A Lesson from the Isotype

When empiricism meets utopia: Otto Neurath and the humanization of knowledge through visual design

Noemi Biasetton
11 min readSep 20, 2019
© Noemi Biasetton, 2019

“We cannot hope to democratize cultural life without new ways of conveying information”. (Neurath, 1939: 136)

Between language and philosophy

In the first half of the 20th century, Europe was economically torn apart from World War One and already threatened by the nationalist forces that would have led to World War Two. At the same time, in the easternmost part of the Alps, a future metropolis held its first elections under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious program of social and economic reform between the World Wars (1918–1934), developing into a bright example for democracy across the Old Continent. That city was Vienna, capital of Austria, which due to the majority of Social Democrats in the government was called at that time “Red Vienna” (Rotes Wien).
Despite the ever-darkening political situation of the 1920s and 1930s central Europe—or maybe as a result of this—Vienna’s vibrantly intellectual environment gave birth to a group of philosophers, scientists, and thinkers named “Vienna Circle” (Wiener Kreis). Together, they saw the necessity to offer a more empiricist and positivist clarification of their country’s problems through what they later called “humanization of knowledge”.

Every Thursday, at the University of Vienna’s Mathematical Seminar in Boltzmanngasse 5, these conceptual revolutionaries pledged to reform academic philosophy by showing metaphysics not simply to be false, but to be cognitively empty and meaningless. With the publication of their manifesto Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle (Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung: Der Wiener Kreis) in 1929, the group formally declared its view of a scientific world-conception, which was both a theoretical belief and a method of approaching science characterized by empiricism, positivism, and logical analysis. Members of the Vienna Circle firmly believed that all forms of metaphysical statements were meaningless and that everything could be reduced to statements about experience, or even reducible to simpler statements about the empirically given.
Lastly, the Vienna Circle took distance from any form of theology or tradition-based thoughts and stood on the ground of empirical sciences, which according to the members reflected a sort of forma mentis whose aim was to link and harmonize the achievements of individual investigators in various fields of science.

On the left: the Mathematical Seminar at the University of Vienna, in Boltzmanngasse 5, was the meeting place of the Vienna Circle during their regular Thursday meetings. On the right: the Vienna Circle’s Manifesto, Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung: Der Wiener Kreis, 1929.

In promoting the scientific world-conception, one of the Institute’s main objectives was to democratize knowledge and science as a process of enlightenment, counteracting all forms of irrational, dogmatic or fundamentalist thought. During this process, members of the Vienna Circle did not seek to answer questions but tried to equip citizens with the intellectual tools needed to answer those questions. However, one of the main problems these philosophers encountered was that tools for spreading knowledge and information were often too tough to be understood, especially from non-intellectuals. Starting from that consideration, the group looked for a ‘language-like technique’ to make scientific and factual information more accessible to the ‘common man’ and bridge the gap between the academic world and the uninformed. To achieve that, one of the Circle’s members theorized the presence of a powerful connection between knowledge and images, which he claimed to occupy causal effectiveness in individuals’ lives and society. The name of that theorist was Otto Neurath, and that connector between knowledge and images was Isotype, the International System of Typographic Picture Education.

The aim of the Isotype

Otto Neurath (1882–1945) was an Austrian philosopher, sociologist, and political economist who was both the co-founder of the Vienna Circle and one of the most influential theorists of his time. His creation, Isotype, was first conceptualized as the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics (Wiener Method der Bildstatistik) and later developed under the name Isotype by him and his team at the Gesellschafts– und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Vienna in 1925. (fig.3) The Gesellschafts– und Wirtschaftsmuseum aimed to inform the masses about sociological and economic issues and provide them access to universal knowledge through visual education, mainly through permanent and mobile exhibitions. For this purpose, the institution ran regularly exhibitions in the city hall, as well as in some districts of Vienna, and used Isotype as the picture language to convey information. More specifically, Isotype was used in picture statistics for the representation of quantitative data, and in education pictures for the visualization of natural and sociological sciences.

