An ampelmannchen in Berlin

12 Nov 2010|Lee Shupp

I spent a week in Berlin recently, attending a conference of semioticians and trendspotters from Added Value offices the world over. I was there as our resident North American futurist. It was an exciting week. We were there just after the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of German reunification, and no city symbolizes reunification more than Berlin. Berlin is a revitalized city with lots of new energy, and a wonderful place to explore. But the most interesting part was spending time with academically trained semioticians, and learning more about what they do.

I’ve been a closet semiotician for some time now. I’ve long been fascinated with how imagery and iconography communicate. I have taken photos of the walk/don’t walk signs in various European countries, to consider what those icons say about their local cultures. I’ve taken photos of the wall art in hotel rooms, and developed the ability to pretty consistently name the hotel chain from the room artwork. I’m told that these are not *normal* things to do.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols in culture. Brand imagery and iconography communicates lots, much of it intentional and some of it not, and semiotics provide a great framework to understand the visual communication of brands, categories, and culture more widely. The semiotics team is doing some very interesting work, decoding the meaning of the color black for a vodka brand, and uncovering the meanings of imagery in the bottled water category. We hit the streets, walking around downtown Berlin, talking about the codes behind the images and iconography that we saw.

While walking around Berlin, I couldn’t help but return to my fixation on the icons in the walk/don’t walk lights at the crosswalks. The icons were quite different from the rest of the EU, featuring a rather jaunty guy with a hat. It turns out that there is a fascinating story behind them, told to me by a German friend and augmented by online research.

The ampelmannchen was invented by an East German traffic psychologist named Karl Peglau in 1961. He thought lots about creating icons that would be intuitive to understand, and easy to mass produce. The icon is surprisingly fun for a repressive culture like East Germany; something about it touched a nerve for people who weren’t getting to have much fun at the time. The icon became very popular in East Germany, embraced by parents and teachers as part of traffic safety courses. The East German Ministry of the Interior created characters from the ampelmannchen, and used them in comic strips and public safety campaigns.

Then came reunification, and East Germany underwent massive change. At a time when West German customs and policies were prevailing, and East Germany was considered in many ways a failed state, the ampelmannchen was an icon strong enough to survive the surrender of most of communist culture. After a debate in Parliament, the ampelmannchen was adopted as the traffic symbol of all of Berlin, and because of that, it’s now a symbol of German reunification.

Isn’t it interesting how a simple traffic icon can evolve in culture, and represent different cultural meaning at different points in time? The ampelmannchen went from pragmatic symbol developed by a traffic psychologist to a reminder of the joy of the human spirit in East Germany to an icon of reunification for all of Germany. The simple walk/don’t walk sign has become a mirror that reflects the culture of the people walking by every day.

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