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Isotype – the set of pictorial symbols developed by Otto and Marie Neurath – was an egalitarian ...
2021-04-21 09:00:00

More Than a Thousand Words
How the Neuraths Created Isotype

More Than a Thousand Words
More Than a Thousand Words

“Words divide, pictures unite,” Otto Neurath liked to say. So this text probably shouldn’t be a text. After all, can letters really describe the opus magnum of the Austrian visionaries?

Read in 12 minutes

“How long animals live” is written in the upper left corner. Under it begins a line that runs from left to right. Then it twists around, comes back, and repeats this several times. It’s a timeline. It runs from zero, reaching 10 years at the first turn (20 at the second, 30 at the third, etc.). On it you can see the outlines of animals, each of which is captioned. They’re also differentiated by colour. The red ones are the mammals; the birds are black, the other vertebrates are blue, and the invertebrates are yellow. The infographic portrays a total of 40 animals, running from the shortest-lived insects to the giant tortoise, which lives 150 years.

This description is imperfect in many respects. It would have to be quite a bit longer to transmit all the information contained in the infographic. There isn’t a single word about how long a hippopotamus lives, that a swan lives twice as long as a canary, or that the longest-living of the birds mentioned is the goose. Nor is this writing especially clear or accessible. Not to mention that the original can only be understood by people who speak Polish, which significantly limits its audience. Everyone, or almost everyone, knows what an elephant looks like. For the vast majority of people, the Polish word S-Ł-O-Ń means absolutely nothing.

A method of transmitting information that frees us from dependence exclusively on letters, words and sentences was invented in the 1920s by Otto and Marie Neurath. The two scientists took up the task of creating a universal visual language that would be comprehensible at any latitude, regardless of age, gender, race, religion or education. “The isotype method may well become one of the elements that may help to bring about a civilization in which all men can participate in a common culture and in which the canyon between educated and uneducated will be bridged,” Otto said.

They called their work the Isotype. As one definition had it, it was “a method of assembling, presenting and distributing statistical information using illustrative means.” It sounds complicated, but the point was to use drawings, graphs and associations to talk about the world in a simple, attractive way. Creating this language wasn’t an end in itself: the Neuraths had decidedly greater ambitions. They were driven by the desire to spread knowledge. Seeing as how 100 years ago they had already realized that education has to compete with entertainment, they can be considered visionaries.

A language worthy of Red Vienna

After World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the country with its capital in Vienna had to reinvent itself – in very difficult conditions. The 52-million-strong empire, whose boundaries before the war encompassed both Lviv and Sarajevo, was transformed into a small blotch on the map, inhabited by 6.4 million people. Commodities, food and energy had to be imported. All around raged the Spanish Flu, the post-war crisis and hyperinflation, which truly was hyper, reaching 1426% in 1922.

Vienna also shrank (of its 2.1 million residents, 1.8 million remained), but it was still struggling with massive housing problems. Already before the war, it was incapable of providing shelter for all the workers it needed, and market rents were very high. On the outskirts, wildcat developments of fragile structures were springing up, providing nothing but a roof. The residents of these uninsulated, unplumbed structures were decimated by tuberculosis.

New life was breathed into the capital by the Social Democratic Party of Austria, which in 1919 won the local elections (and remained in power until the collapse of the First Republic in 1934, though during this time the Christian Social Party were most often in control of the country itself). This triumph – won in fully democratic elections, as Austrian women won the right to vote immediately after the war – launched what historians today call Red Vienna. The socialists taxed the rich (introducing measures including a tax on servants and other luxuries), and inaugurated a gigantic housing programme that put up more than 60,000 publicly-owned apartments. Small (usually less than 48 square metres) but well finished, plumbed, well-lit and within reach of the average citizen. Before the war, workers paid 20% of their wages for housing; in 1925, it was just 4%. The programme’s projects included the Karl-Marx-Hof, stretching more than a kilometre (which still stands today), made up of 1382 apartments, along with a youth centre, libraries, more than 20 shops, a post office, etc.

The authorities also reformed the education system, setting up crèches, pre-schools and schools, and introducing universal health care. “No Viennese child should be born on newspaper,” a social campaign announced, as the city authorities distributed diapers, clothing, overalls, rompers, etc. Earlier, those who couldn’t afford clothes actually did swaddle their children in old newspapers.

At the same time, Vienna’s cafés were buzzing with ideas; discussions were giving birth to new concepts that were to respond to the needs and challenges of the new, post-war world. “While the idea of German nationalism was dominant in university circles, there were many other intellectuals who dissociated themselves from Nationalist thought to embrace mainly the ideas of liberalism, subsequently followed by those of socialism, utilitarianism, pragmatism and empiricism, in a mix of varying proportions,” Otto Neurath said. After the war, when he was barely 40, he already had a CV so long that it would be enough for several people. The son of the esteemed scientist Wilhelm Neurath, Otto grew up in a home with a library of more than 13,000 books. He studied mathematics, economics, philosophy and history, writing his doctorate in political science in Berlin and gaining his habilitation in political economy in Heidelberg. During the war, he worked in the Museum of War Economy in Leipzig, and after the outbreak of the November Revolution he became the head of the Central Planning Office of the Bavarian Soviet Republic (which turned out to be ephemeral). When this communist experiment was bloodily suppressed by the authorities, Neurath landed in prison for several months.

