It’s possible that the name of the German designer Otl Aicher may be familiar to some elderly designers, but it is equally possible that it is not familiar and is not meaningful to younger generations of designers. Even those who can locate his name in the “who is who” in the European design panorama, don’t know more than what is known by the general public, that is, that he was one of the important personalities, together with Max Bill, Tomás Maldonado and others, who founded the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (1953-1968); others may recall him as the designer of the corporate image for the Olympic Games of Munich (1972) for which he also designed the famous pictogram system.
The scarce knowledge in our latitudes of this eminent design master is due to various reasons. On the one hand, “italianess” and “englishness” always seemed to be more kindred or “in tune” to Spanish sensiblity than “germaness”. (This may be the reason why the teachings of the Ulm school has had practically no echo at all in Spain.) On the other hand, he is barely known as an author either, even though he has published several books in German and English; a few of which have been published in Spanish. But the basic reason for the scarce knowledge of this personality is due to the man himself. He shuns any kind of spot light and refuses to appear in the mass-media. He doesn’t give any interviews and one can count on one hand the times he has been present at congresses or big meetings. Recently he even refused the highest award with which the German government honours outstanding citizens.
This attitude-rectitude is in stark contrast with the common tendency of our epoch to arduously seek personal recognition, to find a nest for the particular “I”, the ego, in Universal History, a nest for posterity. The designers and architects of our latitudes are no exceptions in this sense: the yearning for the “I” and contempt for the “We”; the promotion of the Individual and disdain for the Cause. Though little known in professional circles, Otl Aicher is one of the great personalities of European design and one who has most contributed to its theoretical and pedagogical expression. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that his fame is inversely proportional to his importance in the history of design of the twentieth century.
Otl Aicher is now 69 years old and works and lives with his wife, Inge Scholl, in Rotis (Germany). In a private publication, he described Rotis as a place “with an extension of 4 hectares, one of which is a forest, one with houses and two hectares are grassland and is 625-655 meters above sea level.” It has three inhabitants: himself, his wife and a daughter.
Own water, energy and orchards guarantee them independence, an outstanding feature in the life and work of this man who claims to be a Celt. These tree dwellers understand their territory to be an autonomous republic, located between two Länder in the south of Germany. As in the case of other countries, this republic has its own political program:
· Promotion of liberty of speech, thinking and meeting
· Elimination of noise produced by aircraft
· Development of counter-models with respect to actual politics and centralized economy.
Apart from political goals, the cultural ones are no less clear and forceful:
· Elimination of the difference between culture and civilization
· Rehabilitation of concreteness. Its value resides in its use and not in some superior concept or ideal.
Otl Aicher embodies a way of thinking which is permanently in motion, which is not established, that is to say, not connected with the ordinary run-of-the-mill, and this may well be the reason why one will hardly find his name in the official establishment of his country. Aicher’s thinking doesn’t nurture itself so much with theory – in this sense he is not an “intellectual” – than from the daily relationship he establishes with that which is concrete and real. And what could be more real and concrete than the things which surround us in day to day life: objects of all kinds or the paraphernalia of signs which litter the horizon of the urban animal? That which is concrete and real, that which has this aspect and which is useful in this or that circumstance, all this which in itself comes to interpellate him, is what incites Aicher to think, or rather, orders him to think. In the relationship between man and that which is real and concrete, between subject and object, vision is, of all the human senses, that which most competently accounts for concreteness and reality. In contrast to the Cartesian affirmation which refutes sensitive evidence (“appearances deceive”) and which proclaims that only in pure thinking resides reality, Aicher affirms: to see is to think and to think is to see.
With this “simple” and forceful affirmation Aicher abruptly catapults us from our daily opinions about this and that, to a place of origin which is always prior to any discourse: to see is a priori; culture is a product of the fact that human beings see.
Some of the basic notions from the ancient Greeks, such as theous, God, théatro, theater, the place where the god made his apparition; theoretikós, the one who knows how to see with intelligence, etc., share the same verbal root: theo/thea: to see, the view. This indicates that vision was to them a fundamental concept in any kind of relationship between man and the world, and inasmuch as that which has been thought, imagined, built by them, constitutes the basis of European culture, vision, to see, continues to be basic and makes possible this relationship. Aicher’s affirmation, that to see is to think and to think is to see, is even more significant if we take into account that for these same Greeks the alyhteia, the truth, is that which reveals itself and becomes presence, and since any presence has an appearance, it offers itself to vision, to be seen. Vision recognises truth. In Aicher’s language, German, to see is called sehen, but also wahrnehmen, wahr=true, nehmen=to take, literally to take-truth-in-seeing. And truth, in this same language, is called Wahrheit. As a designer who thinks, Aicher feels interpellated precisely by this fact, that to see, is to see truth. As a consequence we could say that the designer, when he designs one or other entity, he endows it with an appearance (to see) and inasmuch as it is a being-at-hand (object) or a being-at-view (sign), this entity carries its truth to the encounter with its user or spectator. To design would therefore be to confer shape to the truth of an object or sign.
