Graphic legacy

The 1972 Munich Olympics are sadly perhaps most memorable for the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinians. But for designers, the games are also memorable for the identity and graphics created by Otl Aicher. The work has assured him a place in the pantheon of design greats since his unfortunate death in 1991, when, in a freak incident, he was hit by a car while mowing his lawn.

Aicher’s intellectually rigorous, simple, yet ethically engaged design ethic led him to be seen internationally as a torchbearer of Bauhaus-inspired Modernism in the years after World War II. Leaf through Markus Rathgeb’s handsome new book on Aicher, and quite how influential his creations continue to be in shaping the visual trappings of Germany’s rebirth is apparent.

His graphics for the 1972 Olympics provide an important counterweight to the powerful historical presence of the Nazi 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and the pictograms in particular have become ubiquitous. Equally enduring is the identity Aicher created for Lufthansa, the national airline, which remains in service with little alteration. It is testament to the German penchant for creating quality that will last, whether in the field of product design or graphics.

Through his teaching at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in his South German hometown of Ulm, there was another legacy in the form of a generation of German graphic designers seeped in this rigorous design ethic. And it’s not just the visual face of German corporate culture, but also its counter culture that Aicher had a significant hand in – two posters from 1983 show the same visual intelligence being pressed into service for the German anti-missile movement.

Aicher is quoted in the book as saying, ‘In design man becomes what he is’. Whether it is still possible to believe in this idealist Modernist harmony between the social and corporate, looking at the fruits of those beliefs is rewarding and will continue to be instructive. And in that instruction, Rathgeb’s monograph will be a useful tool.

Otl Aicher by Markus Rathgeb is published by Phaidon Press in February, price £45

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