From inventing colours to designing the Olympic Games, we take a look at the extraordinary work of Otl Aicher
In an extract from the new book Otl Aicher: Design. Type. Thinking – published by Prestel – writers Christopher Haaf and Hannes Gumpp pen an essay on the iconic designer’s relationship with colour, its significance on his work and how he went on to influence the world over.
Colour always played a fundamental role for Otl Aicher. Be it the posters for the Ulm Volkshochschule, the corporate design for Lufthansa or the visual appearance of the 1972 Olympic Games, colour is an integral part of each respective design. Only recently, the British designer Mark Holt praised Aicher as a ‘master of colour’. In the following, we will immerse ourselves in the colour schemes created by Aicher, who, in The World as Design, wrote about inventing colours:
"I have invented a few colours in my lifetime. Of course I did not invent them as such. All the colours that we see are there. But we see only those colours that we have in our consciousness, that we can name. We see only that which we know and can name communicatively as an object of information. The colour turquoise has existed only since the empire. It was not known in the middle ages, even though Matthias Grünewald almost achieved turquoise in the halo of the risen Christ.”
GalleryThe Ulm Volkshochschule, founded by Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher, opened on 24 April 1946. In the years to follow, Aicher designed numerous posters in a standardised vertical format for the ‘Donnerstagsvorträge’ (Thursday lectures), which covered a wide range of scholarly, scientific, political and international topics. © Florian Aicher
Two such colours invented by him – greige and vlau – may be located in “the field of grey”. The former lies between sand colour and grey, the latter between violet and grey. Both were used in the corporate design of the lighting manufacturer ERCO on which Aicher worked beginning in late 1974 and reveal just why he is also called the “inventor of the colourful grey”. Both were intended to stand for objectivity and clarity and not to push themselves into the foreground, because the theme of the corporate identity for ERCO was not colour but light. The contrast of “light and dark” therefore formed the starting point for the basic colours of the corporate image: black, white and grey. The colour product photographs were, in turn, to be shown against a background that was in a “neutral colour range with a high grey content”; this tone could be the colour greige or, alternatively, “a bluish grey” or “a greenish grey, provided the tone itself recedes from the fore”. Aicher was not more specific since he wanted to avoid “the background colour becoming a corporate colour”. A few years earlier, he had developed a colour concept for the insurance company Bayerische Rück that was at least as restrained and consisted of a wide spectrum of grey tones. The “countless colour shades” of grey are illustrated by a table that was created during the design process and presents the colour in a wide variety of tones and shades. For the visual appearance of the town of Isny in the Allgäu region, Aicher in turn developed the idea of a “city in black and white”.
“Aicher had banned colours of power, such as purple and violet or black and red, from the colour wheel.”Christopher and Hannes
In stark contrast to these projects is the spectrum of colours that Aicher and his team chose for the visual design of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and because of which this Summer Olympics went down in history as the Rainbow Games: a bright blue and white served as the main colours, supplemented by silver, a light green, orange, a dark blue, a dark green and a very light orange. The selected colours not only served to organise and order, but they also served a political dimension. They were to appear “cheerful”, “light” and “dynamic", as well as “apolitical” and “without pathos”. The aim was to create a clear counter-design to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, a high point of Nazi theatricality and self-representation, and to broadcast the image of the new Federal Republic as a modern, democratic and pluralistic country. In the run-up, Aicher had banned colours of power, such as purple and violet or black and red, from the colour wheel. At the same time, the selection testifies to his associative approach to colour. With the colour blue, he associated Southern German baroque as well as peace and youth, but the leitmotif for the vivid colours was the (Upper) Bavarian landscape: the silvery glistening lakes, the bright blue of the sky, the snow-covered white Alps and the green Alpine foothills. The result was, as Aicher wrote, “a tribute to Bavaria” and “not a question of taste or following a trend, but a question of argument. We could say precisely why the colour range should look like this and no different.”
The power that was attributed to the colours is still visible today in the bands of colour that tame those structural masts of the Olympic buildings “which had a tendency to be overbearing”.
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HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm, © Florian Aicher
“It was suggested that the colour yellow be given more weight than the colour blue because – according to the assessment – 'values such as speed, safety, freshness, vitality, activity, technology and flying are associated more with yellow than with blue'.”Christopher and Hannes
The close connection between the colour blue and the local colour of southern Germany reappeared 10 years later in another of Aicher’s projects. For the visual appearance of Munich Airport, Aicher and the architect and designer Eberhard Stauss, together with whom he had already worked during the 1972 Olympic Games, created a colour concept centred on the colour “airport blue light". As with the 1972 Olympic Games, which were conceived as the Games in the Green (i.e. in nature), Munich Airport was designed as an airport “in the green”. Aicher and Stauss once again derived the colours from the specific light and colour schemes of the Alpine foothills, with the radiant blue being characteristic of the “foehn-blown sky of Upper Bavaria”. This meant that the view from Munich was directed towards the south, towards the mountains – in other words, the landscape in which Aicher himself was living and working at the time. This light blue was complemented by a darker blue as well as white and silver. The arguments behind the colour choices were provided in short texts and sketches printed in the 1981 design guidelines for the airport, even before the actual colours were applied. Technology, landscape, culture and winter are named as “parameters” and described almost poetically. Here, the “parameter technology” is described as “Above white clouds, an aluminium-silver aggregate moves in exceedingly bright light”. And the “parameter winter” is presented as a "Silver light, white snow, blue distance already engender an inner liberation as a colour scheme”. How the interplay of colours changes with differing hues and tints, how silver and white increase the “appearance of blue” and “make it shine", is illustrated in the design guidelines through various combinations. The way in which the colours are arranged in individual horizontal bars, one below the other, had already been implemented by Aicher and his team in the print material for the 1972 Olympic Games. It is reminiscent of American colour field painting, for example the unbroken surfaces and flat fields of colour of the artist Mark Rothko. The panels for the exhibition Wilhelm von Ockham, which were created in 1985/86 and thus belong to Aicher’s late work, were also divided into horizontal stripes of differing colours; the pictorial space, as well as figurative and architectural motifs, were composed of colour fields. Aicher’s work was probably never more colourful than this.
