Designing the 1972 Munich Olympics

British designer Ian McLaren gained a unique insight into working with Otl Aicher as a member of his 1972 Munich Olympics design studio

As one of the joint deputy art directors of Otl Aicher’s design team at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Ian McLaren was one of three team leaders in a group of 30-plus designers and, along with Michael Burke, one of only five British designers who worked on the project.

McLaren, then 31, worked mainly on the cultural publicity produced for Munich 72 (which included around 25 posters for the various arts events and festivals staged during the Olympics), the official guidebook, various technical documents, and the daily programmes which appeared on each of the 14 days of the Games for each of the 21 sports.

The first poster designed for the Munich Games featured the new emblem and set the tone for the sports posters – The Olympiastadion had yet to be built (the tower was built in 1968), so the architectural model was photographed instead, the stadium’s roof conveyed using a pair of stockings.
The first poster designed for the Munich Games featured the new emblem and set the tone for the sports posters – The Olympiastadion had yet to be built (the tower was built in 1968), so the architectural model was photographed instead, the stadium’s roof conveyed using a pair of stockings.

While the sports posters and pictograms created for the 72 Games have perhaps become its most famous elements, the Munich team also extensively licensed the use of its emblem – the Strahlenkranz, or ‘wreath of rays’ – to create a vast range of associated products and souvenirs. While these objects were designed by the Olympic Souvenir department of Hamburg firm FahnenFleck, each product featured the striking identity in accordance with the rules laid down by Aicher’s guidelines.

Forty years on from the culmination of the project, McLaren has helped to put together an exhibition of Munich 72 design work organised by Kerstin Mey at UCA Canterbury, and was also part of an accompanying symposium that examined the legacy of the work and its influence on contemporary studios such as Spin and Bibliothèque. CR met McLaren at the exhibition to talk about what it was like to work for Aicher over a particularly busy 22 months in Munich.

Ian McLaren 1972
Ian McLaren 1972

By the early 1970s you were a tutor at Ravensbourne College of Art and had worked with Ken Briggs in London. How did you come to work in Munich Olympics design project?
The old school tie, basically. I’d been a student in Germany at the Hochshule für Gestaltung in Ulm, on the foundation year, which was a wonderful experience. I ended up in practice in London with Ken and we did quite a lot of cultural publicity and technical documentation for the construction industry, which was very valuable when it came to one particularly knotty problem at Munich. But I think I owe [the designer] Michael Burke the introduction. He found himself on the Munich team [Burke had applied via an advert in Form magazine, and had been taught by McLaren at Ravensbourne]. I suspect … he mentioned my name to Rolf Müller, who I’d been a student with and who was Aicher’s right-hand man. So I got a telephone call when I was teaching – would I be interested? I was invited down for an interview. I suspect what impressed Aicher was a series of Penguin covers, for Pelican titles, and technical documentation for the building industry which systematised things: information design before it was called information design. It was clear there and then; would I like to sign here? It was all very gratifying.

What was Aicher’s Munich studio like?
It was the Ulm model converted from education to practice. Open plan, multidisciplinary – to a lesser extent than the school. I recognised colleagues on the three-dimensional team, like Nick Roericht. We were really pleased to be doing it, it was a wonderful project. The tables, and I believe storage system, were Aicher’s design. We hung various items of drawing equipment on the shelving, T-squares, set squares etc, using meat hooks. I nearly lost my left ear on one!

Hockey ID badges
Hockey ID badges

What were you asked to work on when you arrived? What was already in place?
I was told that I was doing the cultural publicity and later the guidebook. There was already a lot of material like the Bulletin magazines – official reports on the progress to Olympic committees – little brochures, lots of cartography, all of the tourist information was there. Michael was starting work on a library of the technical documentation for each sport. When the first poster was made nothing was built, it would have been three or four years previously. The only ‘structure’ that was available was the model of the stadium, and the roof of the model was created from a nylon stocking. It was converted to the right colours, into what we would now call a ‘posterisation’ effect, and set the tone for the sports posters. My brief was that the cultural publicity should be differentiated from the sports posters – by using horizontal stripes. The guidebook was produced in German, English and French. Aicher only intervened on the cover and the proofs for the cartography, which came in and were a bit dark, to which he said, “das ist donnerwetter” meaning ‘thundery’, so I lightened it up a bit.

Ashtrays created for the Olympics
Ashtrays created for the Olympics

The emblem for the Games must have been in place already?
The original idea was a simple ‘sunburst’, like spokes from a wheel. But the legal department said that’s not protectable – for licensing purposes we need something less easy to forge. So they held a national competition and Coordt von Mannstein at Graphicteam Köln came up with a variation of what Aicher’s concept had been. And boy did they use it. You could tell early on that they were thinking in terms of its use on products, and you could have filled a room with them; from umbrellas to aprons.


How was the studio structured? Did different teams work on different parts of the project?
Aicher had several assistants responsible for individual projects. One person worked just on the cartography and aerial views of buildings, so that everything was consistent, whether it was in southern Germany or Kiel [where the sailing events took place]. Eberhard Stauss was responsible for what they called the ‘urban decoration’, which meant a combination of flags and the ‘poster walls’ at the Olympic venues. They were really beautifully conceived and implemented: the flags were arranged in triangular ground plans, combinations of three, six, nine, twelve. Elena Winschermann was responsible for [the dachshund mascot] Waldi, which was produced in a prodigious number of variants. And Nick Roericht’s team worked on various three-dimensional requirements, most notably the seating. Looking back at the vast diversity of work produced, all of it is so consistent. There was another woman who looked after all of the uniforms, who had worked with André Courrèges in Paris. Courrèges was responsible for the utilitarian uniforms for the technical staff, but a local designer made the uniforms for office staff, which sadly we were kitted out in. We would have preferred a Courrèges boiler suit in silver!

