building blocks

[otl aicher’s pictogram designed for the 1968 munich olympics, on a grid]

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.

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.


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