The development of the East German Ampelmännchen

The development of the East German Ampelmännchen

Behind the “cute” little Ampelmännchen there is much research and development work. The ultimate goal of the father of the Ampelmännchen was to create greater safety for pedestrians.

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So who was he, this father of the legendary Ampelmännchen? A resourceful inventor, clever strategist and great sports fan. His life story is closely connected with the division and reunification of Berlin.

Karl Peglau was born in 1927 in Bad Muskau in Upper Lusatia, and died in Berlin in 2009. After a variety of vocational training courses (machine fitter, technical draftsman) he finally studied psychology. He was an impassioned sportsman and lived in Berlin-Pankow with his wife Hildegard, who always supported him and his work.

The building of the Wall rendered Peglau’s dissertation useless. He had developed a braking system for the Berlin suburban railway circuit, but this was made redundant by the Wall. Karl Peglau’s life was closely interlinked with history. He spent 30 years working as an executive traffic psychologist for the medical service of the East German transportation system. In this position, amongst other things, he developed analytical procedures for ascertaining roadworthiness, as well as several guidance symbols for regulating traffic flows and for increasing traffic safety.

On October 13th, 1961, the traffic psychologist Karl Peglau submitted his suggestions in Berlin for new traffic light symbols, including very specific ones for pedestrians: the little East German traffic light men were born.

On the basis of these suggestions Peglau had submitted, he “was commissioned in 1962 by the Chairman of the Permanent Transport Committee of the City Council of Greater Berlin to develop a concept for control and safety in road traffic”.

The East German Ampelmännchen are true children of Berlin.

– Karl Peglau, 1997

How and why did Karl Peglau design his famous Ampelmännchen to be so unmistakably “cute”, yet above all, extremely functional?

As a psychologist, Karl Peglau knew the importance of the emotional effect, and gave his little men a pug nose, a hat and the beginning of a paunch. After all, we are most likely to trust someone we like or even resemble. Sometimes even Karl Peglau himself was amazed by the effect of his Ampelmännchen during the approval procedure.

But the fact that the little men did not have to forfeit their perky little hat along the way greatly baffled us. Maybe it was because the DDR representatives also wore a hat, at least to protect themselves from the sun?

– Karl Peglau, 1997

We have to thank Karl Peglau’s secretary and her talent at drawing for the shape of the hat: “At my request, my artistically gifted secretary Anneliese Wegner added the details to my sketches of the shape and colour.”

But above all, the hat and the generally plump figure of the Ampelmännchen served a very good purpose. It was not primarily a matter of their charisma and creating a likeable effect, but that of safety and functionality, because a larger area means more light, and as a consequence, better visibility – and thus greater safety for pedestrians.

Safer: The plump little East German Ampelmännchen

Safer: The plump little East German Ampelmännchen

Dr. Claudia Peschke of Jacobs University in Bremen stated in her study of the visual effectiveness of the East and West German Ampelmännchen: “Our findings show that the East German Ampelmännchen are not just iconic of the East German nostalgia, but actually have an advantage over the West German Ampelmännchen in terms of the signal being perceived.”

Years later Karl Peglau said: “That pictogram should be ditched”, referring to the Ampelmännchen’s narrow, more static-looking colleague in the West, which only let a little of the signal’s light through.

The functional guidelines (in the words of Karl Peglau)


Appealing to all pedestrians by the use of figures that are specific and colourful, homely and fun, and bear in mind the need to create a graphic connection between the ways in which children, the elderly and people with disabilities mentally experience and process what they see.


Use the fat, outspread arms of the front-facing little red man to underline the function of a barrier, in other words, the command to stop.


Use the widely striding legs of the sideways-facing little green man to underline the function of a dynamic arrow, in other words permission to go.

Even Karl Peglau himself could not entirely explain the surprising success of his Ampelmännchen. His summary is thoroughly positive:

“Presumably it is due to their special and almost indescribable aura of human sociability and warmth that so many people feel pleasantly touched and addressed by these symbolic figures, and that they find in them a chunk of honest identification with history, which gives the Ampelmännchen the right to represent the positive aspects of a failed social order.”

The Ampelmännchen today: Cult, culture, symbols of a city

In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, amongst the turmoil that accompanied the phasing out of many East German institutions, the Ampelmännchen became cult figures: “Symbols standing against the unreasonable post-fall mentality of getting rid of things”, Karl Peglau remembers. “They were originally – and will hopefully remain – figures of the street, psychologically thought out symbols of the rules of behaviour for pedestrians in street traffic.”

He saw no reason to drive the symbols out of their traditional places in the East – but “plenty of good reasons to introduce them in the West”.

Saving the Ampelmännchen

Saving the Ampelmännchen

Even today the Ampelmännchen still do their duty and are an important part of public life. But how did it happen that the East German Ampelmännchen, an original invention from the GDR, became accepted in the streetscape?

Saving the Ampelmännchen