Otl Aicher, and the history behind the cycling pictogram

I can be very long-winded, I know. I need an editor very badly, but my entire editing department (all six of them) are currently at their yearly retreat in Lake Tahoe. As such, I should tell you that this post begins with a personal story about how I first encountered the icon you see above. If you don't care for my personal stories (amazing as they may be), skip ahead to the section titled "About that pictogram..." Enjoy.

My childhood memories of the dreaded pictograms back in Colombia

As a kid growing up in Colombia, I attended an all-German school. Math, science, history...all subjects were taught in German, by German teachers. Our school was structured exactly like those in Germany, down to our German-made desks, and the mandatory use of German-made rulers, and Lamy fountain pens. Why fountain pens? Because, we were told, ballpoint or felt-tip pens were "disgusting", and would ultimately ruin the perfect handwriting that our strict German teachers had worked so hard teach us. Most of that severe and unwavering rigidity was lost on me, since I had been raised in a largely Colombian environment. It so happened that I attended this school because of my dual citizenship (Colombian/German, it's a long story), and as a result, I found myself constantly at odds with the stereotypically German values that I encountered at school. The atmosphere was authoritarian to the point of being laughable...although it certainly wasn't laughable back then. It was in that environment that I first encountered the pictograms designed by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Olympic Games. The pictograms depicted multiple sports but they too were rigid, strict and unwavering to the point of being laughable.

Things weren't all bad in school for me back then. I actually have some pleasant memories from my time in that school, but the ones I remember the most are the ones that range from painful to horrible. At the heart of the varied horrible memories I still have, lies one event. The Bundesjugendspiele, or the "bundes" as those of us who had been born in Colombia (and thought of Spanish as our native tongue) referred to them.

Bundesjugendspiele, literally translates to Federal Youth Games. The bundes are a commonplace event in all German schools. They are, essentially, the Olympic Games for your school, and all students must compete. The weak, the sickly, the overweight, the handicapped...they must all compete in non-team events of track and field. On that day, the tiny kid with a prosthetic arm competed against track athletes. The chubby, uncoordinated girl was asked to compete in the high jump next to those that had just returned from their trip to the track and field nationals. It was not fun.

At our school, the bundes took place once a year, and they were a hugely important event on the calendar. On that day, all students (from first to twelfth grade) were excused from classes in order to compete. The bundes were a huge undertaking, and included judges, a sizable staff of organizers, refreshment tables, tents, cheering crowds and an overwhelming sense of competition. They were larger than life, certainly as important as the Olympics to all of us who were forced to compete. For months, we had all seen the posters, fliers and reminders posted all over school. All those reminders, the ones that hung silently over our heads in the classroom like guillotines, featured the same figures again and again. Those fucking pictograms, the ones depicting mathematically perfect, black and white figures performing the very sports we'd be taking on.

As the day of the bundes got closer, we all knew the torture that awaited. Soon enough, we'd all be running and jumping in front of sizable audiences in a Thunderdome-like fashion, all for the amusement of our captors–I mean teachers and staff. Have you ever had a bunch of German people force you into something, as they yell at you in that beautiful language? Allow me to tell you, it's not fun. Although I was not a sickly or unusually weak kid, the level of importance placed on the "bundes" was enough to make most of us buckle. The regal nature and pageantry that surrounded the games only exacerbated matters. Soon enough we'd all be pegged against one another in physical bouts that few of us cared for...but had to participate in. Let me ask you, how well would you perform under those circumstances? How well would you do in sports that you had not taken up, or even enjoyed participating in? Have you ever seen a third grader jump hurdles? Have you seen a second grader throw a shot put?

For us unwilling participants, the bundes were not about performance or domination. They were more about flailing around, and trying not to suck too badly in front of the girls in our class—the ones we had spent the entire year trying to impress. On that day, all the work we had done for a full year in order to woo the opposite sex came tumbling down. Blood was shed, as were numerous tears, all in the name of horror and humiliation. Winners would win, losers would....well, you know. I personally lost a lot. Not as badly as the truly sick or disabled, but I don't remember winning or coming close to winning a single event. My brother, on the other hand, became pretty damn good at track...but not me. Winning was not much of an option. Consequently, I was shamed in front of large audiences in the long jump, when I tripped and landed face-first in the sand without even bracing myself. It's because of all this (I suspect) that I still shy away from actively competing in sports, cycling included. I'm not a socially inept recluse by any means, but I'm certainly not a competitive individual either, at least not in the sporting sense.