Regulation booklets
Regulation booklets

As a Munich Olympics designer you had to wear a uniform?
Only during the Olympics. Just the 14 days.

How was your own team constructed?
I had a team of three and one part-time member of staff, all Brits coincidentally – Michael being one of them with two very good assistants, Jenny Cecil and Barbara Heimerl. Then Gerhard Joksch had a team of four and one part-time, working primarily on the sports posters. Aicher had another right-hand man, Fred Kern, who went back to work with him in Rotis after the Games; and Rolf Müller had a team of one or two. There was also an in-house photographer, Gaby Pee, and a darkroom assistant.

Was there room for much collaboration?
It was an open plan office so everyone saw what was going on and would give an opinion, or not. There’s a good story about the Folklore poster. You must realise that all of the posters were produced and designed on black and white photographic film, actual size as colour separations. Bits were turned around, removed and added, [effects] would be hand-drawn and added with a brush – there’d be a separate film for everything except the white. The trick was to guess how it was going to work; you were drawing in black and, until the proofs came back in, you couldn’t tell. So when [the Folklore] one came in it was a bit flat; yellow and silver weren’t very sparkling. So I just blithely got a bit of black paper and snipped a couple of circles, got some white paper and made some white squares, for eyes. But it created a furore because black was not an official colour. Finally Aicher came over and intervened. He just smiled and said “das geht”, “that’s OK”. My relationship with him was very arms length. There were probably only about four occasions when he intervened like that.

The colour palette was integral to the 1972 Munich Olympics design, distancing it from the 1936 Olympics and the colours of the German national flag; red, black and gold. Can you explain how that worked?

Essentially the heraldic colours of Bavaria are light blue and white. There’s a word in German, which doesn’t translate very well, but it really was the watchword – ‘heiter’. I would translate it as ‘light’, ‘open’, or ‘gay’ in the original sense. So ‘heiterespiele’ was the watchword for the light and open Games. Open as ‘international’. There was a very nice marriage, purely serendipitous I think, between the architectural concept – there were no gates apparent to the stadium – and Aicher’s concept for the Games. In addition to the blue, white and a verdant green, Aicher came up with a set which functioned as colour coding: light green for press, silver for protocol, orange for technology etc.

Was the term ‘the Rainbow Games’ ever used officially?
The ‘Regenbogenspiele’ concept was introduced in about the last six to eight weeks. In our weekly meeting, Aicher suddenly announced that the image [of the Games] was a bit tired, it needed a little lifting, so we were going to call it the ‘Rainbow Games’. Car stickers were produced but hadn’t been distributed. So as I’d produced them I volunteered to drive around the equivalent of the M25 visiting garages, to check whether they were giving them away, only to discover on arriving back at the office that the terrorism had happened that night.

Sports Schedule Outer Spread
Sports Schedule Outer Spread

How did the aftermath of the attacks on the Israeli team affect the studio?
There were a lot of black armbands, but the only black that appeared was on the daily programmes where some were over-printed with a different date. It was traumatic. There were several days when we didn’t know what the decision would be – do we continue or not? The fact is they did and things ended on time. Our studio was 100 yards away from where it happened.

Can you talk about your work on the daily programmes?

They appeared in three languages, in three columns, German, English, French. One for every day for each of the 21 sports. The majority were produced overnight, with some events finishing at ten at night and programmes required on seats at nine the next morning. But I wanted to attend the Games! So my principal design consideration was how do we produce something to generate a lot of print, overnight? Happily the journalists received printouts of the results from big line printers in the three languages. So I just took that and organised several groups of soldiers from the signals section of the military who would cut out the results and paste them up. They were terribly proud to be official programme designers! The covers used the pictogram to denote the sport; Aicher wanted to try and express their immediacy, so I used the same typeface as appeared directly from the line printers.

Spread from the souvenir catalogue which showcases the munich Olympics design
Spread from the souvenir catalogue

Univers was used on everything else for Munich 72. Was that a reflection of the ‘lightness’ Aicher tried to achieve?
I think he chose it really because it was a wide set width, ie the letterspacing is wider than Akzidenz Grotesk and Helvetica. And also because it wasn’t German. It was produced by a Parisian type manufacturer, and designed by Adrian Frutiger, who is Swiss-French. When it came out it was a bit of a breath of fresh air because it was systematised – four weights, roman and italic – and Aicher went on to adopt the same convention with Rotis [his typeface designed in 1988]. Most [of the printing] was done in Munich, but the guidebook was typeset in Berlin because, at the time, Univers was not readily available. So I had to fly behind the iron curtain to get the type set.

Compared to more recent Olympics, the presence of sponsorship, or prominent commercialism, doesn’t seem so obvious here. Do you think that’s the case?
It’s there in terms of the licensing, but it’s much more subtle and probably more effective. There was a lot of licensing, also a great deal of pressure from the Bavarian brewing industry because they weren’t allowed on site. No beer on site – in Bavaria! But I think the whole management was much more effective in Munich than has been the case in London. We were not a large team. But I’m pretty sure things happened a lot quicker, and more consistently, and told a more credible story because of it.

Finally, what did you take from your experience in Munich?

I was exhausted. We had to come home. But Aicher wrote me a very sincere reference, which I treasure.

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