ISOTYPE-Teaching Images

Otto Neurath (Austrian, 1882-1945). Modern Man in the Making, Knopf, 1939, p. 24

Otto Neurath (Austrian, 1882-1945). Modern Man in the Making, Knopf, 1939, p. 24. Courtesy University of Pittsburgh Library System.

  • Otto Neurath (Austrian, 1882-1945). Modern Man in the Making, Knopf, 1939, p. 24
  • Otto Neurath (Austrian, 1882-1945). Modern Man in the Making, Knopf, 1939, p. 65.
  • Otto Neurath (Austrian, 1882-1945). Modern Man in the Making, Knopf, 1939, p. 25.
  • Otto Neurath (Austrian, 1882-1945). Modern Man in the Making, Knopf, 1939, p. 17.
  • Otto Neurath (Austrian, 1882-1945). Modern Man in the Making, Knopf, 1939, p. 85.
  • Otto Neurath (Austrian, 1882-1945). Modern Man in the Making, Knopf, 1939, p. 99.
  • Otto Neurath (Austrian, 1882-1945). Modern Man in the Making, Knopf, 1939, p. 53.
 

ISOTYPE-Teaching Images

Drew Armstrong

Neurath, Modern Man in the Making (1939)

Referring to the Biblical confusion of languages, Otto Neurath (1882-1945) regarded the “debabelization” of humanity as an urgent task of the modern era that would ultimately serve to create international harmony and understanding.  His proposed “International System of Typographic Picture Education” – ISOTYPE – was developed as a means to clarify “complex relations in society and economics, in biology, the engineering sciences, and a number of other fields.”

In the context of post-World War I Europe, Neurath observed that mass media such as print advertising and film permitted the general public to acquire knowledge effortlessly through “optical impressions” – regardless of class or educational background.  Inspired by the potential of the modern world but deeply attuned to its pitfalls, Neurath advocated for the development of a common language of images as part of a standardized system of public education.  He described ISOTYPE as a “helping-language” – a coherent system of graphic signs for “teaching through the eye.”

Neurath’s “teaching-images” were designed as part of a more general renovation of public education encompassing both classroom instruction for children and museum installations aimed at working class adults.  In Neurath’s Museum of Society and Economy (Vienna, 1925-1934), democracy and scientific literacy were to be fostered through displays of statistical data and other representations.  Establishing common understanding through the experience of a new kind of museum was a means to counter social fragmentation and the divisive effects of specialization.  Models for Neurath’s museum included Universal Expositions held in major European and North American cities since the mid-nineteenth century.  These events attracted huge international audiences, bringing a mass public into contact with the products of industry, science, art, and manufacturing.

Inspired by the Encyclopédie but critical of its structure,  Neurath wanted his pictorial system to become part of a new encyclopedia project that would present information in a consistent, unambiguous manner intelligible to a global audience.  Its goal was “to give all men a common starting-point of knowledge ... to give simple and clear accounts of everything as a solid base for our thoughts and our acts, and to make us fully conscious of the conditions in which we are living.”

Comenius, Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658)

First published in 1658, Comenius’s primer – Orbis Sensualium Pictus – was translated into numerous languages and was used for teaching Latin to children for over a century.  As a Protestant and early advocate for universal education, the point of Comenius’s work was to make the Bible accessible to all.  Neurath admired the pedagogical objectives of Comenius’s book but thought the images lacked clarity.

Containing over 150 cheap woodcuts, the Orbis Sensualium Pictus illustrated “a world of things obvious to the senses, drawn in pictures.”  Each image is keyed into words and short phrases in English and Latin placed in facing columns of text, a technique intended to facilitate the acquisition of a basic vocabulary in a range of disciplines.

As the reader proceeds from the beginning of the book through pages illustrating common animals and plants, principles of gardening, the parts of the home, the elements of painting, writing, and printing, she or he (Comenius believe that girls and boys had the same intellectual abilities) is exposed to increasingly sophisticated and modern concepts.  The student thus becomes acquainted with simple terms relating to geometry, astronomy, and philosophy while non-Christian belief-systems are illustrated at the end of the book in figures representing “Judaism” and “Mahometism.”

Neurath, International Picture Language (1936)

In size and composition, Neurath’s handbook – International Picture Language. The First Rules of Isotype – recalls primers like those of Comenius and through the use small images and a text written in Basic English, served a similar purpose.  Neurath, however, was intent not on teaching a verbal language through the use of images, but on developing a language of images based on standardized pictorial forms and consistent principles of graphic composition.

For Comenius writing in seventeenth-century Europe, knowledge of Latin was essential for accessing specialized knowledge in most fields of scholarly inquiry.  Writing in the twentieth century between the two World Wars, Neurath proposed the development of a common language of images to serve the needs of business and science.

Neurath’s pictorial language derived from more general investigations in the 1920s that sought to understand how graphic design and typography could respond to life in modern urban environments, characterized by increasing visual distraction and shortened attention spans. He thus eliminated ambiguous conventions like perspective in favor of simplified, two-dimensional symbols, and limited the use of colors in his graphics. Drawing on techniques exploited in mass media and popular culture, Neurath’s visual language attempted to make complex ideas accessible to a general public.