When Aicher affirms that to see is to think, he obviously doesn’t refer to our daily and accustomed seeing, which does not know how to reflect on things and to see them in their being-so. He refers rather to a reposed looking and seeing, a meditative seeing which leads one to think, that is, to ask: what is, in its fundament, that which reveals itself to vision? What is that the seen entity reveals with regards to its being-so? This question leads Aicher to think further: once understood the raison d’être of an object, its “function”, he asks: how can we make it more efficient? These considerations lead him to a kind of “essentialist” way of thinking about the design of objects, to the concept of a formal despoilment which favours the coming to presence (appearance) of the proper nature of the object. The signs and objects designed by Aicher are characterised by this common feature and have, in this sense, a kinship with the traditional Japanese objects: formal purification, matter converted to service.
Otl Aicher is author of several books on a wide range of subjects. Some of them are professional books, such as the already mentioned Sign systems in visual communication, The world as a project, The kitchen for cooking, (all of them published by Gustavo Gili Publisher, Barcelona). A recent book of his is about the alphabetic type face system called Rotis. This alphabet, designed by him, is something of a novelty in the field of typography, similar to that which in its day was Frutiger’s Univers program. Up to now the different kinds of typefaces were clearly delimited: the family of sans-serif types (Futura, Helvetica, Univers, etc.) the family of roman type faces: (Times, Garamond, Bodoni, etc.), the family of gothic type faces, etc. However, the Rotis system encompasses two different typographic families, a sans-serif and a roman one, with two intermediary types, a kind of “romanised” sans-serif, and a “sans-serifised” roman.
Another aspect of Aicher’s ideology is his use of the German language in his writings. As one may be aware, the substantive words in this language all begin with a capital letter; for example: the Man, the House, the Car, the Sun, the Book, etc. But since Aicher’s ideology does not accept the notion of authority in any aspect, he has abolished the capital letters in his writings since this, to him, is precisely a symbol of authority, so he writes everything in lower case, and he does it even after the dot of the last word of a sentence, and the following word of a new sentence also starts with a letter in lower case. All of this, and said with due respect, does not exactly allow for a fluid reading. In the translation into Spanish of his book the world as a project, this unusual way of writing German has confused three translators claiming to speak perfect German… So much for the Italian proverb: traduttore = tradittore (translator = traitor)
Other literary works are of a more personal character, such as innenseiten des krieges, (interiorities of the war, S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1985,) in which he talks about his life under Hitler’s Nazi regime and his experiences during the Second World War. In another book, gehen in der wüste, (walking in the desert, ex-libris publisher, Zürich 1982) he relates his walking-trips in the desert of North Africa. The photographs which accompany his text reveal landscapes of such utter beauty that one understands that they must have constituted a kind of “absolute” experience for him. Along the innumerable steps walked for days and nights in these deserted landscapes, devoid of the habitual visual references, in these extreme conditions of the surroundings, Aicher must have experienced the concrete and real in a compelling way. There his thinking is directed to the most immediate reality: the shoes, the clothes, the materials, protection, eating, drinking: he submits to rigorous examination everything he wears, what he has in his backpack, because his life could depend on the efficiency of each object whether utensil or clothes. In his design work, Aicher proceeds with the same characteristic rigour and independence. Not all entrepreneurs could aspire to become his clients. His refusal to work for one or other of them may often have been motivated by the fact that he considered the client’s product unacceptable or contrary to public interest. To more than one of these with whom he refused to work, this attitude impressed them to the point that they returned to Aicher, asking him to resolve precisely that which had motivated his refusal to collaborate with them. Aicher not only designed objects and signs, but also the philosophy and the public attitudes of the companies he worked for, endowing them with a new way of being in the world.
His critical and independent thinking corresponds with another of his characteristic traits: integrity. Though this may suggest some moralistic connotation it must be understood in its original sense: the state of being whole, entire; that which restores something to its integrity, to its wholeness. In his article The eye: medicine and communication, (ON magazine no. 121), Aicher concludes his reflection saying: “…we have to expand the culture of calculation with the culture of vision.” With these words he points to the disequilibrium existing between two worlds of understanding what is real and concrete and to the necessity to make whole again that which is separate; to restore integrity to the relationship of man with the world, with things and with other human beings.
Published in ON magazine (1991)