12 min read
Portrait Otl Aicher
Otl Aicher. Photo: Timm Rautert

He was a co-founder of the Ulm School of Design, created the corporate design for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and shaped the appearance of brands such as Braun, Erco, Bulthaup and Lufthansa. The communication designer, teacher and author Otl Aicher would have turned 100 on 13 May.

By Thomas Wagner.

He was convinced: what has been recognised through reflection must become manifest in action. Otl Aicher, who would have turned 100 on 13 May, wanted to break up the often rigid conditions. People and things should stand for themselves and be able to work out of themselves, independent of power, interests, status. It was difficult for him to find himself in a society permeated by National Socialist ideology. In his memoirs “inside the war” he later noted:

i was too young to be an anti-fascist. there were no more communists, no more social democrats, no more centrists. the parties had been banned when i was eleven years old, and i had no father or grandfather in whose bookshelf i could have found a liebknecht, a kautsky, a bernstein, a rathenau or stresemann. we lived in a quarantine, even in history lessons, even in religion lessons, the new vocabulary of people, race and führer was rampant and the new nomenclature was called reich, kampf and vorsehung [Reich, Struggle, Providence].”

Coming out of quarantine

Getting out of such arbitrarily imposed quarantine and never getting back into one was what mattered to him. It helped to clear his head, to think and act freely. He consistently avoided conscription, refused any chance of advancement in the Wehrmacht and supported the Scholl family when Hans and Sophie, with whom he was close friends, were convicted and executed in 1943 for their membership of the “White Rose” resistance movement. At the beginning of 1945 he deserted and went into hiding with the Scholls in Ewattingen. A reorganisation of Germany in the spirit of Hans and Sophie became his life’s work. No sooner had the war ended than Otl Aicher founded the Ulm Adult Education Centre in 1946 together with his future wife Inge Scholl, the eldest sister of Hans and Sophie. A few years later, in 1953, they were both instrumental in founding the Ulm School of Design. What seems logical in retrospect had to be painstakingly thought out, fought for, shaped and suffered for step by step.

Here someone thinks for himself

Otl Aicher, who was born on 13 May 1922 in Ulm and died on 1 September 1991 in Günzburg, Bavaria, always had an impact through texts that he wrote in lower case for practical reasons. Whoever reads them today, regardless of the subject, gets the impression: Here is someone at work who is not impressed by what is usually considered correct and right. Here, someone is thinking for himself, checking out for himself what makes sense to him, what is at stake, what leads on. From the point of view of those who conformed, so much uncomfortableness must have seemed stubborn, even eccentric. For example: in 1984, when the automobile turned one hundred, Aicher wrote a “difficult defence of the car against its worshippers”. Although he was one himself, he criticised the ideology that shaped the car in design, but also in society – from the cd value as the “measure of windiness” to chrome as the “halo of cars” and top speed as the “main argument of automobile advertising”.

Taking care of the car as a car

For him, too, the car “undeniably has its merits”, but it also causes a lot of problems. His analysis anticipates much of what is beginning to happen today. The change begins with the bank employee “who stays at home, looks after his children” – and usually leaves his car in the garage because he prefers to ride his bike for peace of mind. Aicher ironically points out the consequences that threaten:

“the automobile industry could stagnate, and if several people thought and acted like that, the industry would shrink. it wouldn’t necessarily mean giving up cars if you let the need for top speed degenerate, but it would mean that you could cope with weaker cars, with smaller cars, whose values and dimensions are determined by common sense and not by pent-up aggression. you would drive it less often and use it like any other normal cultural asset.”

This is typical of Aicher’s idea of design: taking things and using them as they are, free of all ideological fetters. From which it follows: “anyone who cares about the car as a car is a designer. anyone who cares about its association is a stylist. you can build a car so that it is a real car, or you can build it so that it refers to something.”

Brands, logos, corporate design and more

Co-founder of a university, teacher, author, communication designer, typographer, pugnacious spirit – Otl Aicher was so versatile and realised so many projects that it is not even possible to list them all here. One thing is certain: he helped shape the public image of the Federal Republic of Germany through the corporate design of many well-known brands. And yet he stands for much more than the logos and corporate designs of companies such as Braun, Bulthaup, Erco, FSB, Lufthansa, Sparkasse and ZDF. Two projects stand out: the founding of the Ulm School of Design together with his wife Inge Scholl-Aicher and his commitment there; and the corporate design of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. “you can make politics with colours”, Aicher once said when he was working on the image of the Olympics. The colours he chose were deliberately not those of power. This is one reason why his design, in combination with Günter Behnisch’s circus tent architecture, succeeded in creating a serene atmosphere in Munich. The appearance (including the mascot “Olympia Waldi”) was so concise, so colourful and so memorable that its graphics became a sign of the dynamism of a new era.

