Deborah Sussman and the 1984 Summer Olympics
In our new Design History Series we highlight iconic women in design history and their innovative work. The historic contributions of women to design are many, and we aim to increase the awareness of these contributions in order to counteract a general trend of underrepresentation. In this issue we celebrate Deborah Sussman, a pioneer in the realm of environmental graphic design, and her industry-shifting graphic design work for the 1984 Summer Olympics.
A Graphic Pioneer
Deborah Sussman was a groundbreaking figure in the realm of environmental graphics. Her influence extended beyond traditional graphic design, as she pioneered the application of colors, shapes, and visual icons to buildings, campuses, and cityscapes. She termed her work ‘graphitecture’ and ‘supergraphics’.
Born in 1931 in Brooklyn, New York, Sussman had childhood drawing lessons from her father, a commercial artist. While she originally trained as a performing artist, she eventually fell in love with design, earning a degree in graphic design from the Institute of Design in Chicago. She interned with Ray and Charles Eames at the already famous Eames’ office in Venice, California from 1953 to 1958, developing her bold and playful style. In 1968, she established her own graphic design practice with her husband, urban planner and architect Paul Prejza.
Going for Gold
During the 1960s, Sussman played a pivotal role in expanding the field of environmental graphics, moving beyond traditional two-dimensional designs. She collaborated with architects to integrate vibrant colors into buildings, highlighting surfaces and structures, a departure from the conventional modernist approach.
The 1984 Summer Olympics were the perfect opportunity to showcase her distinctive ‘supergraphics.’ Her team crafted brightly patterned pop-up structures—towers, banners, kiosks, gateways, and walls—using cost-effective materials like scaffolding, repurposed tents, nylon banners, and canopies. Tired of the conventional red, white, and blue color scheme, Sussman developed a vivid palette of magenta, cinnabar, aquamarine, and sunflower yellow, drawing inspiration from the vibrant, tropical color palette of Los Angeles and the Pacific Rim. Sussman’s vision incorporated elements like papier-mâché figures from Asia and Mexico, symbolizing celebratory traditions, with bamboo utilized for the scaffolding. The effect was international and inviting, and a complete rebrand of the previous Olympics.
Sussman believed in the philosophy of “more is more,” emphasizing the abundance of creativity and cultural richness embodied in these dynamic design choices. This was also the first olympic event to invite the audience to participate in the experience. Colored cards under each seat allowed the audience to create mosiac-like patterns as they raised and lowered them; a fantastic example of user experience design. Sussman’s innovative approach, incorporating playful banners, kiosks, streamers, and graphic elements, transformed the city into a bold, colorful landscape, influencing the design of televised sports events for years to come.
Sussman’s work left an indelible mark on iconic locations such as Disney World and Disneyland Paris, where she transformed the simulated environments with intuitive wayfinding systems. Her life and work reflected her passion for color, design, and pushing the boundaries of traditional graphic arts. Her legacy lives on in the landscapes she transformed and the innovative approach she brought to environmental graphics.