ISOTYPE – An International Graphic Language

Isotype is a system of symbols that was an effort to create an international graphic language to make pictorial statistics accessible to a mass audience. The icons and symbols that are used on computers, phones and tablets all pay homage to those pictograms that were first designed during the 1920’s for Isotype.

Altitudes of Airplanes - Otto Neurath
Altitudes of Airplanes – Otto Neurath

A Visual Language

A significant contribution to the art of visual education Isotype is, a visual language invented by Dr Otto Neurath. He established the famous Social, and Economic Museum of Vienna where he tested out various visual methods and worked out the picture language known as Isotype. His Isotype manner of illustrating statistics with pictures was used in visual design schools throughout the world during the 30s and 40s. This new means of visual education called ISOTYPE was taken from the initials of I-nternational S-ystem O-f Ty-pographic P-icture E-ducation.

Men Living in a Unit of Space
Men Living in a Unit of Space – Otto Neurath

Renaissance Man – Otto Neuath

By all criteria, he was a renaissance man, mastering subjects from mathematics to sociology, from physics to philosophy and from history to urban planning. Neurath was born in 1882, and he studied at the University of Vienna and Berlin, he taught at trade colleges in Vienna, and he acted as an economic adviser to the Austrian government, and it founded the German Museum of War Economy in Leipzig.

“To remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate numbers.” Neurath

Visual Information that Provoked

Observing how people reacted to his exhibitions and lectures, he realised that visual information should aim not only at providing data but at being provocative to stimulate thought and so encourage people to form their opinions.The picture tables that he created in his book proposed the notion that it is easier to compare quantities by comparing numbers of well-presented symbols, and to compare symbols of different size.  The image below is provocative when viewed today as it reflects the cultural norms of 1920’s Europe.

Signs for the Groups of Men
Signs for the Groups of Men – Ottto Neurath

Modern Man in the Making

In his book “Modern Man in the Making” published on the eve of the Second World War,  addresses many issues still of great relevance today – globalisation, war and economy, emigration. It was the first book in the world done in the Isotype manner. He combines a written text with statements made using standardised images arranged in a grammar of their own. Many of the author’s statements are outlined in Isotype only; so that the symbols become not merely illustrations but an integral part of the text.

Isotype picture of a lift in a hotel
Isotype picture of a lift in a hotel- Otto Neurath

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