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?