Those who won in different competitions, or managed to win the most overall points were awarded fancy diplomas in a school-wide celebration. The diplomas featured Otl Aicher's pictograms, the ones depicting the sports in which we had all competed, and mostly failed at. The pictograms seemed willfully idialistic to me. They showed a perfection in form and execution that none of us could ever live up to. I grew to detest those small icons, and eventually developed a Pavlovian response to them, and their stupid circular heads. I hated their lack of hands, their lack of feet...and I hated the fact that they reminded me of having never made it up on stage in order to receive one of those diplomas.

But that was then. Time has passed, and scars (however minimal) have finally healed. I no longer hold rancor against those inanimate figures, nor does the Pavlovian response remain. To the contrary, I've grown to be rather fond of them. I see them for what they are: fantastically simple representations of numerous sporting activities, all accomplished with a surprisingly limited visual language. Simple, elegant, most importantly precisely German. This, it turns out, was entirely by design.

About that pictogram...

The 1972 Olympics in Munich were a hugely important moment in Germany's history. They were seen by the German government, and correctly so, as the beginning of a re-branding effort that continues today. It was in 1972 that Germany took the world stage for the first time since World War II. Humanity, it would appear, was allowing Germany a do-over in 1972. This was a substantial opportunity, and the (West) German government saw this undertaking as an important political milestone.

Note the seig heil salute

The man tasked with branding the entire Olympic games, and thus Germany's image to the world, was Otl Aicher. His power over the games and the way that Germany would present itself to the world was astonishingly far-reaching. Aicher and his team designed the 1972 Games as an experience, and as such took on the design of interiors, posters, maps, uniforms, flags, wayfinding signs, souvenirs, on-screen graphics, logotypes, vehicles and even the Olympic torch itself. It was Aicher's direction which dictated the entire look of the event. With all this mind, many in Germany at the time asked just who Aicher was. How was he being given free reign over such a huge task and such a substantial budget?

Aicher's design credentials were respected and well known by those in industry at the time. He had been a design consultant for both Braun and Lufthansa. In the case of the German airline, Aicher had re-branded the company entirely from it's logotype, down to overseeing the production of the silverware that was used aboard its planes. This was the beginning of corporate identity design as we know it today, and Aicher was a visionary in respect to making corporate entities cohesive in their visual language. He was also a co-founder of the Hochschule fur Gestalung, the Ulm School of Design. Aside from having the necessary design experience and talent, his political background was precisely what the government wanted from the person they would task to do such an important job. Aicher had been arrested in 1937 for refusing to join the Hitler Youth, and had been subsequently failed on his university entrance exams as a result. Additionally, his family and friends had a history in the resistance movement. With all this in mind, there was little doubt that Aicher was the man for the job. His background was impeccable, as was his work.

The image that the German government wanted to portray during the games was that of a progressive nation, one that had outgrown its oppressive past and was now welcoming and inclusive. It's worth noting, however, that many immigrants in West Germany at the time would have disagreed with that assessment. Nevertheless, modernist design was the perfect tool for the job, and Aicher was a master in its use. Hitler had famously disowned modern design and architecture during his reign. He deemed it "degenerate", and favored what he saw as truly Germanic forms of expression. The fact that Germany had awarded this important commission to a thoroughly modernist designer was not lost on the design community. Germany, it would appear, was trying to right even small, design-oriented wrongs. Aicher delivered.

Aicher's design program included minute details like uniforms, napkins and cutlery. Check out the lady's sweet Zack Morris cell phone.

The end result was a cohesive and upbeat design vocabulary which encompassed the entire Olympic games. The colors that were picked by Aicher were decidedly cheery variations on the colors from the Olympic rings, with two obvious omissions. Black and red were not used anywhere in the color scheme, due to them being the official colors of the Nazi party. The optimistic family of colors proved to be successful, and the '72 games were thus referred to as the "Rainbow Games" in the press. During that summer, Germany would be seen as an open, welcoming, and cohesive place. At least that's what the design communicated, Munich Massacre notwithstanding.

