Creator of images for the Olympics and multi-nationals, German designer Otl Aicher (1922-91) was a master of visual communication to the masses.
By Estella Shardlow on Thursday 26th April, 2012
Ulm-born Aicher is best known for his work on the Munich Olympics of 1972, which is widely regarded as one of the most successful visual campaigns for any Games in history.
Yet Aicher’s story begins in the shadows and trauma of the Third Reich. Coming of age during World War II, Aicher strongly opposed the Nazi movement and as a result saw many of his closest friends killed. The Scholl family, who became the subject of the 1982 film White Rose about the resistance movement, were his close friends (he later married Inge Scholl) and two of them were executed by the Nazis in 1943.
Aicher himself was arrested in 1937 for refusing to join the Hitler Youth and, after being drafted in to fight in World War Two, repeatedly tried to leave the army. In 1945, he deserted and went into hiding at the Scholls' house in Wutach.
It was only after the end of the war that Aicher was able to realise his dream of studying art. He specialised in sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich and, in 1947, he opened his own studio in Ulm.
Five years later, he founded the Ulm School of Design along with his wife Inge and Max Bill. This would become one of Germany's leading educational centres for mid-century design, counting notable designers such as Tomás Maldonado, Max Bill, and Peter Seitz as alumni. Corporate branding commissions followed in their scores – Lufthansa’s logo in 1969, Braun, BMW and ERCO – and he invented the popular typeface, Rotis. The logo of Munich Airport, which is the letter M in a simple sans-serif font, is also his handiwork.
Designing the complete graphics programme for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games was undeniably the highlight of his career, though. Starting the project in 1966, Aicher’s artwork was conceived to complement the architecture of Günther Behnisch’s newly built stadium as well as the shifting green and blue shades of surrounding Alps. The 21 sports posters were created using a hand-made technique called ‘posterisation’, which separates the tonal qualities from the images, and using the official Munich colours for these games.
Aicher was also responsible for the Munich 1972 logo – a garland representing the Sun and the five Olympic rings fused in a spiral shape – and the first official Olympic Mascot, a striped dachshund named Waldi.
Perhaps most importantly, it was for this event that he devised a set of pictograms that paved the way for the stick figures now used ubiquitously in public signage. The symbols were created to provide a visual interpretation of the sport they featured so that athletes and foreign visitors to the Olympic village and stadium could find their way around. It is the apex of simplified information design, articulating its message immediately to multi-lingual and multi-cultural audiences.
On 1 September 1991, Otl Aicher died in a traffic accident in Günzburg, aged 79.