From Hieroglyphics to Isotype — Otto Neurath

From Hieroglyphics to Isotype -- Otto NeurathA visual autobiography…I loved this idea of Otto Neurath’s.

Watching an old black & white 1950s documentary on housing in London, it struck me greatly when they showed graphics like the one below on the screen, talked about something they called isotype in a way that made it seem like a new technology that was being mobilized to understand and change the world.

neurathWhat struck me most is that as organizers and popular educators in the oughts, we sought to create such graphics all the time (though never creating anything quite so professional I confess). Yet I’d never heard that word before.

I looked it up.

Isotype — International System of TYpographic Picture Education, initially known as the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics (Wiener Methode der Bildstatistik). Developed at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Wien between 1925 and 1934 — interrupted by the rise of fascism in Austria and Neurath’s and other collaborators’ move to the UK. Found this book. Found that a technology for social change is what Otto Neurath always meant isotype to be, though he thought of it and described it more in the terms of his own day’s idealism and with sometimes unfortunate phrasing.

Also, it might be confirmed that, if you start with visual material, problems which are usually dealt with at a higher level can be discussed within the curriculum at a lower level of education. One of the advantages of this is that people can remain in contact with certain problems throughout a much longer period of their lives. (6)

The point is that making information visual in this way allows us both to understand it better, and to open up meaningful discussion on key issues to forums beyond a handful of experts — and even they may have failed to fully grasp the facts. This in turn is key to any meaningful democracy.

Therefore, whenever the fate of individuals and communities is at stake, we need some comprehensive knowledge to help us make our own decisions. It is for this that I think visual aids are so important, especially when we wish to educate ourselves and others in citizenship. (7)

I kept thinking the phrasing is often not quite what I like, partly the period, partly language and culture and class gaps. Yet his commitment to graphics emerges from a desire to facilitate people looking at their own reality, and then thinking and making decisions about it for themselves. It is also clear that part of this is because the very process of transmitting expert knowledge is not a neutral one. Neurath’s words doesn’t quite nail the issues with it the way Freire does, but grapples with some of the same questions.

Teaching habits, whether we are acting as schoolmasters or museum directors, are often dangerous. Such habits might tempt persons in power to present what they themselves like… (7)

Yet he isn’t quite able to see a world where we all have bias, even when we draw pictures based on just the ‘facts’.

The few remarks I have made here may suffice to explain what Isotype sets out to provide for the masses of citizens who want to learn simple things in a human way and without bias, so that they are stimulated to further reading and museum visiting. (114)

And his goals — I may love these goals, but wonder why he has chosen them for mention above ending poverty, increasing direct democracy, fighting fascism, improving life.

Still, in the end it is a wonderfully visionary and utopian ideal behind all this effort, behind this creation of a visual language for making complexity more immediately graspable that does not rely on spoken language or literacy to show people things as they are.

But there is perhaps a chance that visual communication will play its part in the creation of a brotherhood of man, for it can help to bridge many gaps and reduce some of the sources of antagonism. I should like to take my share of the cooperative work, thinking of the possibilities that lie ahead, while tending to the tasks of today. (8)

I share many of these ideals of communication through visual means, believe in using my many years of work and study to help sift information, understand it, convert it into a graphic form (or work with someone more graphically skilled to do so) that best represents the facts as I have done my best to understand them. This is long and hard — just the way conveying an idea or proposal in one hundred words is so much harder than conveying it in 500. You have to have complete clarity on what you are trying to convey, on what is most important.

Yet it never occurred to me to try to create a universal visual language. I rather love this vision, and initially it made perfect sense. But then I thought about it, and realised as much through his visual autobiography as anything that probably much much of our taste and understanding of pictures emerges from our time and place and culture. How much the images you chose should reflect the people you are trying to reach. Neurath writes:

One of our museum slogans in Vienna was: ‘Words divide, pictures unite’. (126)

Interesting, and perhaps more true than false, but I am not entirely sure. Just imagine depictions of ‘home’, and how much that might differ across countries and cultures.

But to return to the subtitle…what is his visual autobiography? Too complex to capture here, but a wonderful collection of things…

Berghaus -- NeurathStickers he knew as shinies, stamps, maps, instruction sheets for building blocks, paper buildings and dolls with whole wardrobes. Berghaus’ Physikalischer Atlas.

