and out of that, they patterned a quilt.”

Sweet challenged students to design pictograms for activities they enjoy — art, music, sports, cheerleading.

“The kids have excelled at this,” Sweet said. “They've done everything from video games to football. I even have kids doing pictograms on texting.”

Artistically, Sweet encouraged students to look back on the origin of North America. They looked back in time beyond the days of the American melting pot and researched Native American customs and art.

“The same designs would appear and reappear, regardless of what craft we were looking at,” Sweet said. “Whether it was basket weaving, bead work or rugs, we would see a lot of the same geometric designs.”

Students filled their pictograms with four-color designs representative of various native tribes' work.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or



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