How Isotype Almost Conquered The World

Austrian polymath Otto Neurath created an international picture language, thus reinventing public communication.

Roxanne Powell
Jul 30, 2013
© Photo: Wirtschaftsmuseum

Neurath’s graphics made social structures easier to understand (Photo: Photo: Wirtschaftsmuseum)

Through the red-brick portal and dark green doors of the Austrian Museum for Social and Economic Affairs, there’s a Kaffeehaus. Or is it a Beisl? It’s not staged for tourists – just a pleasantly worn, friendly Lokal for sharing table and talk. Perfect for a museum whose daily bread is communication.

Tucked away in a working-class neighbourhood of the 5th District, the museum was abuzz in late February, when Austrian President Heinz Fischer was on hand to dedicate the Otto Neurath Gedenkraum, a permanent exhibition in honour of the museum’s founder, a political economist, sociologist and philosopher of science who became one of the leading lights of the Vienna Circle and the early years of Austrian social democracy.

The son of Wilhelm Neurath, then a well-known political economist, Otto studied mathematics in Vienna and gained a Ph.D. in Political Science and Statistics at the University of Berlin. His first publications were in logic and in the history of political economy, several co-authored with his first wife, Anna Schapire-Neurath, who died giving birth to their son in 1911.

In 1919 the short-lived Bavarian socialist government appointed him head of its Central Planning Office in Munich. He was subsequently imprisoned for high treason but returned to Austria after intervention from the Austrian government. While in prison he wrote "Anti-Spengler", a critical attack of the book The Decline of the West (1918) by German historian and philosopher of history Oswald Spengler.


Red Vienna activism

From 1921 until 1934 Neurath played an active part in Vienna’s socialist politics, especially in housing and adult education, joining the Social Democrats and becoming secretary of the Austrian Association for Housing and Small Gardens.

In 1923, he founded the museum for housing and city planning (Siedlungsmuseum), renamed in 1925 the Museum for Social and Economic Affairs in Vienna (Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Wien). Today it is called the Austrian Museum for Social and Economic Affairs. Its supervisory board included the Vienna city administration, trade unions, Chamber of Workers and the Workers Bank (BAWAG: Bank für Arbeit und Wirtschaft).

From the first, the museum was a place for teaching rather than display, whose goal was to democratise knowledge and inform the general public about the social and economic issues of the day, show the world’s complex economic interconnections in order to pave the way for social change.

Following the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, loss of access to its resources fuelled rampant inflation, whilst shortages of food and housing threatened to undermine public health.

Ordinary people – especially many who were functionally illiterate – needed information about the society in which they lived that was not veiled in scientific jargon, but illustrated in straightforward images.

Combining his interests in education and cognitive psychology, Neurath developed the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics between 1925 and 1934 with the German artist Gerd Arntz and author Marie Reidemeister as a symbolic way of representing quantitative information by easily interpretable icons. In 1934, it was renamed Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education).

The Vienna Method was to "represent social facts pictorially" and bring "dead statistics" to life by making them visually appealing and memorable. The museum’s motto: "It is better to remember simplified images than to forget exact figures." By 1930, Neurath’s team had developed a monumental collection of 100 statistical charts explaining how the world works.


The internationalist 

Neurath began promoting the Isotype approach and his 1936 book, International Picture Language, connected it with the adult education movement and the internationalist passion for new, artificial languages. However it was not intended to be a stand-alone language, he emphasised, but a "language-like technique".

During the Austrian Civil War of 1934, Neurath was working in Moscow, helping to set up the All-Union Institute of Pictorial Statistics of Soviet Construction and Economy. He emigrated to the Netherlands as his Vienna team dispersed and the museum was disbanded.

He himself continued, and became the driving force behind the Unity of Science movement. With his assistants from Vienna, he created the International Foundation for Visual Education in The Hague.

With the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, he fled to England with other refugees, including his later wife Marie Reidemeister, in a small open boat. After being interned for nine months, he went on to teach at Oxford and set up the Isotype Institute in London in 1942.

Isotype was applied to wartime publications and documentary films sponsored by the British Ministry of Information, whilst other work was commissioned by several European countries, the United States and Nigeria.


Internationalisation of public space

Otto and Marie Neurath were pioneers at a time when the idea of learning through the eyes was unfamiliar to most. They were the first to establish a set of conventions for the use of pictograms now nearly universal, for instance on street signs and public facilities. Eventually, the Isotype visual dictionary consisted of over 4,000 symbols designed by Arntz that symbolised key data from industry, demographics, politics and the economy.

Neurath’s "infographics" have been emulated world-wide. While their impact on statistical imagery lost out to bar graphs and pie charts in the late 20th century, pictograms are now ubiquitous.

Over the last half century, written directions in public spaces have been gradually replaced by pictograms that can be understood by people of all nationalities. In computing and, lately, on smartphone displays, "icons" have replaced letter code – the old C:\del is now a rubbish bin, and emoticons (eg. smileys) are nearly universal.

Isotype’s disciplined approach continues to inspire designers, leading to a 2010-2011 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; and a symposium, ‘A tribute to Otto Neurath’, at Vienna’s Künstlerhaus coincided with the exhibition Zeit(lose) Zeichen (Time(less) Signs), featuring work influenced by Neurath’s pictograms.

Prominently displayed in the newly-opened Otto Neurath memorial room is the philosopher/sociologist’s motto, "Pictures connect, words divide": A good pictorial chart should speak as clearly to a child as to an adult, the curators explain, and help bridge gaps in cultures and the branches of learning that too often lie languages apart.


Österreichisches Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum, 

5., Vogelsanggasse 36, 

Mon.-Thu. 9:00 18:00, Fri. 9:00 14:00

(01) 545 25510