The Munich Olympic games in 1972 will always be remembered for the shocking events that took place on September 5th when eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were took hostage by paramilitaries from the Black September terrorist group and later died during an attempted ambush to free them. Events like these are always bound to live long in the memory but another abiding facet of the games is its identity which, along with Bauhaus’ work between the two great wars, was a high watermark of German – and even European – design. The branding each of the Olympic Games is a weighty enough subject in itself and, whilst the World Cup catches the hearts and minds of the world in away that the Olympics doesn’t, the commission for the Olympics is always going to be the pinnacle for any agency lucky enough to win one. The winning agency is not only tasked with delivering a workable logo and visual style for a global sporting event but also representing the personality and aspirations of a nation, and usually its capital, at a specific point in time. Major sporting events like the Olympics and World Cups are often also sold, primarily to the people who pay the taxes that foot the bill for these events, on their regenerative potential but in the case of the Munich Games they were also required to reinforce the image of Germany as a vibrant economic power, and one free of the poisonous ideology which marred their previous games, Berlin 1936.
The choice of lead designer for the Games wasn’t a difficult choice, in Otl Aicher West Germany had one of the most prominent graphic designers of the 20th Century. Aicher was not only a founder of the Ulm School of Design and the designer of the Lufthansa Airlines brand but also the man responsible for advancing the use of ‘Pictograms’ like his famous Male and Female toilet signs and his work designing for Munich Airport, as an added feather in his cap he was also persecuted under the Nazis having been arrested in 1937 for refusing to join the Hitler Youth. With credentials like this it came as absolutely no surprise that Aicher was the man Munich turned to in order to brand the games and he didn’t disappoint in bringing his distinctive style to the games whilst managing to capture the mood of a resurgent post war Germany now happy to lead, impress and embrace the world rather than invade it.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the Munich Olympics is its logo and, when you think about it, that’s exactly how it should be. To call the logo timeless would be an understatement, it not only combines the fractal, trippy psychedelic style prevalent at the time but also calls in heritage from the modernism, futurism and vorticism, not to forget the aforementioned Bauhaus. Whilst it remained very German in character, the logo – taking in these dynamic artistic styles from all around Europe – also had an overtly internationalist feel. Maybe I’m applying a little too much retrospective portent to it here but I’ve also always felt that the logo hinted at the turbulent state of flux that West Germany was in at the time. The Berlin Wall was just under ten years old when the identity was produced and, the hostage crisis aside, there was also the small matters of the countercultural revolution and the Baader Meinhoff Group bearing heavily on the West German psyche.
Given the weight already attached to the games the psychology of the font choice was doubly important. The font chosen for the games was Univers, a neo-grotesque sans-serif typeface closely related to the wildly more popular Helvetica font, created by the Swiss typographer Adrian Frutiger. It was this Swissness that made the choice a significant one, the work from the Swiss design movement that Univers was part of virtually oozes modern optimism and, perhaps most importantly, neutrality. Univers is also incredibly readable and versatile in its application and has seemingly found its home in general usage on mass transit systems, appearing not only on the signage of Paris’ famously stylish Metro but also the Montreal’s Metro and San Francisco’s B.A.R.T. Maybe it’s the old romantic in me liking it as I do but it also appears, in its Bold Condensed incarnation, on the City of Westminster street signage where I spent a very significant part of my life both living and working.
Pictograms & Mascot
Perhaps the most characteristically Aicher thing that Otl Aicher brought to his identity for Munich 1972 were his pictograms. Pictograms were first used in the 1936 Berlin Olympics to help internationalise the experience of attending and simplify signage and they had become standard after the Tokyo 1964 Games, it was therefore of added importance that the 1972 pictograms were especially well designed and they were. But Aicher didn’t stop at perfect pictograms, he also created Waldi who was the first – and many people still think the best – Olympic mascot. Waldi was a simplified version of a long haired Dachshund, a very German breed of dog and one entirely less threatening than the Doberman Pinscher, for instance. Waldi’s colouring was perhaps the only overtly political statement of the whole identity and even this was done in a thoroughly charming way. Waldi was coloured in international blue in head and tale but in the middle he was coloured according to the Olympic flag but with black and red – the colours of the Nazi Party – removed.
Something that wasn’t within Aicher’s control but still played a massive part in the overall visual impact of the games was the Olympistadion which, with its bulging, asymmetrical, organic stained glass latticework and half submerged construction, took the futurism of the Munich Games to spectacular heights. I first encountered the stadium as an impromptu spectator at a Bayern Munich match in the mid-90s and was bowled over with it then. It still looked fresh then, twenty years after construction, and I spent most of the (admittedly dull) match with my neck craned upwards trying to work out what twisted and brilliant mind had originally imagined this, not to mention why this wasn’t adopted as the way forward for other stadia around the world. The Olympiastadion remained in use up until the 2006 World Cup in the now reunified Germany and remains an influential, if not often replicated, design. The new Olympiastadion, now less romantically called the Allianz Arena is probably its closest stylistic descendant.
Probably the best way to sign off from this post is to just leave you with some examples of the identity in application. There are many, many more examples to buy or just browse here but be sure to have a long leisurely click through some of these fantastic pieces which don’t just take in the Games themselves but also the timetables, attendant cultural festivals and some surprisingly un-kitsch merchandise.
Images courtesy of, and with thanks to, www.1972municholympics.co.uk where you can buy some of this lovely stuff