It’s hard not to notice him; always there as you cross the street waiting for the signal to go from red to green. He’s unlike any other symbol in the world and has come to define the former East Germany. His name is Ample Man and he’s the most famous walk signal in the world.
During the Cold War, West and East Germany had their own versions of nearly everything, including the common pedestrian signals. In the West the figure was a generic form, but in the East it was a man with a well-defined hat, Amplemann. The shapes originated from an East German traffic psychologist who wanted to make signals for both cars and pedestrians easier to understand by everyone, from the colorblind to the young and elderly. While his traffic light designs were abandoned, his ideas for changing generic pedestrian signals into ones that were clear and understandable led to the Ample Man images still seen today.
Introduced in 1961, the Ample Men quickly became popular, achieving a level of cult status almost unparalleled. The figures appeared in cartoons, board games and books; all designed to teach and inform kids about the right and wrong ways to do things. Once Germany was reunified in the 1990s, many symbols from East Germany were abandoned, and even Ample Man came under attack.
There was an attempt to standardize all pedestrian symbols throughout Germany and soon this beloved figure disappeared. After a few years though, the public began to rebel. Experts called Ample Man an example of a positive aspect of a failed social order. What is now called Ostalgie, or the East German nostalgia movement, adopted Ample Man as their mascot and eventually their protests worked. Ample Man returned to the streets of Berlin, this time in both West and East Berlin.
Since then Ample Man has taken on a life of his own, spawning gift shops devoted entirely to this unlikely mascot of the city. During my visit there it was easy to see why so many love this simple figure. The silhouette is a strange moment of personality in a world that is increasingly impersonal. A walk signal may seem an unlikely place for such a beloved symbol, but maybe that’s why it works. Regardless, even after a short stay in Berlin I find it hard to imagine the city without this important, unofficial mascot.
Have you been to Berlin? Did you notice the Ample Man?
8 thoughts on “An Unlikely Hero – Ample Man in Berlin”
When visiting Berlin, I was fascinated by knowing whether I’d crossed into East or West Berlin by the Ampelmännchen. I’m glad the people fought for them!
While living in Potsdam, I seriously always wondered why the signs there and in Berlin were different…I completely forgot about it until reading this haha.
It makes so much sense now.
Love the article – I am totally in love with the Ampelmann – he is such a cute little fellow that I somehow don’t mind being incredibly German and waiting at the traffic lights for him to let me know when I can cross! – By the way, the spelling should be Ampelmann – Ample Man makes him sound like a fatty :)
I researched it and while the German spelling is preferable I decided to go with the Anglicized to make it appeal to a slightly wider audience. :) Thanks for the kind comments!
Interesting. Reminds us of the heart-shaped stop lights in Akureyri, Iceland.
Love the Ample Man. Wish we had them here in US.
Just returned from Berlin (10/10/15) and I am happy to say Ampelman is alive and well by the Zoo and we now have Xmas ornaments to show him off!
I returned from Berlin last night. Ample man says hi! I love it!!
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