Ampelmann: A traffic sign turned cult figure

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Kate Reilly. It was originally published on Psych Your Mind on July 5, 2013.

During the past month, I have been living in Germany and conducting research at the University of Hamburg. It has been an amazing opportunity! I visited Berlin last weekend and came across a pretty unique phenomenon: a city-wide obsession with a traffic sign! It seemed like everywhere I went, I saw stores dedicated to selling merchandise featuring the “Ampelmann” (translated as “traffic light man” in German) and restaurants selling food in the shape of the Ampelmann. Berliners love him, and even celebrities like Dennis Quaid have been spotted rocking Ampelmann t-shirts. How do you get a traffic signal to become a cult figure? You ask a psychologist to design it, of course! Though the Ampelmann wasn’t intended to be such a beloved and popular symbol of Berlin, its story is a fun look at how psychology is behind even the simplest and most mundane aspects of life.

In East Berlin in 1961, Karl Peglau, a traffic psychologist was hired to design a new traffic symbol. As a traffic psychologist, he had been researching the prevention of traffic accidents. At the time in East Berlin, road accidents were becoming more common, and the East German government was looking for an easy way to make travel safer. Peglau’s research had led him to conclude that different modes of transport – driving a car, riding a bike, walking – should be directed separately. Peglau suggested that a new system of traffic signs should be created, including a separate light that would only direct pedestrians. The government liked his suggestion, and he began to design the now-famous Ampelmann.

Peglau started with the standard red, yellow, and green circles we know today and went from there. For pedestrians, he only needed stop (red) and go (green) symbols. The first change he made was to alter the stop and go signs so that they would not only be different colors but also different shapes, reasoning that this would decrease the chances that people might confuse the two.

Recognizing that people of all ages and abilities walked around East Berlin (as opposed to drove), Peglau was concerned that the new symbols be clear and understandable to everyone, including kids and the elderly. He settled on the man standing forward with his arms stretched wide for “stop” and a man pictured sideways in the midst of a stride for “go.” The two figures were designed to be quite wide and stocky, so that their shapes displayed more light (see the comparison on the left).

Finally, Peglau made some choices regarding the shape of the man that have largely influenced their popularity today. In an effort to get people to pay attention to the signs and follow their directions, Peglau thought people should have a personal, positive association with the signs. He gave the Ampelmann unique elements, like a hat, in the hopes that Berliners would establish a personal connection to him. He wanted the Ampelmann to differ from every other plain sign people encountered. He also tried to make the figure look fun and playful, so that people would feel positive about him, and therefore, more likely to follow him.

Over the years, Ampelmann became a cherished figure in East Germany. Television cartoons featuring the signs as teachers about road safety for children were developed and used in schools. In 1990, when West and East Germany reunified, it was decided that the traffic signs in East Germany should be converted to those of West Germany. Many signs were changed, but East Germans strongly opposed this and fervently campaigned for the return of their beloved Ampelmann. In 1997, it was announced that the Ampelmann would stay, and at least in Berlin, you will now find a mix of both the Ampelmann signs and the West German signs. Importantly, the Ampelmann is one of the only unique aspects of East German life that still remains.

Finally, in an interesting twist, I learned that some Berliners (at least my tour guide) think of the Ampelmann’s history with a Communist tinge. My tour guide told us that the Ampelmann was designed to be large because the Communist East German government wanted him to appear dominant over pedestrians and that he was wearing a hat because good East Germans would (and should) always respect a man in a uniform. However, these were not Peglau’s intentions, as I noted above (read an interview with him here). Perhaps this reflects remnants of the West German perspective regarding East Germany pre-reunification.

I guarantee that, if you have the chance to go to Berlin, you will discover for yourself this much-adored icon – in the streets and in the stores! You will be able to impress everyone with your knowledge of how a psychologist decades ago created this unique traffic sign which has transformed into a cult figure.

If you want to learn more about Ampelmann and read an interview with traffic psychologist Karl Peglau, you can check out www.ampelmann.com.