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Otl Aicher: An Expanded, Abridged Story

By now some of you are aware of the stress-inducing book we are working on, Graphic Design Referenced. This week I had the pleasure of writing the entry of German designer Otl Aicher. Unfortunately I got carried away and wrote much more than the word count I knew I had to meet. So, since the book will only have a 285-word version I wanted to share the extended one for anyone that might be interested in learning more about this great designer or just getting an abridged version of his story — this post also combines a segment of what we are writing for our entry on Summer Olympic identities. Most of the information here is taken from the wonderful monograph, Otl Aicher, written by Markus Rathgeb. And don’t miss the Otl Aicher Flickr Pool.


As a teenager Otl Aicher was exposed to the devastating effects of the Second World War firsthand. He was enlisted, against his beliefs, in the German ground troops in 1941 and served until 1945; due to illness and injuries Aicher’s military career was lackluster, and it provided him time to continue his auto didacticism by the reading and writing about philosophy, literature and art he had begun earlier. When the war ended and American troops entered Germany, Aicher returned to Ulm and became involved in the rebuilding of the city. Along with others, he established Ulmer Kreis (Ulm Circle of Friends) and started a series of gatherings, the Thursday Lectures, which provided an environment to stimulate the war-ridden population — the posters, to announce these events, were designed by Aicher, his first foray into the practice. By 1946, the Thursday Lectures had come to include practical education courses that led the way for the opening of the Ulmer Volkshochschule, an adult education school, which would become one of Aicher’s first clients, designing their identity, brochures and posters, when he opened his first design firm, Büro Aicher, in 1947.

Otl Aicher Work

Posters for courses taught at the Volkshochschule. Photo by Negative Space.

Otl Aicher Work

Otl Aicher and his E5 team developed the identity for Lufhtansa. Photo by alphanumeric.

In 1953, in collaboration with Swiss designer Max Bill, Aicher established the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Ulm, a design school for architects, product and graphic designers with “a diverse education, objectivity of design methodology, and an embrace of the industrial age” as ideals, as expressed by Aicher. Aside from teaching, and taking on the directorship position from Bill in 1962, Aicher developed numerous identity projects through the E5 (Entwicklungsgruppe 5), one of the “student development teams” created at HfG to work with clients outside of academia, melding practice and methodology — most famously, Aicher developed the complex and comprehensive corporate identity for Lufthansa during this time. The HfG closed in 1968 and Aicher opened Büro Aicher once again, undertaking one of his most prominent projects, the identity and iconography of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich.

Otl Aicher Work

On the top right is the first rejected garland, and the top left shows the final execution designed by Coordt von Mannstein. The plate is just there to blow your mind. Image by Latierrasemueve.

Otl Aicher Work

A sample of the grid used by Aicher to develop approximately 180 pictograms. Photo by insect54.

Otl Aicher Work

Three of dozens of posters Aicher created using images from athletes, representing the multitude of nationalities that would converge at the Olympics. Images by Blanka.co.uk.

In 1966, at the same time as Lance Wyman was awarded the program of the 1968 Games in Mexico, Otl Aicher received the commission from the National Olympic Committee for the 1972 Games in Munich — when Aicher visited Wyman, 18 months before the ’68 games began, he said that he was further ahead in their program than he was. Although marred by the terrorist activity that claimed the life of eleven Israeli athletes, the Munich Games had been approached as a way to present a different Germany from the one experienced in the 1936 Berlin Games under the ruling of Adolf Hitler. Aicher and his team developed a colorful identity that drew from the local Bavarian environment without crossing into pure folklore. The evocative imagery, focusing closely on the athletes, was paired with a solid grid system and the sole use of Univers that allowed flexibility and maintained consistency. The hypnotic emblem of the Games was not a smooth process: Aicher’s first design was an abstract radiant garland that the committee did not consider unique enough to copyright; his second design, based on the letter “M” was met with the same reaction; the NOC then decided to hold an open competition, yielding 2,300 entries, that did not fulfill their needs; finally, a member of Aicher’s team, Coordt von Mannstein, merged the original garland with a spiral structure for the winning emblem, nearly a year after the first one had been presented. With an intense interest in the communicative power of symbols that could be universally recognized, Aicher and his team developed a cohesive set of nearly 180 pictograms for sporting events as well as services through a strict orthogonal and diagonal square grid, where all visual elements were arranged at 90 and 45 degrees. The sum of all the work amounted to a very precise and structured identity with just the right amount of warmth — succinctly embodied, perhaps, in Waldi, the geometrically astute dachshund you would not resist petting.