Nevertheless, the intensive examination of the theme of colour can already be observed in Aicher’s early works. The posters he designed for the Ulm Volkshochschule in the 1950s and 1960s were characterised by an abundance of shapes and colours. During his time as a lecturer at the Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung, HfG), which he founded together with Inge Aicher-Scholl and the architect, designer and artist Max Bill in 1953, he dealt comprehensively and systematically with colour in individual projects. For BASF, Aicher and, above all, Hans ‘Nick’ Roericht created a collection of colour samples comprising several thousand colour combinations. In addition, in the early 1960s, Development Group 5 (E 5), led by Aicher and based at the HfG Ulm, undertook the celebrated re-design of the corporate identity of the airline Lufthansa. In the written documentation, it was suggested that the colour yellow be given more weight than the colour blue because – according to the assessment – “values such as speed, safety, freshness, vitality, activity, technology and flying are associated more with yellow than with blue”. Irrespective of this, the two “corporate colours" are the “most important element for the recognisability and identifiability of any company”, since they are “perceived most quickly and clearly”.
“Aicher’s work was probably never more colourful than this.”Christopher and Hannes
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HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm, © Florian Aicher
Aicher’s understanding of colour – despite the fact that he did not comment on this himself – was presumably influenced by his early years at the HfG. At Ulm, he came into contact on a theoretical and personal level with former members of the Bauhaus such as Josef Albers, Max Bill, Johannes Itten, Walter Peterhans and Helene Nonné-Schmidt. Albers in particular, whose name is inextricably linked with the phenomenon of colour, presumably had a great influence on him. Albers had led the preliminary course at the Bauhaus, emigrated to the United States in 1933 and returned to Germany twice to teach the foundation course at the HfG Ulm: from late 1953 to early 1954 and from June to August 1955. Although Aicher was already teaching at the HfG, he took part in the first foundation course under Albers together with the students. The course focused on visual and hands-on exercises devoted to drawing, design and colour. Amongst other things, the students were to develop a feeling for colour shades and tones, as well as for combinations of different colour – an aspect that runs through Aicher’s designs as a principal thread. Albers’s fascination with colour, its effects and interrelationships, finds expression in his well-known series Homage to the Square and culminated in the 1963 publication Interaction of Color. The text, excerpts of which were printed in the HfG journal ulm, provided a summary of the exercises he had developed over 40 years of teaching and contained a text section, chapters with didactic exercises on colour vision and numerous illustrations. Albers and Aicher were united not only by this fascination for colour but also by a special interest in the colour grey: Albers believed that he could set any shade of grey in motion, and Aicher, in his ongoing search for the ideal grey spectrum, amassed a comprehensive collection of the most diverse shades of grey. In addition to the connection to Albers, one can also draw a line, albeit more peripheral, from Aicher to Le Corbusier. Both were united by their belief in the associative power of colour. For example, the architect and artist Le Corbusier developed so-called colour keyboards for a wallpaper manufacturer, which allowed customers always to find suitable combinations of three to five colours with different hues and tones. The individual colour keyboards were each linked to keywords for the desired atmosphere of the respective space such as sky, sand, velvet, wall or landscape. For both Aicher and Le Corbusier, colour was an indispensable mediator between man and object or man and space. They both stand in a tradition of architects, designers and artists who, inspired by Goethe’s Theory of Colours published in 1810, dealt with colour classification systems and the emotions and moods that a colour or a tone can evoke. Goethe’s remarks on the “the sensual-moral effect of colour” in particular became the focus of attention in the early 20th Century. For example, he attributed to the colour yellow a “serene, gay, softly exciting character” and linked colours to nature when he explained that “the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue”.
Throughout his life, Aicher was preoccupied with colour, its functions and its different qualities. His method for dealing with the phenomenon of colour was complex, made up of many individual steps and characterised by an associative approach, which at the same time provided him with the central rationale for choosing particular colours. His impressive colour schemes had their starting point in the respective contexts of each project, but not in a theoretical, scientific analysis of colour. Thus, regarding the work on the BASF Colorthek, the magazine ulm states, “Knowledge of colours can be extended, sensibility to colours can be intensified, but it is hardly possible to draw up definite guides, that is scientifically founded guides”. The line drawings and accompanying texts that Aicher and his design office produced for the visual appearance of Munich Airport, for example, did not yet contain any concrete colour information but they did explain the colour decisions taken and strove to make their origins and associations clear – not least of all for the client. In this way, the initially subjective selection with its origins in Aicher’s imagination is legitimised and the colours themselves become the argument. When translating them into concrete designs, Aicher then poured the colours into a fixed system, assigned them tasks and specified these tasks in design guidelines. The tension between ‘heart’/’intuition’ and ‘brain’/’intellect’, which Hannes Meyer had already described at the Bauhaus, gives colour a special significance in Aicher’s work and, at the same time, allows a new view of Otl Aicher, who is often perceived as an overly severe and cool rationalist.
HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm, © Florian Aicher