Q&A: Monika Schnell

Monika Schnell New

Monika Schnell started working for Otl Aicher in Rotis in 1985. It was, she says, a luxury to work in the quiet rural studio after her previous job in noisy Munich. At Rotis, she worked with clients like ERCO and the Berlin Philharmonic, and collaborated with Aicher on the rotis typeface. She stayed in Rotis until Aicher's death in 1992.

In 1996, she got a call from the municipal government of Isny, the small town that Aicher worked with for 10 years creating a black and white identity and more than 100 pictograms. She was commissioned to create a new corporate identity for the town based around Aicher's pictograms, and she's been working with Isny ever since.

We interviewed her for the making of Otl Aicher's Isny. It was a fascinating look into the inner workings of Rotis, and how she picked up Isny's design legacy after Aicher's death.

  • How did you start working with Otl Aicher?
  • I developed a strong preference for typography when I was studying and I was, after I graduated, from 82-84 in Munich working for the type foundry Bertholdt. I needed to either completely dedicate myself to typography, or I needed a person who could help me to become more well-rounded as a designer. And that’s why I applied to Aicher.
    At the time I was working on an Indian type, which he found absolutely fascinating and said definitely wanted to meet me. Actually at the time he had a project with HSBC, a collaboration with Norman Foster. And he thought he needed someone who knows type. He didn’t end up getting the project with HSBC, but he got me.
One of the remaining studios at Rotis. Photography by Tian Khee Siong
  • What was he like as a boss?
  • He never tried to keep information from us. Every employee was present at every client meeting. We had a very transparent process, and each of us designers were responsible for our own clients. I worked for Druckhaus Maack, Erco, the Berlin Philharmonic, but one person was responsible for one client and we worked with Aicher inasmuch as when we met with clients, certain goals were established. He would say “Okay, I see it this and this way,” and then it was quite possible that I’d respond “Aicher, I see that completely different!” and then he would say “Good. So try it. I’ll come back in a week.” I found that so exciting that he never blocked someone, he gave us room to play and develop to our own accord and he was an excellent coach. We would sit and workshops for hours, it was an intensive way of working together, and then there would be entire weeks where you wouldn’t see him.
  • When a new mayor took office in 1985, the town decided to get rid of the black and white pictograms Aicher created for Isny. What was it like when that happened?
  • I remember when I was in Rotis, where you could really sense it that “hey, he did something amazing here, and the people are asserting themselves because they don't identify with it.” This black and white imagery was just so foreign for them, as though it’s from the moon. Back then it simply wasn’t right. And then the result was this really gross, typical idyllic cliche branding. Really interchangeable with everything else in the region.
Isny's brand guidelines, written by Monika in 2008.
Packaging designed by Monika. When she assumed work for Isny, she updated the typography to rotis, the font she designed with Aicher.
  • What do you think of the pictograms?
  • I find them, personally, genius but also a little kitschy. I find for instance the 3D drawing of the water wheel doesn’t work for me at all. What’s great is the lying fox or the cat - he loved cats - and really managed to distill the animals’ characteristics.
  • What did you find most interesting about this whole project?
  • What was revolutionary is that Isny, a city in the green, in nature, had the courage to abstain from using colour. That’s for me the most unbelievable part that he managed to pull off.
  • What does this project mean to you?
  • It’s beautiful to work with these forms and foundation by Aicher and to apply them so they're still are positively perceived by the people who live there and the surroundings. I really treasure this work. With a few exceptions and a few difficulties here and there, but other than that, I really find it a brilliant project that was created over many years. It creates a capital for Isny within the design sphere. And I find it fascinating, because I’ve worked with Isny for so many years, to observe the acceptance and the understanding of Aicher, it’s unbelievable.