Isotype: Origin, development, and legacy

Otto Neurath (1882–1945) was already well known as an economist, philosopher of science, and a political writer by 1925, when he became director of the Social and Economic Museum and developed the “Vienna Method of Picture Statistics”. Its historical and political context was ‘Red Vienna’ (1919–1933) – an experiment of communal socialism in which education (beside health, housing policies, social administration etc.) played a major role. Neurath’s picture statistics is distinguished by its educational purpose (civic education, democratization of knowledge, empowerment etc.) as well as by its particular design rules: According to Isotype, a sign represents a certain amount of things and a greater number of such signs represents a greater amount of things. The Vienna method and its pictograms were further developed and visually refined by a team, the most important members of which were – beside Neurath himself – the artist Gerd Arntz (1900–1988) and Marie Reidemeister (1898–1986) as the “transformer”, a prototype of the modern graphic designer, who translated numbers and facts into visual form.

When democracy ended in Austria in 1933/34, and the socialist movement was violently defeated, Neurath and his core team escaped to the Netherlands and to England in May 1940. The Vienna Method was renamed in 1935 as Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education). An Isotype Institute was founded in Oxford in 1942.

After the end of World War II Otto Neurath died on 22 December 1945. There were at least four different mainlines of developments more or less closely related to Isotype that continued – mostly independently of each other – from 1945 onwards. Firstly, Marie Neurath continued to apply the visual education method more or less strictly in the vein of her previous collaboration with Otto Neurath and remained head of the Isotype-Institute until 1971. Secondly, there was the development in The Hague, where Gerd Arntz had stayed in 1940. He continued with pictorial work with a Dutch Foundation. Thirdly, there was the development in the USA, where Otto Neurath’s former collaborator (and later rival) Rudolf Modley (1906 – 1976) cut his own path as a successful information designer and entrepreneur. Finally, after the end of fascism and National Socialism, the Social and Economic Museum was re-opened in its birthplace in Vienna and exists until today.

The research project aims to analyze the origin and developments of Isotype and Isotype-like approaches in different political contexts and national cultures. It will result in the first comprehensive history of Isotype, including its precedents, its core history in Vienna, its development in exile (The Hague, Oxford), its different international branches and its mainlines of different but parallel developments after 1945. Additionally, it examines the theoretical and programmatic dimension of Isotype and based upon this historical investigation, however, it raises the question of its (even potential) relevance today.

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