Otl Aicher’s name is already firmly secured in the annals of design history. The Ulm School founder, Lufthansa brand designer and creative director of the 1972 Munich Olympics already has comprehensive texts dedicated to securing his legacy.
But while Aicher’s name lives on in current design discourse, many of the collaborators who helped him achieve such an impressive stature have drifted into obscurity.
Nowhere is this more the case than in his work for the ‘72 Olympics, in which Aicher was just one of 80 people working to achieve a gesamtkunstwerk of user experience and branding. In spite of this, only he is credited for this sprawling body of work.
Munich ’72. The Visual Output of Otl Aicher’s Dept. XI seeks to address this historical injustice; the first in-depth account of the full range of outputs as well as the structure and composition of the team that brought Aicher’s vision to life. Three years in the making, it is the result of research in both Germany and Switzerland and contains many unseen images and a number of key documents translated from German.
Its creator, Mark Holt, is now funding the project on Kickstarter, and with only eight days left to fund the project, we sat down with him for a chat to find out more.
What was the rationale for putting this together in the first place? Why now?
It’s always amazed me there has not been an in-depth account of the visual outputs of the Munich Games. There has been a Phaidon biography of Aicher, but only a small part of that dealt with the Munich Games and only then, the printed outputs and pictograms. The project will be 50 years old in 2022 and it remains one of the most thorough and rigorous identities of the 20th century – if not the most. It’s still a beacon in terms of consistency of execution and reach, and yet so many people know so little about it beyond the basic level stuff.
How much did you draw on existing material to inform this new compendium?
I didn’t draw on it that much at all. I had some knowledge and I worked outwards from that. I didn’t want to trust what I’d read elsewhere. I wanted to explore and discover and find evidence myself, so I visited the archives in Germany and Switzerland and began tracking down as many team members as I could.
All exhibitions on Aicher and the Games have focused on printed graphics only and I wanted to get beyond that and look at the holistic image of the Games; cityscapes, apparel, stadium decoration, souvenirs, [Olympic mascot] Waldi. I wanted to discover as much as I could about the origins of these components.
Much of what has been written about Munich ’72 focuses on Aicher. He remains, somewhat incorrectly, solely credited for the work, which is ludicrous. He had a team of 70-80 people behind him, including ten team leaders. Very few know about them or their roles.
It seems contradictory that for someone so known for his collaborations in practice and in teaching, that Aicher has always been portrayed as the singular creative force behind the 1972 Olympic work. Was this something you were looking to address?
Yes, Aicher solely credited himself on all projects throughout his life. He was quite open about that when he first hired his deputy Rolf Müller at Munich. Yet there’s something about that that does not sit well with me. The Munich project started in 1965, work commenced in 1967 and ended a year after the games in 1973, by which time Aicher had left to form his Rotis studio. Certain members of the team worked with him before Munich and after at Rotis, yet history seems to have airbrushed them out forever.
Is it intimidating to work on a subject where there is already a body of quality output, or were you confident in your additions to the Aicher canon?
You have to get beyond any sense of intimidation early on. As soon as I struck on the idea of trying to discover more about the team and see the book as a catalyst for change in the way that the project is credited, I knew I had found a way in. I was interested to find out as much as I could about the team and attempting to credit individuals against jobs where possible.
How did you go about tracking down and interviewing his collaborators?
Good old Sherlock Holmes legwork. I used to work with Micheal Burke, who was on the team, and he was still in contact with a couple of people. The Ulm archive also had contact with a couple of others. I then spent a huge amount of time tracking people down on the internet and validating that they were the people I thought they were. I visited Germany and interviewed four or five of them.
And what about the research process more generally; How much time have you spent buried in the archives?
The research process has been very time-consuming. I had a broad narrative in mind for the book, starting with early collaborators and early studio locations, then moving into the earliest works and when the more senior members of the team joined. That gave me an idea for what I needed to find out and triggered literally hundreds of questions.
I bombarded the people I had met with all kinds of queries – not all the answers came back. I was absolutely committed to getting the pieces of the story in place so then set about visiting archives: mainly the Ulm archive, the Koblenz archive and the IOC archive in Lausanne. The joy was in finding some stuff that I never thought I would, and a couple of items which were something of a holy grail for me.
Does Aicher’s work still have something to teach us in a design landscape that’s changed so much over the past half-century?
Aicher was chosen for the Munich job because he was Aicher. He’d founded the HfG Ulm, he’d done the Lufthansa identity, he was eminently qualified to do such an enormous job as the Munich Games.
Having said that, he had struggles with certain senior members of the Organising Committee who didn’t like his modernist approach and tried to make life difficult. He also invested a lot of time at the start of the job extracting the brief and trying to educate the client about what needed to be put in place. I translated over 30,000 words original letters from Aicher to the Committee and it’s interesting to note that even someone with Aicher’s stature did not have an easy ride. The job was a very difficult one for him, to the extent that his health suffered. Things have not changed there much.
What was particularly interesting were some of Aicher’s writings as he tried to steer the project - they are entirely contemporary in their content.
Finally, I’d say that for me, Munich is the forerunner of what we call user experience today, in that Aicher tried to shape every facet of the Games, to control the lasting memories that visitors would take from the Games. It had all the elements. In that sense, Munich is still a very modern Games.