From Whence the Ped? The Iconography of Otl Aicher

PED XING (USA)There are some examples of graphic design so universal that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever had to invent them. Who designed the first checkmark indicating approval? Lost to history. Who designed the red circle with a red line through it indicating prohibition? Nobody knows. Who designed the generic human form of a simplified silhouette and a floating head, immortalized worldwide on a million crosswalk signs? Well that, we do know, or at least we can figure out who the originator of this design convention was.

PED XING is a common variant throughout the United States. The familiar floating, perfectly round head surmounts a squared-off, simplified body. There is a succinctness and graphic immediacy that makes this sign easy to read for a driver and immediately recognizable from a great distance.

As the wikipedia entry on Traffiic sign design notes, “Warning signs give a warning of that there are dangerous or unusual conditions ahead. Often these signs have a greater more conspicuous presence than a regulatory sign. These signs often do not have much text on them, as they should be internationally understood due to the nature of the message that they are conveying.” That this style of depicting a pedestrian is seen all over the world speaks to how effective a design it is.

pedestrian icons (Canada)A similar design is used in Canada, with both the squared off body and also a more rounded, graphically elegant version that looks suspiciously familiar to students of graphic design. The rounded “hands”, the strong repetition of 90 and 45 degree angles, reminiscent of another international symbol …

Oh that’s right, it looks like the signs used to indicate bathrooms, so ubiquitous that you can buy generic ones at  hardware stores.

Otl Aicher - 1972 Munich Olympics bathroom icons

Otl Aicher grid systemThis is where the real detective work comes into play – where did that bathroom sign come from? This one we definitively know the answer to: it was designed as part of the incredibly detailed graphic system developed for the 1972 Munich Olympics by Otl Aicher, one of Germany’s most respected graphic designers. Not only did Aicher design a series of pictograms for each sporting event based on the 1964 Tokyo game designs according to a very specific grid system, he designed (among pretty much everything else) posters, programmes, uniforms, the München 1972 logo and the first Olympic mascot, a rainbow-striped dachsund named Waldi. And, of course, signage.

Otl Aicher - 1972 Munich Olympics event schedules

The pictograms for the sporting events proved so popular that they were adopted by the 1976 Montreal Olympics and continue to be used to varying extents by the Olympics. Most pertinent to this discussion, however; we know for sure that Aicher invented the floating head that inspired the PED. Next time you see a pedestrian crossing or a bathroom sign, remember Otl Aicher, one of the 20th century’s greatest graphic designers.

Otl Aicher - 1972 Munich Olympics event icons

Otl Aicher – 1972 Munich Olympics event icons – click for larger

Should you be inclined to learn more about Otl Aicher and his work, there is an excellent and in-depth article that talks about Aicher’s life and work on the cycling blog Cycling Inquisition, along with many excellent images – a couple of which I used in this blog post.

//edit I see the blogger behind  Cycling Inquisition decided to talk about the bathroom sign in his post now, I call it blogosphere cross-pollination! He makes a very insightful comment –

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.

Strangely there aren’t many books specifically about Otl Aicher’s design work for the 1972 Olympics but there is a fascinating book by David Gibson on this type of design titled The Wayfinding Handbook: Information Design for Public Places. If you really must have a book on Aicher’s work and have deep pockets, Markus Rathgreb has a compendium simply titled Otl Aicher that is both thorough and exceptionally informative. Then again, if you just want to see some visual examples of Aicher’s work for the Munich Olympics in print, there’s always Sports Illustrated Magazine August 28, 1972 (Olympics Issue).