Always he loves pictures that capture information, that transmit knowledge, the more knowledge in the simpler the line and more arresting the graphic the better.

He talks of beautiful etchings of birds and plants, colour-coded maps of military movements

Battle of Trafalgar Plate 2 By Alexander Keith Johnston (Atlas to Alison's History of Europe (1848).) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Battle of Trafalgar Plate 2 By Alexander Keith Johnston (Atlas to Alison’s History of Europe (1848).) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is not realistic depictions he favours, but what best transmits an idea, gives an overview without need of words.This is particularly interesting I think.

Again and again I felt that the orthodox perspective is somewhat anti-symbolic, putting the onlooker in a privileged position. A perspective drawing fixed from the point from which I had to look, whereas I wanted to be free to look from wherever I chose.  (49)

He loves the details abounding in Hogarth:

William Hogarth Industry and Idleness: plate 1. The Fellow 'Prentices at their Looms
William Hogarth Industry and Idleness: plate 1. The Fellow ‘Prentices at their Looms

Egyptian wall paintings

Plate From Lepsius - Tomb of Sethos
Plate From Lepsius – Tomb of Sethos

He later writes:

I revive some of the feelings I had when looking at Egyptian wall-paintings, but without the sad undertone: pageantry for the dead. No–now it is pageantry for the living, for people of every kind throughout the world, whatever way of life they may accept, whatever creed they profess of reject, whatever their colour, whatever language they use. (126)

he shares these amazing visual mnemonics from 1808:

Traité complet de mnémonique, ou, Art d'aider et de fixer la mémoire en tous genres d'études et de sciences : orné d'un tableau d'application a l'histoire servant de frontispice, et enrichi de 25 gravures / par Mr. *** [i.e. J. Didier]. 1808.
J. Didier – Traite complet de mnemonique
At the end there is just a collection of images Neurath had collected after fleeing Austria. I particularly loved these:

IMG_3937
Neurath Collection — Agustin Tschinkel, 1928-1930
Frank W. Seiwart -- Otto Neurath collection
Neurath Collection — Franz W. Seiwart ‘Helft de Internationale Arbeiter-Hilfe (1924) and Menschen im Gefangnis (1924) p 133

All of these things fed into the creation of isotype’s visual language, the attempt to create a new language all together through scientific study, observation and testing.

I think we were the first to evolve a theoretical framework of visualization, which started from a few observations but later on covered a wide field of experience, applying what we had learnt from the behaviour of pupils in schools and visitors to exhibitions, and of course everything one could learn from the literature concerned with visual problems. (103)

One of the key artists Otto Neurath worked with to develop pictograms and the language of Isotype was Gerd Arntz, a google search on his name shows something like this:

Gerd Arntz These figures — or figures like them are now so familiar. Their impact is clearly visible in the US as well, in graphics like these I found in Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis on Chicago — their use pushed this book to one of my very favourite sociological studies as one of the most helpful to the people it studied:

Cayton&Drake.1946.p253

Similar is a pamphlet emerging (somewhat surprisingly perhaps) from the Truman Administration on racism in 1946:

1946DiscriminationContributes to Poor Health

I think these show just how powerful numbers can be when translated into images, and how they can educate the school-educated and non-educated alike, while serving as a call to action. And this as well:

…at least I may be allowed to express my personal hope that the increasing speed of Isotype may perhaps be symptomatic of the spread of certain general trends towards a cosmopolitan attitude, a commonwealth of men connected in a human brotherhood and human orchestration. (126)

One thought on “From Hieroglyphics to Isotype — Otto Neurath”

  1. Interesting. Arntz, Tschinkel and Seiwerts were Figurative Constructivists, and all three published in in Franz Pfemferts ‘Die Aktion’ and later in Seiwert’s ‘a bis z’. I find Seiwert’s ‘Aufbau der Proletarischen Kultur’ which appeared in Die Aktion in December 1920 in many ways prefigures the Situationists: “The Artworks will be on the street. The streets are so bleak. Here completely new possibilities arise. The houses can be painted, whole streets can be painted. Useless advertising hoardings can become pictographs and sculptures.”

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