Otto Neurath

Otto Neurath’s introduction of the International System of Typographic Picture Education, known as Isotype, has changed the way we look at information today. This movement of communication and education with the use pictographs, rather than words was a highly popular way to present statistical information from the 1920s to 1940s and began a revolution in design. This essay will focus on three authors, Ellen Lupton, Philip Meggs and Andrew Shanken in a comparison of their historical perspective and analysis of Otto Neurath’s Isotype system. I will compare the background of each author, the context, content, approach and tone of their writing to gain an understanding of the complexity of intent and purpose in the writing of design history.

Neurath developed Isotype in the beginning of the 1920s, in a time post WWI. The context of each article comes 65-85 years after the movement, with Lupton’s article written earliest in 1986, twenty years before the other two, written in 2006.

If we look at the format for each article, it helps to understand the types of content covered in each. Ellen Lupton, graphic designer, writer, curator and educator, is writing for “Design Issues,” the first American academic journal to examine design history, theory, and criticism. Her article, entitled, “Reading Isotype” is 12 pages in length and is an in-depth scholarly study into the specifics of Isotype symbols, the abstract, scientific nature of pictoral representations and the rationale of their use. She elaborates on symbols and their similarity to scientific equations rather than getting into a history of Neurath and the specific events of the time period.

The detail that Lupton delves into includes images, isotype charts, terminology, and intellectual interpretations of the visual language. In her article it is significant to note the different ways she explains the information. It is evident that Lupton has a background in education by the way she breaks down the twelve-page article. She divides it into specific sections, each of which reference figures in a side column, as well as explanations of Neurath’s terms and an understanding that stems from her extensive background in art education. In the following quotation, we can see her making sense of Neurath’s creation of the symbols as equating them to the technique of “reduction” and the idea of shadows as an ideal object on a flat plane.

“The silhouette is a central technique of reduction (figure 7). Silhouette drawing is a kind of pre-chemical photography that emulates the shadow, which is an indexical image made without human intervention, a natural cast rather than a cultural interpretation. International pictures suggest a a rationalized theater of shadows, in which signs are necessary geometric formulae cast by material things- Plato’s cave renovated into an empiricist laboratory. Isotype characters pull the shape of an object onto the ideal flat plane of a draftsman’s drawing: They are blueprints of a language (figure 8). ” (Lupton, 1986, 54)
The approach of Lupton’s article is that of the mentality of educating educating the reader on the methods and understanding behind the work of Neurath, rather than just to inform. The tone as well comes from that of an educator and a writer that is making a scholarly interpretation of the geometric qualities of symbols, as related to the scientific methodologies of art and their practicality in international use.

Philip Meggs(1942-2002), designer, professor and historian, writes excerpts on The Isotype Movement in his “History of Graphic Design.” Similar to Lupton, Meggs places large isotype charts next to his writing and references the figures as he discusses each. However, in contrast to Lupton, Meggs is a historian and though he has a background as a professor, his “History of Graphic Design” does not take on the form of analytical interpretation of art methodolgy, he rather focuses on Neurath’s place in history, the events that surrounded and urged his design into the direction and knowledge of the need for a universal, multi-class, form of education and communication and a more broad understanding of Isotype’s place within a larger period of design, specifically, The Bauhaus and the New Typography. As well as Meggs’ approach to the historical arena of Isotype images, Megg’s focuses also on Neurath’s life, inspirations like the Vienna Museum, diagrams and illustrations in his father’s books, and the social and economic changes following WWI. In the context of Meggs’ history, he makes associations to other chapters and qualities of the design movements within them.

“His charts were completely functional and shorn of decorative qualities. Neurath had ties with the new typography movement, for Tschichold assisted him and his collaborators briefly in the late 1920s, and Renner’s new Futura typeface was adopted for Isotype designs immediately after it became available.” (Meggs, 2006, 326) Meggs’ approach and goal in this article, is to cover the contribution of the Isotype movement in history, within a short summary, touching on the key points, the facts, and associations to geography, collaboration and techniques that lie within a larger movement. The tone, therefore remains factual and direct. Meggs’ refrains from being analytical and focuses rather on making associations and the readers overall understanding of what is going on in history as a whole.

Andrew Shanken, writes, “The Uncharted Kahn: The Visuality of Planning and Promotion in the 1930s and 1940s,” and more specifically, writes a section within this article called, “Isotypes.” Shanken’s article falls within the pages of The Art Bulletin, a facet of the College Art Association, which publishes this quarterly journal on leading scholarship in English language and aspects of art history as practiced in academy, museums and other institutions. This article, the most wordy of the three, is thick with scholarly language and difficult writing. It is written for an audience that is well versed in art history and intellectual movements.

The topics within the article span a broad range from the visual language of organizational charts, to urban planning and promotion within the context of the 1930s and 40s. The main focus of the article is the history around the Philadelphia architect, Louis I. Kahn and the movements which occured through out the 30s and 40s that inspired and effected him. We see a stark contrast from the writing of Lupton and Meggs, where Shanken notes Neurath from an outside edge. The use of his history and the Isotype movement begin an introduction to the isotypelike icons that were created by Kahn at this time. Similar to Meggs, however, Shanken places the writing within historical and social events, like WWI, and hits on geographical and social references to Ausria and Germany.  Unlike the approach of Lupton and Meggs, Shanken’s purpose is neither that of educational understanding of how the symbols are created for use , nor that of a full historical context of an art movement, but rather, for the purpose of documenting the influential events and similarities in history that coexist with Kahn’s design.

“Neurath believed that in the same way that the cathedral was the bible of the iliterate Middle Ages, his visual system would allow Kahn’s efforts to create a visual means of selling people on planning. Stonorov and Kahn created isotypelike icons for “You and Your Neighborhood,” reducing the cartoon planning committee to stiff isotype-inspired figures sitting around tables. (fig. 10) (Shanken, 2006, 317) The main similarity in the approach of the writing of all three authors, is their use of reference figures to aid the reader in a visual understanding of the information. The tone for Shanken’s article is slightly more narrative, with a long span of twenty years in the life of an architect and his approach to planning and selling his processes. He felt that the isotypic figures were blank in the sense that they did not leave out or alienate any group of people, they generalized the form of man, in that one could easily use the figures for selling purposes.  In terms of the historiography of the design, it is important to understand the context of the writing, the purpose of its message and the audience that is being targeted. Whether it is for educational understanding, and artistic interpretation, for a greater understanding of design history, or for a reference  and influence to another designer, it is important to see the use for each.

Works Cited
Lupton, Ellen. Reading Isotype. Design Issues, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 47-58, Fall 1986 Meggs, Philip. The Isotype Movement. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey. 2006 Shanken, Andrew. The Uncharted Kahn: The Visuality of Planning and Promotion in the 1930s and 1940s. The Art Bulletin v. 88 no. 2 (June 2006) p. 310-27