Realignment of Signs

Pictograms by Otl Aicher for the Olympic Games in Munich, 1972

Olympics of Signs: From the Stadium into Urban Space

Forty years on from the first modern Vienna pictograms, Otl Aicher (1922–1991) developed the signage system for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. With their reduced formal language, the pictograms are clear, recognisable and functional, devoid of any frills. A grid defines the exact dimensions for the proportions and angles of the signs. They depict the various sporting disciplines and were part of the signage system for this major international event.

For the development of his sign system, Aicher drew on the legacy of Vienna Pictorial Statistics. The sports pictograms of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics also influenced his designs. What is new about Aicher’s design is that the feature of orientation in public space and the overall look – from the architecture to signposts to admission tickets – are intertwined. He is thus considered a pioneer of “corporate design”. But his information systems also stand for an ideal of social organisation. To this day, the pictograms from Otl Aicher’s practice have left their mark on public spaces with over 700 motifs.

Aicher’s design embodies the social change that Germany underwent during the 1960s and 1970s. Society at the time, which was based on discipline and authority, opened up to new democratic currents. With his functional pictograms, Aicher deliberately set himself apart from the emotionally charged visual language of National Socialist propaganda and pursued the idea of a cosmopolitan, universal intelligibility.

Photograph by Karsten de Riese from the Olympic Games, 1972 in Muich. Weightlifting

The photographer Karsten de Riese documented the work of Otl Aicher’s design team for the 1972 Summer Olympics from 1969–1972. Photographs showing the design office as a place of development and the urban space and Olympic Park in Munich as places where the pictograms were used.

Are Statistics Neutral?

“In-Formation” [EN] / “Aufstellung” [DE] by Harun Farocki & Antje Ehmann, 2005
In 2005, the filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944–2014) made the video In-Formation together with Antje Ehmann (b. 1968). The work examines the representation of marginalised population groups in a series of infographics and pictograms.
How are guest workers, immigrants or refugees represented on maps or in economic statistics?
The material for this study comes from the kind of infographics in textbooks and newspapers from the German post-war period. The film focuses upon details and highlights the recurring characteristics of the depicted groups. However, these “typical” characteristics are attributed to these individuals by others: the groups do not speak about themselves. They are stylised, i.e. simplified, by the diagrams. In the sequence of images, these characteristics are exposed as discriminatory clichés and stereotypes.

Online screening of “In-Formation” in occasion of the International Day Against Racial Discrimination from 19.03.2021, 23:00 pm - 21.03.2021, 23:00 pm

Filmstills from Aufstellung, In-Formantion. Art film by Harun Farocki and Antje Ehmann
Posterartwork by the artist and graphic-designer Wolfgang Schmidt

all the things you are. Wolfgang Schmidt’s Signs of Life, 1972

In the early 1970s, the artist Wolfgang Schmidt (1929–1995) began to design his very own pictorial sign system: the Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life). As a systematic designer and visual poet of his time, he elaborated his signs of life in a completely analogue way, i.e. without the aid of a computer. Almost unimaginable today: PCs or Macs were not even widespread tools for graphic designers at the time. Schmidt kept the sketches and concepts for his signs in a huge box of notes and repeatedly drew upon this material.

Among his Signs of Life are parts of the body, such as eyes, noses, feet or mouths: sensory organs for perceiving the world. But bombs, chest hair or aeroplanes also form part of Schmidt’s catalogue. It is a very personal compilation: things that seem important to him, thoughts, his own life story and his view of the world are reflected in his Signs of Life collection. Schmidt used the signs for his own artistic work as well as for commissions as a designer. He deployed them in very different formats and media: sculptures, projections, posters, books and prints; or for the graphic embodiment of a citizens’ initiative to save the old town of the village of Dreieichenhain, his adopted home. No area of life remains untouched by his Signs of Life. They represent a personal vocabulary of signs with which he communicated to the world in his own way.

Installation views focusing on Wolfgang Schmidt. The center shows a figure mounted to the wall, peced together out of Schmidt’s Signs of Life.

Pati Hill’s Proposal for a Universal Language of Symbols, 1977/78

The sign language of the US artist and author, Pati Hill (1921–2014) comprises around two hundred hand-drawn symbols. They include signs for things and people, such as everyday objects, vehicles, pronouns (I, you, he, she, it …), but also actions, emotional states or sensory perceptions. Hill arranges the signs thematically on almost forty sheets and supplies appropriate interpretations. In addition, examples illustrate the structure of her language: by combining several symbols, relationships between people and objects or events in time and space can be depicted visually. When Hill transfers phenomena into her personal collection of symbols, they lose their ordinariness.
How universally valid, can one’s own signs be?
In this regard, she notes that an international sign language must always continue to grow. Her Proposal is not about finding a solution but about an artistic investigation and an “activation” of signs. It is also about reflecting upon the relationships between everyday things that can be mentally reconfigured via her sign language.

  • Universal Language of Symbols by Pati Hill. Copyed on jellow A4 paper, showing symbols for Birth and Birthday.
  • Pati Hill’s Proposal for pronouns in her Universal Language of Symbols.
  • Universal Language of Symbols by Pati Hill. Symbols showing Life and Death.

Japan 1964: Yukio Ōta invents LoCoS

“By 2065, we will all be speaking LoCoS” [Yukio Ōta]

The graphic artist and pictogram designer Yukio Ōta (b. 1939, lives in Tokyo) is the inventor of the pictogram system LoCoS, the abbreviation for “Lovers Communication System”. His system is intended to be easy to learn across national borders and language barriers. People who do not speak the same language but know LoCoS can exchange messages with one another.

For Yukio Ōta, the ability to understand one another is the basic prerequisite for a loving interaction between people.

In his work as a designer, Yukio Ōta deals with the question of how we read and understand pictograms. Pictograms are supposed to convey information as precisely as possible – via symbols – that would otherwise have to be conveyed in the words of different languages. Ōta is therefore concerned with making the pictograms as “universally” comprehensible as they can be: everyone, no matter what language they speak and how educated they are, should be able to understand the pictograms as quickly as possible without any explanation.

By the way, Yukio Ōta created a pictogram that everyone knows: he designed the green and white international “Emergency Exit” symbol with a running figure, directional arrow and an open door. In this museum, too, these signs mark the most direct way to the nearest emergency exit.

Leporello von Warja Lavater, the visual representation of the fairy tale »AliBoBo and the wolf«

Warja Lavater’s Fantastic Signs

Warja Lavater (1913–2007) was a fabulist. However, the Swiss painter, illustrator and graphic artist used few words in her stories and let her pictograms do the talking instead. In her New York period from the end of the 1950s, she was particularly interested in the open use of pictograms in artists’ books, for example in leporello-fold style.

How can a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm be told through the spatial arrangement of pictograms, shapes and colours on paper?

Warja Lavater’s graphic universe of signs requires the viewer to look closely and follow her way of thinking. The pictograms can be decoded. Not unlike visual explanations on a map, Lavater included a legend listing the meanings of the various symbols.