Otl Aicher Work

Waldi the dachshund. Image by Latierrasemueve.

Otl Aicher Work

Poster as part of an identity developed for the German town of Isny. Photo by alphanumeric.

Otl Aicher Work

Working on the development of Rotis.

In 1972, as the Olympics unfolded, Aicher and his family moved to the Allgäu region of Germany where they purchased a property that had been named Rotis. There, he built two studios to complement the existing buildings and established his residence and office collectively labeled as the “autonomous republic of Rotis.” Through the course of the 70s and 80s, Aicher maintained a healthy practice of identity, collateral, advertising and poster work for a genial range of clients, from industrial manufacturers to small towns. Aicher’s new abode also served as the name for the four type families he started developing in 1986 when the search for a roman type that would complement Univers and other sans typefaces proved fruitless. Rotis bridges, literally, the gap between sans and serif: Rotis Grotesk (sans), Rotis Semigrotesk, Rotis Semiantiqua and Rotis Antiqua (roman) featuring gradual apparition of serifs and disappearance of single-width letterforms. In 1991, Aicher was tragically struck by a car as he crossed a highway that divided his property on his mower.

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PUBLISHED ON Jun.18.2008 BY Armin
Tselentis’s comment is:

In 1991, Aicher was tragically struck by a car as he crossed a highway that divided his property on his mower.

Did the highway signs use Rodis? Helvetica? Frutiger? Talk about death by typeface.

On Jun.18.2008 at 08:09 PM
diane zerr’s comment is:

What a great article but a shocking end! I was sad to hear what a horrific accident caused his death. Sad ending but a great story and what amazing work!

I always enjoy learning more about those who preceded this generation of designers. The book looks great, I can't wait!

On Jun.19.2008 at 07:43 AM
dertobi’s comment is:

@tselentis: german traffic-signs use DIN. but I guess the typeface is not the one to blame …

@article: nice brief look on aicher's life and work that is not only overshadowed by his untimely death but also by the creation of rotis.

On Jun.19.2008 at 09:25 AM
Neuehaus’s comment is:

I'm so excited for this. Great article, I'll bookmark it over at my place:


On Jun.20.2008 at 04:48 PM
mark jamra’s comment is:

An interesting take on Aicher's life and career. Informative and compact. A bit of editorial advice: in the second sentence, it is best to use the word drafted instead of enlisted.

Perhaps it is worthwhile to mention that illness and injuries were not the only things that kept his military career lackluster. His beliefs played an important role as well. To me, one of the more interesting side notes on Otl Aicher's life is his relationship to Hans and Sophie Scholl, the core members of the German resistance group, The White Rose. (In a flight of historical accuracy, Aicher was even mentioned in the 2005 Oscar-nominated film Sophie Scholl–The Final Days.) He was a very interesting and multifaceted person.

On Jun.20.2008 at 10:44 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> His beliefs played an important role as well.

Mark, you are absolutely right. As far as I went with that was including "against his beliefs", as there is indeed another 285 words to write on that aspect of Otl.

On Jun.21.2008 at 06:58 AM
felix sockwell’s comment is:

nice work arm.

On Jun.22.2008 at 02:13 PM
Mark.S.’s comment is:

Forever inspiring!

On Jun.27.2008 at 12:02 PM
miesvan’s comment is:

Only than Herman Zappf is a son of a bitch.
Optima is shooting from the granmother of the the Rotis...
Only this.
God knows it

On Jul.16.2008 at 06:12 PM