Summer 2021

Many players on the Olympic stage

Munich ’72: The Visual Output of Otl Aicher’s Dept. XI

Edited, designed and published by Mark Holt, £70 (hardback)

Germany first hosted an Olympic Games in 1936, in Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and did so again in 1972, in Munich. Thirty-six years apart, the two Games could not have presented more different versions of a nation on the world’s stage. For those working to forge a new post-war identity for West Germany in the late 1960s, one that wholly rejected the Nazi symbolism of Hitler’s Games in favour of an image of peace and internationalism, this difference was entirely the point.

The Games of the XX Olympiad took place in the Bavarian capital during late August and early September of 1972. In design history shorthand, Otl Aicher is credited with establishing the look of the Munich Games alongside one of the most extensive identity design programmes ever seen. That even at the time, as commissioner for visual design, Aicher alone was credited as the name behind the design of the Games has not helped with wider attribution in the intervening years.

The question of how to reflect more accurately the work of the many design teams and individuals who contributed to this vast ‘visual output’ is one of the main tasks of Mark Holt’s extensive new book on the project. It is no mean feat: following Holt’s research, there are now at least 82 team members’ names to place on record. All of them are listed on the spine of this impressive book.

Munich was awarded the Games in April of 1966. As a host city it was effectively a blank canvas; it had no existing stadia, and while it bore the scars of Allied bombs, its areas of wasteland were primed for regeneration. It was also possible to stage all of the sporting events within a single location (the yachting programme would be based at Kiel, home to the renowned regatta, on the country’s northern coast), while the city was culturally rich, with plenty to offer the huge influx of tourists set to arrive in six years’ time.

By the end of 1966, and at the request of the pivotal Willi Daume, president of Germany’s National Olympic Committee, Aicher had been appointed. Six months later, the first members of his design team, Dept. XI of the Organising Committee, were in place. Aicher assembled a group of talented, multidisciplinary designers, many of whom were former students of his at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, which he had co-founded in 1953. Indeed, Holt charts a through-line from Aicher’s own social and moral positions, his work at the Ulm school and the doctrines and methodologies that evolved there, to the systematic, rational design approach of the Munich project (a progression backed up by some of the designers interviewed in the book). Having established this context, Holt then sets out to bring the team who surrounded Aicher into sharper focus by showing a wide range of their exceptional work.

The Olympic design project lasted about eight years, and its visual output began to emerge in the late 1960s. As the book reveals, it is far more varied than one might think. There are the familiar sports posters, the pictograms set and ‘StrahlenSpirale’ emblem; not to mention a legion of printed items (programmes and guides, maps and tickets), Elena Winschermann’s Olympia-Waldi mascot, and many lesser-known assets: the apparel design of Vera Simmert, for example, or Hans Roericht and his team’s work on stadium decorations and Olympic Village interiors.

Visually, Aicher and his designers ascertained what they imagined foreign spectators would expect and aimed to go in the opposite direction, towards ‘naturalness; modesty; spontaneity; joy; modernity; good service,’ as Werner Wirsing, chair of the advisory Committee for Visual Design put it. The look and attitude of the Games would challenge prejudices and overturn stereotypes – a process that would be carried out in practice through the application of design essentials: colour, type, page format and grids.

There were rules of course, as Holt explains, yet Aicher avidly encouraged play and a relationship emerged between elements in the system that showed consistency rather than adherence to strict dogma. Similarly, five key personnel from the project are interviewed and – often quite candidly – they disclose their processes, working relationships and the ideas behind specific projects. Each of these Q&As runs along the top of several pages and enables more personal stories and reflections to emerge.

Some of the politics of the processes are also laid bare: Aicher could be uncompromising, demanding, and less than sympathetic to a designer’s attempts at personal development, let alone a pay rise. He had people he liked and people he didn’t like, as Winschermann reveals. Yet a project of this size could never have been easy – Aicher in fact threatened to quit the role a couple of times, and the process of selecting both the official emblem and the Games’ Standard poster were protracted, lengthy affairs.

But Aicher also trusted his team and was good at getting the best out of them. This is evidenced in the two sections that feature 180-plus works created by Dept. XI – the first focusing on the nine creative design leads and their highest-profile contributions, the intent being ‘to [raise] the extent of their ownership of these projects’. Gerhard Joksch and his team’s sports posters are featured here – a striking set of works in their own right, but also supplemented by the infamous poster for the modern pentathlon, in which the heads of Joksch and four of his colleagues were secretly placed into the foliage in the background. Would Aicher have approved?

Another plus is the wealth of unpublished material, sketches and artwork, preparatory texts made in advance of design presentations that Holt has sourced and included. Small details reveal much about the studio’s wider intent: ‘No rows of flags. Use bunches instead’ runs one small bullet point in a booklet of concept work for the visual image of the City of Munich, a subtle nod to a visual direction that ensured anything that resembled nationalism or militarism was forbidden (no reds, blacks or golds either). Nothing was overlooked in pursuit of the Games’ identity – and Germany’s.

Aicher died in 1991, aged 69, but his voice is present in the book as Holt makes good use of the designer’s own reflections on the Munich project through including a transcript of his 1975 Icograda Congress lecture as an afterword. Here, Aicher describes the challenges faced by a West German Games that aimed to distance itself from the ‘colours of the Nazis … of Caesar, of dictatorship’ – and how his team ‘had to consider which parts of the colour wheel [created] a credible identity for a different Germany’.

Aicher turned to the city of Munich itself, to its colloquial name of ‘die weiß-blaue Hauptstadt, the capital of white and blue’, the Bavarian landscape and his conceit that blue was the colour of peace. ‘Instead of features we were looking for a feeling, instead of symbols we sought an atmosphere,’ he said. ‘Work of the visual image thus became a form of direction. The colours and symbols became elements of a staging.’ Holt’s research and resulting book ensure that while the director’s work will still be lauded, the many players he tasked with delivering the production are now also duly recognised.

Cover of Munich ’72: The Visual Output of Otl Aicher’s Dept. XI, designed and edited by Mark Holt. Top. Spread from Munich ’72, 2019. See ‘Crowd control’, also in Eye 101.

Mark Sinclair, senior editor at Unit Editions and freelance writer, Gloucestershire

First published in Eye no. 101 vol. 26, 2021

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.