Otl Aicher’s designs for the 1972 Summer Olympics

I recently learned the story of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games “pictograms” and the impact of the artist behind these iconic images.

Three artists were extraordinarily influential in the use of abstract pictograms to help inform, educate and guide athletes and spectators to the many venues and destinations during these massive sports spectacles, which attracted people from across the globe speaking many different languages. Masaru Katzumie and graphic designer Yoshiro Yamashita pioneered the original concept of pictograms for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

However, the pictograms created by Otl Aicher (1922–1991) for the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics Games’ iconography, visual language, and the event’s all-encompassing graphic schemes are worth a closer examination.

Otl Aicher’s designs for the 1972 Summer Olympics

Aicher was already a highly successful and influential German designer who had survived the horrors of Nazi Germany and was a co-founder of the Bauhaus-inspired Ulm College of Design. He embraced functionality and efficiency in design with all his commercial clients.

To achieve his personal goal to “maintain the positive aspects of Berlin while at the same time eradicating its negative connotations,” Aicher created a universal visual language through his pictograms that was used on virtually all visual Olympic communications including tickets, directional signage, programs, awards presented to competitors, and much more.

We’ll find that these innovative pictograms have been adopted and adapted almost universally around the world by other venues as a means to communicate across languages and cultures, especially at airports, transit lines, and other places where diverse crowds gather and transverse.

When successfully designed, these abstract shapes evoke a sense of reassurance and anticipation to the viewer trying to maneuver and find directions to a destination as they navigate through and towards unfamiliar territories and landscapes.