The City in Black and White

Isny im Allgäu owes Otl Aicher a corporate design that is concise, bold and singular

© Stadt Isny / Isny Marketing GmbH

Black and white and almost square, modern and angular: Otl Aicher designed a corporate identity – the brand design for the town – for the health resort of Isny in the Württemberg Allgäu region. Yet, in contrast to the typical tourism advertising of German towns, he used striking symbols. The design was preceded by a long process: in the 1970s, with no fixed brief, the town and the designer Otl Aicher embarked on a project that was characterised by searching and exploring, but also by clear goals. In 2009, the design historian Dagmar Rinker curated an exhibition at the Ulm Museum on the occasion of the Heimattage Baden-Württemberg, which showed Aicher’s work for Isny. We document her texts, which at the time could be read on plaques designed by Aicher’s collaborator Monika Schnell.

“The self-portrayal of cities today” was the topic of a conference of the cultural committee of the Deutscher Städtetag (German Association of Cities) in 1966. Otl Aicher’s lecture “die stadt in schwarz und weiß” (the city in black and white) refers to Ulm. The concrete occasion for Aicher’s reflections was the then current discussion about the colours in which public transport should be painted. To explain the text, Aicher drew up the first sketches for an image of the city of Ulm, which, however, were not realised.

The coat of arms of the city of Ulm, a shield in black and white bisected in equal parts horizontally, has been documented on a city seal since 1381. Aicher sees this reduction to the two achromatic colours as offering a multitude of design possibilities, because “intelligence, imagination and play show themselves precisely when you limit yourself in the elements. there is no point in adding a colour to the chessboard, there are plenty of possibilities to play.” The current appearance of the city of Ulm is based on the contrast between black and white. Hermann Ay, who designed it with his office in 1987, studied at the Visual Communication Department at the HfG Ulm. Throughout his life, the closeness to his friend and former lecturer, Otl Aicher, shaped his design work.

© Stadt Isny / Isny Marketing GmbH

Photographs and structures

In the summer of 1959, the Ulm Museum showed an exhibition of posters and photographs by Otl Aicher, which was transferred to the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro two months later. What is unmistakable about the black-and-white photographs is the graphic artist’s gaze: Aicher photographs situations from a great distance, showing a variation that goes from random and free to rhythmic and strictly ordered. What is relevant here is not the reproduction of reality, but the graphic interpretation of the visual impression fixed by the photograph. He primarily records landscape formations, rows in the forest and symmetrical reflections in the city. The structures recognisable in these images are the main motifs of the pictures. Aicher valued these photographs highly; they hung in his residence on the campus of the Hochschule für Gestaltung; he also published them in the 1960s in the monthly programmes of the Ulm Volkshochschule. In 1976, he returned to the theme of structures, this time applied graphically. For the corporate image of the town of Isny, Aicher designed pictorial symbols consisting of line, dot and form. These basic elements are condensed into parallel arrangements or a grid; he creates spatiality by staggering or by changing size and position.


Pictograms are simplified graphic representations of objects in the visible world. Their quality results from a reduction to the essential information. Otl Aicher first developed pictograms for Frankfurt Airport in 1967. He expanded them many times over for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and formulated a pictogram system that is now used worldwide. For the image of the town of Isny, Aicher adopted components of pictogram design: the abstracted black and white drawing as well as figures reduced to head, torso and limbs. If we look at the pictograms for Isny from the perspective of the strict definition of a pictogram, they lack the criterion of clear recognisability. Aicher intended this apparent lack. Although he also chooses simplified graphic representations, in the case of Isny, he does so with the intention that the meaning cannot usually be taken directly from the picture, but must be developed associatively. With this type of illustration, landscapes and animals can symbolically represent even concepts that cannot be depicted, such as “home”.

Addendum in the light of current events

There was a special connection between Otl Aicher and Isny, which deepened after his move to the hamlet of Rotis. Between 1977 and 1985, he successively created pictorial signs – always related to specific occasions – which were primarily intended to convey the complexity of the town and the region. What they all have in common is that their motifs are laid out with black lines on a white background in an almost square frame. Altogether, 136 motifs were created. With the image for Isny, Aicher set an example of modern city advertising.

“What Aicher created for Isny is of inestimable value,” emphasises Rainer Magenreuter, mayor of the small town in the Allgäu. For Aicher’s 100th birthday, Isny therefore presents itself in the light of the image he created. At the same time, the idea of bringing the pictorial symbols to life in the anniversary year has resulted in a packed programme of events. It accompanies an exhibition in the “Aichermagazin”, a pavilion created especially for the festivities. The Aicher anniversary year starts in Isny on 21st May.

The individual events are based on the motifs of the pictorial signs. Until October, everyone is invited to get to know the designer who was so important for the town. “All the activities also invite you to get active yourself,” says Karin Konrad from the project team of the Isny Marketing Gesellschaft, which is managing the anniversary activities. The excursions in the series “Firs, Hay & Apple Tree”, for example, take you out into nature: to the forests and meadows that Aicher captured in many a pictorial sign. Herbalists, Allgäu rangers and arborists provide insights into the world of the Adelegg, herbs and woody plants.

Aicher’s centenary: Isny joins the ranks of the celebrants with its extensive anniversary programme. As a prelude to the isnyaicher22 anniversary, a number of pictorial signs were gradually installed in the urban space as early as March; in large format on the town wall, on posters at the Kurhaus, or on banners at the entrances to the town. Intentionally, no further information is given about the motifs. This is a continuation of Aicher’s idea: The pictorial signs do not stand as pure illustrations, but should, in their radical reduction, leave room for imagination and one’s own associations. The cat, for example, or the duck in the reeds and the stylised monument called Espantor invite everyone to create their own stories and impressions during a walk through the city. The original pictorial signs from the hand of Otl Aicher lead around buildings and into the city and region in their black and white garb. Local people and experts tell audible stories, accessible via QR code, about their Isny – about tradition and crafts, about landscape and nature, and about the people who live and work here.

From 21st May, the centrepiece of the anniversary will open: the temporary exhibition building – the aichermagazin. In the middle of Isny’s Kurpark, curators Monika Schnell and Renate Breuß will use words, sound and images to provide insight into the connection between the city and the designer. Inside, visitors to the exhibition will meet Aicher himself: The man and the designer and the place Rotis, where he worked and lived. Texts, anecdotes and photos provide insights into Aicher’s field-researching approach, into his thinking and his making, which becomes vivid in his work for Isny.
The aichermagazin is accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and is free of charge. The initiators plan to create a place for contemplation, a space for action and a starting point for rediscovering the town of Isny.

Further information: www.isny.de/otlaicher/