The story behind Berlin’s Ampelmännchen (Traffic Light Man) dates back to the era of the divided city during the Cold War. The iconic figure was created in East Germany in the 1960s by traffic psychologist Karl Peglau, who wanted to make traffic signals more effective and engaging.
The East German authorities were looking for a way to improve road safety and decided to replace the generic and somewhat uninspiring pedestrian signals with something more distinctive. Karl Peglau’s design featured a rotund, hat-wearing figure with a round head, a body composed of straight lines, and distinctive arms that changed positions with the traffic signal. This design was not only functional but also visually appealing.
This is the red (“stop!”) and green (“walk!”) version of the Ampelmännchen:
The Ampelmännchen became a beloved symbol in East Germany, and its unique design set it apart from the more standardized signals in West Germany. The little green and red man with his hat and unique shape became a cultural icon and a quirky representation of East German design.
After the reunification of Germany in 1990, there were discussions about standardizing traffic signals across the country. While some cities in the former East Germany adopted the West German traffic light design, Berlin decided to keep the Ampelmännchen. The decision was influenced by public sentiment, as the little figure had become a cherished part of the city’s identity.
Since then, the Ampelmännchen has not only survived but has thrived. It has become a symbol of Berlin and is featured on various products, from souvenirs to pedestrian crossing signs. The figure’s popularity has extended beyond Germany, and it is recognized worldwide as a quirky and endearing symbol of Berlin’s unique history and identity. The Ampelmännchen’s success is a testament to the power of design and how seemingly mundane elements of urban life can take on significant cultural importance.