But with his head full of Marx, he had a place to return to. He quickly found his place in the climate of the Austrian capital. He took up a position on the left wing of the Vienna Circle, where, under the watchful eye of Moritz Schlick, logical positivism was blooming, and began working in the Museum of Housing and Urban Planning. Already there he was experimenting with diagrams, symbols and graphics, and all of this at a time when statistics were most often presented using crude graphs, lines and bars. Hieroglyphs and cave paintings served as his inspiration (he had been fascinated with them for years), as well as children’s drawings. But Neurath would create his magnum opus only in the Museum for Social and Economic Affairs, which he founded – partly with help from the city authorities – in the mid-1920s.

It was a museum in name only. Today, we would see it more as a combination of scientific institute and think tank. The place was alive: for seven years (1926–1933), Neurath organized 36 exhibitions, which concentrated not on presenting and describing objects, but on education. Using documents, maps, urban plans, models and slides, he presented data, statistics, facts; he tried to talk as accessibly as possible about the surrounding reality, to present the changes taking place in the city. “The ordinary citizen ought to be able to get information freely about all subjects in which he is interested, just as he can get geographical knowledge from maps and atlases. There is no field where humanisation of knowledge through the eye is not possible,” he believed. It was to be simple, but not crude. Accessible, but not infantile. The point was to reach the uneducated as well. Neurath believed that the proletariat, which was emancipating itself, needed as much knowledge as possible to continue developing, that only universal education guaranteed further progress. It was at this time that the bon mot was coined that later became the motto of Neurath’s work: “Words divide, pictures unite.”

The illustrative method in exile

“Otto saw how impressed I was, and asked me if I could perhaps design things of this kind; but what should I say – I had never seen anything quite like it before. ‘But’, he asked, ‘If I started a museum where such charts are designed, would you be willing to join in?’ To which I replied without qualifications ‘yes’ and I meant it,” Marie Neurath said, recalling a trip to Vienna as a student in 1924. At the time she was 26 years old, her surname was Reidemeister (she would become Otto’s third wife only in 1941) and she was studying in Braunschweig. Back then, Otto couldn’t even have suspected how much he would owe to this mathematician and physicist, gifted with a huge graphic talent and leadership characteristics.

At its peak, about 25 people in the museum were working on creating the image-based language. It all began with specialists in statistics, history, engineering, cartography, economics, and so on gathering data, who today we would call researchers. Next, the information went to ‘transformers’, who analysed it, and then decided what was most important in it, what they wanted to use it to show. Later they suggested how numbers, facts and statistics should be rendered in graphic language, so they would be best understood. Today, these activities are included in the duties of a graphic designer. After them, it was the artists’ turn. They were the ones who decided the final version of the pictogram representing a human, how to lay out all the elements in a single space. At the very end, the ‘technical assistants’, responsible for photos, colouring the drawings, etc., sat down to work.

Marie managed the entire process and was a ‘transformer’. By all accounts she was exceptional, gifted with a huge imagination, because she could translate words into pictures. “I often had to take school classes ‘round the museum and liked to do this. I was able to ask questions, and the children could find the answers in the charts…. Through these conversations, one could also notice when a chart was not easy enough to understand and this taught us, the producers, something,” she recalled.

Meanwhile, among the graphic designers the most important was the German artist Gerd Arntz. It can be said that he was the third element of the triumvirate that stood behind the creation of Isotype, though the beginnings of his relationship with the Neuraths weren’t easy. When Otto offered him a job, he asked: “How much do you cost?” Arntz also had his heart on the left; in fact, all his life he used his works to point out social inequalities. In Neurath’s museum he created more than 4000 signs and pictograms, which could independently present information, could be elements of greater wholes and which could be combined with each other.

The first effect of this team’s work was the Viennese method of illustrative statistics, used in creating the Society and Economy atlas, which presented 100 pages of a variety of information – from how the population of the French colonial empire was changing, through the make-up of the League of Nations, to a diagram showing the growth in potato production. Published in 1930, the book achieved international success and won its creators an invitation to Moscow. The Soviets must also have been pleased that Neurath used his methods to present the policy of the Viennese authorities, demonstrating the superiority of the socialists’ ideas over the Christian Socials’ proposals. Moscow commissioned him to build an equivalent of his museum in the Land of the Soviets. But IZOSTAT (the All-union Institute of Pictorial Statistics of Soviet Construction and Economy) – as the institution the Neuraths and Arntz created was called – turned out to be a failure, and was closed in 1940. The Soviets weren’t at all interested in education; they were looking for another tool to serve propaganda and singing the praises of the achievement of Five Year Plans.

