Isotype International system of typographic picture education was a method for assembling, configuring and disseminating information and statistics through pictorial means. Its initiator, Otto Neurath, described it as a 'language-like technique' characterised by consistency in the use of graphic elements. The basic elements are pictograms - simplified pictures of people or things, designed to function as repeatable units. Its potential for communicating with people of all ages and nationalities was explored in a wide range of projects and publications through the s. The story of Isotype presents a case study of the Modern Movement.
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J ust before he died at his Oxford home in December , Otto Neurath said something lovely to his third wife, Marie. You can live for ever and ever but you will never be more prosperous than you are now. Will you accept? I gladly accept. Marie and Otto were Viennese refugees from Nazism, he a Jew denounced as a communist, she an Aryan whose maiden name was Reidemeister. They fled fascism in , first to the Netherlands and later to the UK where they were interned during the war for a while as enemy aliens.
The Neuraths were creative revolutionaries who shared a utopian vision, one in which contentment could be achieved through a simplified visual language. In , Marie came up with the acronym Isotype International System of Typographic Picture Education to refer to the pictographic language they were developing that would educate children through visual icons and visible chains of reasoning.
They had been inspired by the English philosopher Charles Kay Ogden, who proposed that English could be boiled down to words. The language, called Basic, could be learned in days and, he hoped, would pave the way to peace by reversing the curse of Babel.
But while Otto has long been celebrated as a philosopher and social reformer, the work of Marie has been relatively neglected — until now. These Isotype books try to avoid that … It is not so much the question of how to transfer in the most direct and simple way some knowledge, but how to satisfy the possible questions of a child, his love of action, his identifying himself with a person on the page.
As a child, Otto had been fascinated by Egyptian hieroglyphics, not just their forms but how they communicated a story. After the first world war, he was inspired in developing this visual language by Soviet constructivism and the German Bauhaus, and sharing their minimalist aesthetics and utopian, modernist spirit.
At the time, Otto was working as director of the Museum of City Planning in what was known as Red Vienna, the post-first world war era from to when the city became a crucible for socialist living.
Today, she would have been called a graphic designer. Indeed, without the Neuraths, graphic design as we know it might not have existed. Along with Marie, they pioneered the professional design of a visual language for the public communication of historical and statistical information. At the same time as working in the museum and developing the Isotype Institute, Otto was becoming an eminent philosopher, a leading member of the Vienna Circle of logical positivists and tilting at the Marxist Jews of the Frankfurt School , whose scorn for scientific progress and Enlightenment values he loathed.
Once exiled from Austria, the Neuraths became even more ambitious. They created the International Foundation for Visual Education in The Hague, and spearheaded the international Unity of Science movement that launched a project called the Encyclopedia of Unified Science, aimed at using pictorial languages to proselytise for international scientific and social cooperation — a beautiful idea, if one effectively eliminated by the increasing darkness of the times.
But while Red Vienna remains architecturally renowned for such imposing blocks as the Karl Marx Hof and the Rabenhof, featuring communal facilities such as bathhouses, laundries, kindergartens, libraries and even kitchens, Otto Neurath backed a different solution for a housing revolution.
A decade later, the Neuraths were invited to work in Bilston in the Black Country. Like Vienna after the first world war, Bilston after the second world war — a town of 31, — desperately needed new housing. Do not create ghettos of, for example, old people who, if they are stuck altogether in flats, will feel isolated, lonely and unwanted. If you put them in with young people, they can do things like babysitting and feel useful and wanted. More happily, Marie carried on the work of the Isotype Institute, focusing on rendering complex scientific ideas in visual form.
Though the books on display were created for children, I found them unbelievably helpful. In fact, epiphany followed epiphany as I stood for long minutes realising for the first time how bread is made, how insects pollinate plants and how volcanoes work. Now, 33 years after her death, she is finally getting it.
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Meet Marie Neurath, the Woman Who Transformed Isotype Into an International Endeavor
Many thanks to Robin Kinross for help in editing the previous material. After Marie Neurath dedicated her time to documenting Otto's work and writings until her death in Site Search by freefind. Tibor Kalman.
Isotype (picture language)
Isotype International System of Typographic Picture Education is a method of showing social, technological, biological, and historical connections in pictorial form. It consists of a set of standardized and abstracted pictorial symbols to represent social-scientific data with specific guidelines on how to combine the identical figures using serial repetition. The founding director of this museum, Otto Neurath , was the initiator and chief theorist of the Vienna Method. Gerd Arntz was the artist responsible for realising the graphics.
Eye, the international review of graphic design, is a quarterly printed magazine about graphic design and visual culture. Isotype International System of Typographic Picture Education deserves to be brought in from the margins of graphic design history and reassessed in its context, and for its methodology. Under the direction of Otto Neurath, a social scientist and prominent member of the Vienna Circle of anti- philosophers, a coherent set of rules emerged for transforming complex, statistical information into self-explanatory charts using elemental pictograms. In later years Isotype was applied more to publications, encompassing diagrammatic explanations of scientific subjects for young readers and civic information for developing countries in Africa.