The Woman Who Made The 1984 Olympics A Masterpiece Of Design

In one of her final interviews, the late graphic designer Deborah Sussman speaks about the project that brought her the most pride.

The Woman Who Made The 1984 Olympics A Masterpiece Of Design

The world of environmental graphic design owes a great debt to Deborah Sussman (1931–2014), one of the industry’s first practitioners.


Born in Brooklyn and educated at Bard, Black Mountain College, and eventually IIT, Sussman worked in the Eames Office from 1953–1957 and again in 1961–1967. before opening her own firm in 1968. In 1980, she formed Sussman/Prejza with her husband, architect urban planner Paul Prejza, whom she married in 1972. The firm created some of the most recognizable environmental graphics systems: the Big Blue Bus public transportation identity for the City of Santa Monica, Walt Disney World and Euro Disney, Philadelphia’s wayfinding system.

But the landmark project that catapulted Sussman/Prejza onto the international stage was the graphics and wayfinding system for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Working with architect Jon Jerde, Sussman/Prejza created pedestrian wayfinding signs, transportation signs, facility identification signs, and other graphics. With its punchy colors, geometric shapes and symbols, and the classically shaped signage structures, the system oozed 1980s PoMo.

Sussman, the 2004 AIGA Gold Medalist, is featured in a new video series conceived and produced by Collins for the Art Directors Club that covers the work of the most legendary modern designers. The interview took place in December 2013 when the exhibition Sussman Loves L.A. was on view at Woodbury University. A follow-up interview was planned, but did not take place before her death in August 2014, making this one of Sussman’s last interviews. We’ve excerpted a few nuggets of wisdom below.

On being a woman in a male-dominated profession:
“In grammar school, the girls took shop and the boys had to take homemaking. I loved doing the shop. I loved making things. I loved using my hands. I got encouragement from everyone and because I loved what I was doing, I was not discouraged for being a woman.”

On working with Charles and Ray Eames:
“When I came to the Eames Office I learned a lot about the value of indigenous culture … people in villages in Mexico, in India who made the stuff they used. I began to fall in love with indigenous cultures and folk art starting with Mexico.”


On why it pays to think big:
“The accomplishment I take most pride in is the Olympics in L.A. in ’84. It was a convergence of everything I knew and dreamed of. It was the ability to dream and think of things and see that they would happen.”

On ambition:
“When Jon Jerde helped us with introductions to the Olympic committee and getting involved in things, he said, ‘Don’t think about your first assignment’–which was getting people around, wayfinding in the UCLA village–‘dream about the whole thing.’ And I did.”

On why trust from a client is essential:
“That is a huge, huge part of being able to do your best work.”

On the importance of experiences:
“I can get inspired by having a telephone conversation, I can get inspired by having lunch with people I’m compatible with or people I respect. I can get inspired by the movement of the birds on the telephone wires or the colors of the fading and bright sunset sky behind the poplars and eucalyptus trees outside in my garden. I can get inspired sometimes by looking at other people’s work but not as much from real experiences.

All Images: via Art Directors Club

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.