The lasting influence of the pictograms Otl Aicher developed for the 1972 Olympics in Munich may still be seen in European airports and public facilities to this day. Using stark white and black geometric forms arranged on a grid, Aicher developed a comprehensive visual language that could be easily be understood by viewers of all nationalities.
For graphic designers interested in the history of visual iconography, Markus Rathgeb's monograph of Aicher's life proves a valuable resource, but it deserves a wider audience. Since designers don't have the opportunity to see their own career through the lens of a retrospective until its end, this elegant account of one designer's life provides ample lessons for those of us at the beginning.
Much of the design of the seventies almost invites ridicule when seen through modern eyes, and regrettably, some of Aicher's graphics share those traits. Though his Olympics posters easily betray their age, some other pieces of his work exhibit a timeless harmony. Clearly, the question of why some designs retain their charm while others seem out-of-touch is something that designers should hold in their subconscious throughout the entire design process.The graphics that retain their impact seem to be those that explore a variety of historical antecedents and carry with them a strong set of internal rules rather than exclusively pushing the boundaries of technology and fashion. Designers who eagerly embrace the possibilities of Bezier splines and rapid prototyping to create amorphous and futuristic forms may be well served looking at the work of Aicher through the lens of time, because they can be certain that some future culture will do the same to their work.
Aicher's career was not only as a graphic designer, but also an innovator in branding and marketing, and this is where he truly shines. In all of his projects, he thought not only about the immediate results, but about their long term implications. His corporate identity work for Lufthansa was designed from its outset to permeate every facet of the company. The consistency and uniformity of his branding efforts demonstrate another method for achieving timelessness. While any one of his Munich Olympic posters seems hopelessly dated, when viewed as a group, suddenly they cohere, creating a support structure for one another.
The lives of most artists are obscured by their own output, but happily, Aicher was an exception. The early chapters in particular make for an inspiring read, as Rathgeb takes the reader on a journey through Aicher's unique brand of civil disobedience in the face of the rising Nazi movement. Though he had a long and fruitful career as an innovator, eventually the tides of technology and progress overtook him (as they will all of us, eventually). Shortly after the completion of the universal typeface Rotis it was discovered that the font was ill-suited for monitors, and by the end of his life Aicher himself had not yet come to grips with the field's transition to computer aided design. A man of uncompromising principle, Aicher's life would be worth reading about even without all of the pretty pictures, and that's something to which we all should aspire.