The Austrian civil war found Neurath still in Moscow. He didn’t return to Vienna but found shelter in The Hague, getting to the British Isles in May 1940 after the bombing of Rotterdam. Already in Holland, calling the language the Viennese Method no longer made sense. One afternoon Marie thought up the name Isotype: the International System of Typographic Picture Education.

How to debabelize the world

“The desire for an international language is an old one, and it is more than ever in men’s minds at this time of international connections in business and science. But ‘debabelisation’ is a very hard and complex work,” Neurath wrote.

This is also a testimony to the era. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the languages emerging included Volapük, Esperanto and its various versions, Latino sine flexione (Latin without inflections) and also Basic English. The latter was invented by the Brit Charles Kay Ogden, who believed that understanding required just 850 expressions, contained in an uncomplicated grammar. The plan was that the language could be learned quickly and easily. Ogden hoped that it would allow people to communicate easily, limiting the number of conflicts.

Neurath used Basic English in 1936 when he wrote International Picture Language: The First Rules of Isotype, a work that presented the rules that governed his invention. The fundamental rule was that a higher number of something should be shown not using a larger drawing, but a higher number of drawings of the same size. Neurath explained that if, for example, we want to present statistics showing the number of Germans who get married each year, we won’t set up a huge pictogram of a couple at the altar (when there are many such cases) next to the same picture, only smaller (when there are fewer). It’s more comprehensible to draw five signs next to each other, and later three signs. And a legend showing how many marriages each pictogram represents.

Neurath also suggested using seven colours in Isotype: white, green, blue, yellow, red, brown and black. They should be managed so that no observer could have any doubt which was which. Several of Neurath’s ideas can be called the ‘grammar’ of the new language (e.g. diagrams are read from left to right; perspective isn’t used; the less complicated the image, the better). The author also explained why the language was created and how it could be used. “Our experience is that the effect of pictures is frequently greater than the effect of words, specially at the first stage of getting new knowledge.”

To be clear: Isotype was no competition for normal languages. For obvious reasons, it can’t be used to encompass all of reality. But the Neuraths also indicated from the very start that they were creating just language – and something as huge as that. “We do not say: what you can say in words, we can also say in pictures. What we say is: Don’t say in words what you can say in pictures,” Marie explained. And Otto already in the first publication tallied up the limitations of the new tool: he was perfectly aware that Isotype couldn’t be used to exchange views or express feelings, that natural languages are in fact decidedly richer.

From elephant to emoticons

“Dr. Neurath’s isotype or pictograph symbols made statistics come alive – little rows of men, machines or babies to illustrate, respectively population trends, automobile production and infant mortality rates. [...] His special ‘visual grammar’ contained some 2,000 symbols for telling a story in pictures. His invention has become widely used by sociologists and economists to make statistics interesting to the average reader,” The New York Times wrote in 1945 after Neurath’s sudden death, which was probably caused by a stroke. For a long time, history treated him better than her. But in the end, Marie is also getting justice. In 2019, her name appeared on posters announcing an exhibition in London’s House of Illustration, and journalists reporting on the show focused on her.

Her contribution to the creation of the language is one thing. But Marie also put a great deal of effort into making sure her life’s work and her husband weren’t forgotten. In the 1950s, Isotype was used to create an educational campaign for colonial Nigeria, and similar commissions were received for Ghana and Sierra Leone. In London, Marie created children’s books, most of them educational. In total she wrote more than 80 titles about Vikings, inventions, dinosaurs, etc. In the UK, there’s a whole generation of people who learned about the world thanks to Marie’s imagination. “She liked explaining things,” said Professor Sue Walker, the co-organizer of an exhibition of Marie’s work, in an interview with It’s Nice That, later adding, “Her way of working was ahead of its time.”

The Neuraths’ work has stood the test of time. We see the fingerprints of Isotype in the pictograms presenting the various sporting events at the Olympics; in road signs; on information signs in shopping centres. A few years ago, The Guardian wrote that without the Neuraths, contemporary design could look different; the newspaper called them “communication pioneers in that their new visual language pre-empted emojis.” And rightly so, because the Neuraths’ imaginations reached that far.

Otto often closed his letters with a drawing of an elephant. On the one hand, this was a reference to his physicality (he was a massive man, not to say chunky); on the other, it was meant to reflect his spiritual state at the time. In one drawing the elephant is raising its trunk, in which it holds flowers; in another, it’s shedding tears. What we express today using a smiling or frowning face, Neurath expressed almost 100 years ago using an elephant. Well, after all, he was a visionary!

Otto Neurath, around 1940.
Otto Neurath, around 1940.

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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