Discover Isotype, the 1920s Attempt to Create a Universal Language with Stylish Icons & Graphic Design

How long has mankind dreamed of an inter­na­tion­al lan­guage? The first answer that comes to mind, of course, dates that dream to the time of the Bib­li­cal sto­ry of the Tow­er of Babel. If you don’t hap­pen to believe that human­i­ty was made to speak a vari­ety of mutu­al­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble tongues as pun­ish­ment for dar­ing to build a tow­er tall enough to reach heav­en, maybe you’d pre­fer a date some­where around the much lat­er devel­op­ment of Esperan­to, the best-known lan­guage invent­ed specif­i­cal­ly to attain uni­ver­sal­i­ty, in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. But look ahead a few decades past that and you find an intrigu­ing exam­ple of a lan­guage cre­at­ed to unite the world with­out using words at all: Inter­na­tion­al Sys­tem Of Typo­graph­ic Pic­ture Edu­ca­tion, or Iso­type.

“Near­ly a cen­tu­ry before info­graph­ics and data visu­al­iza­tion became the cul­tur­al ubiq­ui­ty they are today,” writes Brain Pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va, “the pio­neer­ing Aus­tri­an soci­ol­o­gist, philoso­pher of sci­ence, social reformer, and cura­tor Otto Neu­rath (Decem­ber 10, 1882–December 22, 1945), togeth­er with his not-yet-wife Marie, invent­ed ISOTYPE — the vision­ary pic­togram lan­guage that fur­nished the vocab­u­lary of mod­ern info­graph­ics.”

First known as the Vien­na Method of Pic­to­r­i­al Sta­tis­tics, Iso­type­’s ini­tial devel­op­ment began in 1926 at Vien­na’s Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmu­se­um (or Social and Eco­nom­ic Muse­um), of which Neu­rath was the found­ing direc­tor. There he began to assem­ble some­thing like a design stu­dio team, with the mis­sion of cre­at­ing a set of pic­to­r­i­al sym­bols that could ren­der dense social, sci­en­tif­ic tech­no­log­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal, and his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion leg­i­ble at a glance.

Neu­rath’s most impor­tant ear­ly col­lab­o­ra­tor on Iso­type was sure­ly the wood­cut artist Gerd Arntz, at whose site you can see the more than 4000 pic­tograms he cre­at­ed to sym­bol­ize “key data from indus­try, demo­graph­ics, pol­i­tics and econ­o­my.” Arntz designed them all in accor­dance with Neu­rat’s belief that even then the long “vir­tu­al­ly illit­er­ate” pro­le­tari­at “need­ed knowl­edge of the world around them. This knowl­edge should not be shrined in opaque sci­en­tif­ic lan­guage, but direct­ly illus­trat­ed in straight­for­ward images and a clear struc­ture, also for peo­ple who could not, or hard­ly, read. Anoth­er out­spo­ken goal of this method of visu­al sta­tis­tics was to over­come bar­ri­ers of lan­guage and cul­ture, and to be uni­ver­sal­ly under­stood.”

By the mid-1930s, writes The Atlantic’s Steven Heller in an arti­cle on the book Iso­type: Design and Con­texts 1925–1971, “with the Nazi march into Aus­tria, Neu­rath fled Vien­na for Hol­land. He met his future wife Marie Rei­de­meis­ter there and after the Ger­man bomb­ing of Rot­ter­dam the pair escaped to Eng­land, where they were interned on the Isle of Man. Fol­low­ing their release they estab­lished the Iso­type Insti­tute in Oxford. From this base they con­tin­ued to devel­op their unique strat­e­gy, which influ­enced design­ers world­wide.” Today, even those who have nev­er laid eyes on Iso­type itself have exten­sive­ly “read” the visu­al lan­guages it has influ­enced: Giz­mod­o’s Alis­sa Walk­er points to the stan­dard­ized icons cre­at­ed in the 70s by the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion and the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Graph­ic Arts as well as today’s emo­ji — prob­a­bly not exact­ly what Neu­rath had in mind as the lan­guage of Utopia back when he was co-found­ing the Vien­na Cir­cle, but nev­er­the­less a dis­tant cousin of Iso­type in “its own adorable way.”

via Brain Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Data Visu­al­iza­tion: How to Tell Com­plex Sto­ries Through Smart Design

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

Say What You Real­ly Mean with Down­load­able Cindy Sher­man Emoti­cons

The Hobo Code: An Intro­duc­tion to the Hiero­glyph­ic Lan­guage of Ear­ly 1900s Train-Hop­pers

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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