The Legacy of Isotype
One of the most popular posts here on Little Design Book has been Ruchita’s post on the pictograms designed for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Indeed for most designers, Otl Aicher’s work for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich remains a benchmark for identity design with its now iconic and well copied pictograms, but any designer who has a keen interest in information design and the history of the practice would do well to go back in time a bit more. I visited the Isotype: International Picture Language exhibition at the V&A in London and found that the work of Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz has many lessons for designers today, as we struggle to communicate to a muli-lingual global audience.
There has been a renewed interest in the work of Otto Neurath and his pioneering system of making information accessible to a mass audience, a system which came to be known as the International System of Typographic Picture Education or ISOTYPE. When he created this graphic system, Neurath aimed to display scientific information in a way that was easy to understand even for the less educated.
In 1924, Neurath was made the director of the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum or Social and Economic Museum in Vienna. As a polymath well versed in the subjects of political economy, sociology, philosophy, urbanism and visual communication, he wanted the museum to be a centre for learning rather than a building full of curiosities.
To help him translate his ideas, Neurath employed a number of key people who would make a significant impact on the development of Isotype. The first was Marie Reidemeister whom he would later marry. Reidemeister was the principal ‘transformer’ or an early version of the modern information designer. She would sketch numerical data into pictorial statistics from which the charts and diagrams would be made for the museum’s displays. To create the signs used to illustrate the charts, Neurath brought in artists Gerd Arntz, Peter Alma and Augustin Tschinkel. This workflow of initiator, transformer and designer was a remarkable success and is similar to how contemporary design studios can be organised.
Otto Neurath had two important rules for generating the ‘vocabulary’ of the visuals– reduction, which was to simplify the style of each sign and consistency, to create a coherent system. Its important to note that Isotype signs have no perspective. In the odd case where there is a need to use perspective, the sign is drawn across an isometric grid.
My real interest in Isotype started with the work of Gerd Arntz who designed almost 4000 signs for the Isotype system. Otto Neurath first saw his work at an exhibition of the Progressive Artist Group in Düsseldorf. Neurath was struck by the graphic quality of Arntz’s work, which was inspired by socialist realism and recognised its synergy with the museum’s work. Arntz joined the museum as head of the graphics department in 1928. He refined and greatly improved the signs used in the pictorial method and started the use of linocuts to quickly but accurately reproduce the drawings for the final charts. It is interesting to note that while Arntz strictly followed Neurath’s rules for generating visuals greatly simplifying any detail, each sign has a subtle humanist quality to it.
A turbulent political climate followed by the onset of World War II saw Otto and Marie Neurath and Gerd Arntz flee Austria, first for Holland and then for Britain. Arntz stayed behind in Holland where he was enlisted into the German Army in 1943. He returned to The Hague after the war where he continued to illustrate. Otto and Marie Neurath set up the Isotype Institute in Oxford where they worked to improve the system with British designers.
After Otto Neurath’s death in 1945, Marie Neurath continued to work with Isotype and significantly, produced a series of books for children. The idea of using the pictorial method for education, often for a semi literate audience is still an important lesson for designers today. Isotype did not have many opportunities to work outside of Europe or the US, but they produced a striking series of work in colonial West Africa to help with government initiatives in primary education, healthcare and democratic processes.
The legacy of Isotype and the people involved in its development is significant and has greatly influenced information design in the 20th century. Gerd Arntz’s signs are a good case study for interactive designers today who need to design solutions for complex information systems. There is a great online archive available at www.gerdarntz.org for anyone interested in taking a look at some of those incredible signs. There is much debate on how visuals are used to communicate statistics and designers can be easily distracted by visual detail. But Isotype’s disciplined approach will continue to inform and inspire designers of the future with its simple yet compelling ideas.