Waldi the dachshund was the first-ever Olympic mascot. Designed by Otl Aicher, Waldi included all colors from the Olympic rings, except for red and black. The dachshund was picked for its German heritage, but also due to its temperament, which Aicher felt was in line with the qualities best suited for a successful athlete. Of particular interest to Aicher were the dachshund's tenacity, agility and stubbornness (sometimes translated as "resistance"). As a proud dachshund owner, I can tell you that my beloved 7-pound Emma exhibits all these qualities in spades, especially stubbornness.

At the center of Aicher's design program were the pictograms that depicted the numerous sports that were included in the Munich Games. In a decidedly modernist style, Aicher depicted all the various sports with an astonishing efficiency in the visual vocabulary he used. The human form was reduced to its simplest components, which allowed the resulting icons to be reduced to minute sizes, and yet work equally well in large applications. The pictograms were easily understood by individuals from all nations, and could be reproduced easily in print, on screen and numerous other methods of production. The family of icons was cohesive, and further strengthened the visual language that Aicher created for the Games.

The pictograms communicate their intended message, without giving us much information about their history, reason for being designed or what epoch they came from. They are, in a way, the perfect example of a neutral, non-invasive container for a message, as envisioned years earlier by Beatrice Warde. In her essay, The Crystal Goblet, Warde puts forth the idea that typography (and the design it services) should operate in such a way as to deliver content without tainting it. Design should be, in her view, simply a vehicle. It's precisely that vehicle that Aicher created in his pictogram system. The system in its original form, as well as those icons that were designed as an extension of it by Aicher, are ubiquitous. They give us information, but don't taint it with information about their source, nationality or intended purpose. They are amazingly neutral.

Another Aicher design.

Like a paperclip, we don't think of Aicher's pictograms as designed objects per se, but rather as the objects themselves. The chairs we own are someone's take on a chair. That's not the case with the average, everyday paperclip. It is what it is, a paperclip. That's it. Objects at this level of comprehension are simply there. They feel as though they have always been there, and did so from the moment they were presented to the masses. In every country, in every city, they are simply there. In the case of Aicher's icons they've become shorthand that everyone can understand, a set of simple shapes that successfully tells us where to go when we need to use a bathroom.

Detail showing the underlying grid for Aicher's pictograms

Based on a strict grid system, the pictograms used only a limited number of shapes and angles. This was certainly in keeping with modernist thought, particularly as applied to product design, architecture and graphic design. Reducing form to its simplest components was a primary tenant of modernism, and Aicher complied willingly. The result was both accurate and effective.

Of particular interest to me, obviously, has always been the pictogram for cycling. Like all the others, its based on a grid system, and all the angles and proportions are driven by that grid. There are some exceptions, however, which clearly show Aicher's command of the grid (and not the other way around). Note the icon's head. It's the same diameter as the shoulders, but does not align with them, or the horizontal line that depicts the back of the figure. Why should it? A cyclist looks up, even while sprinting, no matter what the grid may dictate.Note that the same diameter is used for the figure's hips, while a secondary diameter is used for the extremities.

Although Aicher probably never rode a bike competitively, he certainly captures the spirit of racing accurately. The figure depicted is not riding casually, it's competing. Like all the other sports pictograms from the 1972 Olympic Games, the human figure appears in black, while the equipment (ball, net or in this case a bike) is outlined. In reducing all form to this degree, Aicher has ensured the longevity of his work. Is the cyclist wearing toe-clips? Is the bike lugged steel or carbon? Is this a track bike or a road bike? Does it have gears? Is the top tube slanted or horizontal? None of it matters, because none of those details are there. The pictogram has not aged, because Aicher didn't allow it to. While product designers largely depend on planned obsolescence, Aicher rejects it. It's for this reason that Aicher's pictogram can still be used today, and can effectively convey track and road events, as well as female and male competitors of all races. Inclusion, once again, was part of the design's intended purpose. Their success ensured their long-lasting effect and continued use.

Based on the pictogram's continued use, as well as the modified iterations that are still being created today, I believe it's fair to say that Otl Aicher was successful in creating a Crystal Goblet. At least one of us succeeded, because my massive fall into the sandpit continues to be the talk of the Bundesjugendspiele all over Colombia.

Modified version of Aicher's pictogram, from the blog trackosaurusrex.com

JCPenney bike

One of many such shirts for sale at mass-retailer Target

Album cover for the band Descendents

Warning label on a step-ladder

Streetsign for a bike lane

Album cover for the band D.R.I.

D.R.I. gaffiti as photographed by Bike Snob NYC