The Olympic Feats of Otl Aicher

A new book delves into the multifaceted talent of the German graphic designer.

Otl Aicher may not be a household name, but chances are the work of this German designer has grabbed your attention or entered your home. Pioneering brands for companies like Braun and Bulthaup, Aicher was an influential graphic designer, urban planner, photographer, and the mastermind behind the imagery for the 1972 Munich Olympics and the Rotis typeface. A child of Nazi Germany, Aicher, along with his friends Hans and Sophie Scholl, organized the anti-Nazi political organization Die Weisse Rose (the White Rose). In 1943, the Scholls and Aicher were arrested by the Nazi party. While Aicher was released, the Scholls went to trial where they were found guilty of treason and executed. After the war Aicher went on to help rebuild his ravaged city of Ulm and to found the influential international school of design, Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG). The first comprehensive monograph of Aicher’s life and work, Otl Aicher, written by Markus Rathgeb, comes out this month from Phaidon. Recently we talked with the author—a professor of graphic design at the University of Cooperate Education, Ravensburg—about the influence that Aicher’s work has had on contemporary design.


How were you introduced to the work of Otl Aicher?
After my first degree in design, I got to know him and his work. I considered working at his studio, but instead I went to Sydney for another design degree. A few days after I returned to Germany in 1991, Otl died in an [auto related] accident. My fascination with his work still remains, so I decided to look closely into his design methods.

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What about his methods intrigued you?
Aicher had what we call today work/life balance. His intellectual background can’t be separated from his work, which can’t be separated from his way of living. Since I’m a graphic designer myself, I saw it as quite a modern message for designers today.

Aicher was an intellectual kid who aspired to be an artist. Then World War II destroyed his hometown of Ulm. You quote him as saying, “No more art. The street is more important than the museum.” Was the aftermath of the war the reason his interests shifted to the practical application of design?
Yes, that was the point. Before the war, he was still thinking of art and philosophy and theology. It was more aesthetic thinking. After the war he turned away from art and believed that good design is only a design which works in reality and which serves everyday life and the human being.

In 1953 he founded the design school Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Ulm with his wife, Inge Scholl, and former Bauhaus instructor Max Bill. Can you talk a little bit about Aicher the teacher?
Aicher was a self-taught designer and he was also a self-taught teacher. His most valuable thing was his sharp intellect. Quite well known designers and intellectuals gathered at the HfG. Aicher absorbed their teachings and methods, especially those of Joseph Albers.

What was the influence of the Bauhaus on Aicher’s curriculum?
Aicher was too young to come in touch with the school directly. Influence came indirectly from Bauhaus teachers and students who then taught at the HfG, such as Bill, Albers, and [Johannes] Itten. However, this influence can only be credited in the initial phase. Aicher saw the Bauhaus as an art school—as a design school doing art—and there he wanted to make a distinction between the Bauhaus and the HfG.

And that happened after Max Bill left the school?
The HfG quickly left this Bauhaus legacy and developed its own design method, which first went into quite a scientific approach to design and only later turned to a method which would work in collaboration with industry, like Lufthansa.

In the book, you describe the holistic approach that Aicher brought to the Lufthansa branding project. He and his students considered everything from the corporate philosophy to the fonts and the flatware used on the planes. Would you say that throughout his career he evolved the corporate identity packaging that is so ubiquitous today?
Aicher took it to the next step. He was probably the first one who described his methods—not in a book, but in the manuals that he created for the project. He would define a certain type of graphic element and then define a rule on how those elements should be applied. The HfG defined, in its own way, what we know today as visual communication.

He used visual communication to great effect with the commission for the Munich Olympics in 1972. How did he arrive at the pictograms that he created for that event?
Between Lufthansa and the Olympics, Aicher began to be more playful. With the Olympics’ visuals, he created what he called “a game with rules.” He defined a very simple set of graphic elements and he created certain rules to apply these elements. He very strongly thought in interconnections and ways of systems. All the language works only if you have a sentence, it doesn’t work only if you have a word.

Aicher was also a stellar photographer and he created pictorial books as PR devices for his clients. His black and white images of the woods for example, are abstract and very graphic, and they inspired his design for the tourism materials for the town of Isny.
He wanted to bring a real process of graphic abstraction into a new kind of pictorial image. Isny is in an area where there is quite a lot of tourism because it’s close to the Bavarian Alps. Normally what you would get is four-color photography on a postcard. Aicher said that in order to wake up the eye to this environment we need to give the eye a different picture of the surroundings.

Aicher was concerned that we were becoming a visually cluttered culture and you write that he hoped his designs could cut through that clutter.
With his symbols for the Olympics, the intention was to create a kind of pictorial language system, which is language independent. It had a strongly functional aspect to it and the aesthetic aspect was secondary. With his work in Isny, he feelt that our environment is visually overloaded and he had to create a new visual environment for the eye, so he created a single symbol, a single pictorial image.

Aicher also collaborated with urban planners and architects to develop visual communication for places like the airport in Munich and the metro in Bilbao. He was influenced by modernist architectural values.
Le Corbusier was his favorite architect in the early times. And later, Norman Foster became a close friend. Aicher admired what Foster did and was fascinated with this idea of showing the reality of a building not only showing its prestige.

Was that a reaction to what he knew from his youth? The grand scale and pomp of Nazi Germany?
Exactly. He wanted to strip all aspects of propaganda. I think Paul Renner once said that architecture becomes barbaric if it leaves the human scale and we know that Aicher had a connection to Renner. He might have taken this quote to his heart.

Aicher had connections to many influential mid-century designers and architects.
The HfG was the starting point for that. He came into contact with international designers. He also taught in the States and made contacts there, for example, with Charles and Ray Eames. That was a real springboard for him.

Aicher leaves the HfG and starts his own design studio in 1964 and relocates both his office and his family to the town of Rotis. The fact that he actually names his typeface after the studio where he lived and worked speaks to that life-work balance you mention.
He managed to integrate design into his life and into his family. Today, in a time when life and work become more and more separated and we need spare time in order to regenerate for work, it’s worth studying how he managed that.

Throughout his life, Aicher never shrank from the challenges of his day, even after his city was destroyed by war and his contemporaries were executed. You quote him as saying: “One has to love the time in order to discover its secrets.” How can Aicher’s approach to design instruct us in our own modern, frenetic times?
One of the most important parts of Aicher’s work is that he would think before he did something. I’m teaching design students and what I see is that this time to think about problems is missing. They immediately get on the computer and start working. His method that I describe in the book hasn’t lost any of its modernity. We should go back and study it and learn from it and apply it to today’s needs.

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