The Ulm School of Design and the new everyday culture

Even when it came to the name and orientation of the Ulm School of Design, Aicher didn’t look back: “of course we were aware at the time of the cultural-political aura that a school calling itself ‘bauhaus ulm’ would acquire. but ‘reputation’ was a rather negative word. we wanted to do what was right in the matter, without speculating on public impact and recognition. and our intention was not to make a second bauhaus, not a repetition. we wanted to set ourselves apart from it, consciously.” It was not the art that was to be in the foreground, it was to be shown “that culture today must have life as a whole as its theme”. Aicher saw a trick in the conventional culture business that should not be fallen for: “art is capitalised on by those who earn money from trash. eternal values are proclaimed by those who don’t want to be caught in their dirty business. we didn’t want to take part in this idealism. culture should turn to reality.”

Otl Aicher und Mitarbeitende. Erco-Piktogramme
Otl Aicher and team. Erco pictograms 1976 © Kai Alexander Gehrmann-Berlin (click to enlarge)

Counter-art and civilisation work

A turnaround seemed necessary: “back then in ulm, we had to go back to the things, to the products, to the street, to everyday life, to the people. we had to turn around. it wasn’t about extending art into everyday life, into application. it was about a counter-art, about civilisation work, about civilisation culture”. The fact that the founders’ spirit of optimism, perceived by some as messianic, as sectarian, was transferred to lecturers and students is still part of the Ulm School of Design’s worldwide reputation today. After all, it was about more than art and design. After the shocking rupture of civilisation, it was about nothing less than the reshaping of Germany, the building of a different culture. In the conservative climate of the 1950s, standing up against a stuffy neo-Biedermeier and for a factual, open and democratic culture of things, for social and cultural responsibility, could not have been a walk in the park.

Waldi © International Olympic Committee
Otl Aicher and team. Olympic Games 1972 Munich Design 1970-71. © Florian Aicher HfG-Archiv – Museum Ulm (click to enlarge)

Rotis, the remote centre

When the coloured Olympic flags had been taken down and he had given up his office in Munich, Aicher – he was now 50 and well-known – retired to the Allgäu. In a former mill in Rotis, between Memmingen, Kempten and Leutkirch, he reorganised his life and work context. What Marfa/Texas was for Donald Judd, Rotis was for Aicher, a refuge and private studio campus, a mixture of country estate, monastery and aristocratic residence; his “remote centre”. In future, as Eva Moser’s biography puts it, this is where “upscale business consulting through design” will take place.

A city in black and white

One of Aicher’s most beautiful graphic works is the appearance of the former free imperial city of Isny, for which he designed a whole 136 motifs in square format between 1977 and 1982. Whether it is the striking gates and towers, the meadows and forests of the landscape or the animals of the surroundings, Aicher’s mastery in translating all the elements that seemed essential to him into characteristic, consistently black-and-white graphics reveals his complete mastery. One sees at a glance how intensely the sun shines above the silhouette of the mountains, what austerity spruces and firs impose on the forest, how a fox creeps between tree trunks. In the anecdotes drawn, nature and culture coexist peacefully, the warmth of human affection is combined with the objectivity of the depiction.

Otl Aicher Bildzeichen Isny Türme und Bäume
Otl Aicher Picture Sign Isny Towers and Trees.
Otl Aicher Bildzeichen Isny Schlafender Fuchs
Otl Aicher Picture Sign Isny Sleeping Fox.
Otl Aicher Bildzeichen Isny Markt
Otl Aicher Picture Sign Isny Market.

Right of use Stadt Isny / Isny Marketing GmbH. © Florian Aicher (click to enlarge)

In danger, design helps

What Aicher deeply resisted was thinking without consistency. Among other things, this makes his perspective so relevant today. Before design became openly critical and an ecological movement gained political profile, he made clear the danger of a world that had disintegrated into culture and nature. His counter-programme: to bring instrumental thinking back to the senses, to bring ratio back into the physical field of relationships between seeing and doing. What do expediency and usefulness mean in consumer society? How can the things of everyday life be designed without contributing to the desolation or destruction of the world and human relationships? For Aicher, this can only succeed if a different relationship to making is established. For him, making something is first and foremost a “self-responsible action” in which “someone is involved with concept, design, execution and verification”. Whoever designs something must stick to the matter at hand, fall back on facts, but also open up new spaces for thinking: “he counts the peas and opens up perspectives. he calculates and opens up landscapes of possibilities. in designing, man comes to himself. otherwise he remains a civil servant.”

If a different culture is to be created, design is needed above all else. A design that is critical, that questions what is usual, that touches the roots and exposes them. Not one that “makes the surfaces of often superficial things even more colourful and attractive”. For Aicher, making is the beginning and the key to change, even if scepticism is mixed into his late texts: “today’s man as a product of his culture,” it says in “analogue and digital”, “is a thinking and consuming man. his ability to make something, his ability to design something, is regressing. he is becoming passive and his activities are atrophying. the machine to which we entrust our thinking demands that we behave according to the machine’s image.”


otl aicher 100

otl aicher 100
Photo: Timm Rautert

With the launch of otlaicher.de and an event at the Akademie der Künste on 13 May, the IDZ Berlin pays tribute to a great designer: Otl Aicher, whose birthday on this date is the hundredth anniversary.

To the event series


More über Ot Aicher

Otl Aicher & Isny Allgäu

Otl Aicher 100 Jahre 100 Plakate: Im HfG-Archiv (in German)


More on ndion

Discover more articles about design


Share this page on social media:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email