Without much thought or effort, I’ve been reading images inspired by Otto Neurath’s International Picture Language for most of my life. No doubt you too have encountered derivatives of these informative symbols which can be found across the globe and online, from airport signage to The Noun Project. Considered an early pioneer of infographics, Neurath translated complicated data into easily readable pictograms.
What is less obvious from these simplified yet functional pictures is Neurath’s deep-rooted philosophical ambitions to democratize knowledge and inspire participatory urban planning. Recognized primarily for his contributions to the history of philosophy, to the Vienna Circle, and the Unity of Science movement, Neurath worked his entire life to synthesize community and modernity. By using symbols and graphs rather than words to communicate socio-economic conditions, he hoped to enlist the masses in social and political reform.
By 1918 Neurath became interested in museum education and exhibition design, allowing him to reach broader audiences. As director of the German Museum of War Economy in Leipzig and later the Museum of Society and Economy in Vienna, he believed that creating a visual vocabulary and a system of metaphors could inspire viewers with a sense of solidarity and belonging. The pictorial language he developed, working with graphic artist Gerd Arntz, became known as the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics, which was renamed in 1935 to ISOTYPE (International System of TYpographic Picture Education).
The ISOTYPES above from Neurath’s International Picture Language offered a new alternative for representing the different human races. Below he demonstrates how these symbols can be used to create a chart representing world populations at a glance.
Neurath’s system of graphic representation made statistical data legible and accessible to mass audiences, enabling them to understand the world around them better. Today, as we face the challenges of managing massive data sets, Neurath’s achievements seem particularly relevant in helping us find new data visualization techniques.