Another aim of the Isotype was to represent social facts pictorially and to bring “dead statistics” to life by making them visually attractive and memorable (Burke, 2009: 211–223). For example, if the intention was to explain to people how their municipal taxes were being spent, Neurath and his team would display charts and diagrams about housing programs, the fight against tuberculosis, welfare programs, and all that was needed to get a deeper, all-round understanding of the issue taken into consideration. Eventually, the ultimate objective of the museum was to enfranchise people by explaining to them how they fitted into the world’s complex interconnections, following Neurath’s utopia that Isotype could become

“[…] of the elements which may help to bring about a civilization in which all men can participate in a common culture and in which the canyon between educated and uneducated will be bridged.” (Neurath, 1939: 136)

Gesellschafts — und Wirtschaftsmuseum, Vienna.

Humanization of language

The aim of the Isotype was an educational one: to inform the masses about science, technology, society, and history. Neurath envisioned Isotype as a language for people of every kind and from all over the world, convinced that from clarity and conciseness would come consciousness and knowledge. For him and the members of the Vienna Circle, science was conceived as a collective activity, a collaboration that involved people as protagonists of a participative process. Following this path, the Isotype intended to function as a bridge between two worlds that apparently had nothing in common: the experts and the ‘common man’. In his unfinished manuscript titled Visual Education: Humanisation versus Popularisation (ca. 1945), Neurath first introduced the possibility of a “non-hierarchical” international picture language, based on the ideal joint effort of the scientific sphere and the public one. Here, he gave some insights on how to create such language:

“We must begin our explanations in accordance with the knowledge and vocabulary already familiar to the people. Gradually simple traditional expressions in more complicated combinations and perhaps some more advanced terms may be introduced. […] This procedure from the simplest to the most complicated, I shall call humanization.”
(Neurath in Nemeth and Stadler, 1996: 245).

For Neurath, the translation from the complicated to the simple, from top to bottom, was the pure essence of the humanization of knowledge. Also, he considered that one of the most unpleasant reactions a user might get when reading information (about any topic, on whichever medium) is a feeling of disorientation and a sense of incompetency. In the humanization of knowledge, this inferiority complex aims at being avoided at all costs. Any kind of frustration that might result from reading a piece of information should instead be turned into enthusiasm and forms of curiosity. The solution to this problem, according to Neurath, was to transfer the scientific attitude by using only observation-statements while explaining something. On this topic, he lays the example:

“Any everyday statements such as: ‘today it is raining’, would be regarded as a scientific statement, because it is suitable for being fitted into the fabric of a comprehensive scientific discussion.”
(Neurath in Nemeth and Stadler, 1996: 254).

Because Neurath aimed to design a language for all, which could allow all people to discuss factual relations with one another, he understood a language based on visuals could reach more people, achieving his idea of the “democratization of knowledge”. The educational work of Otto Neurath relied on the main idea that a visual language could eventually unify everyday and scientific knowledge, and this topic is still today more important than ever. Indeed, in a world dominated by a series of educational, technological, and social discrepancies, the need for a unified language to divulge information would be a great challenge to undertake.

Unfortunately, in contemporary information systems, written and picture language are often conceived as alternatives. Most of the time, in fact, the implementation of images is used to attract the viewer rather than being a source of information. The work of Otto Neurath can be considered today as a well-founded analysis of the areas of word and image, taking place “within the context of public demand for the popularization of knowledge” (Stadler, 2001: 2). In his work, the unification between visual and verbal is supported in the way symbols relate to verbal expressions, creating a uniform vocabulary onto which then creates a grammar — all based on the same style. Isotype, in this sense, functions as a kind of auxiliary visual language, combined with additional remarks in other languages to produce knowledge. Neurath’s vision of visual education both calls for and enforces a more human approach to education — usually pursued solely through writing — as Isotype can only deal with things that are the level of everyone’s understanding. As Neurath stated:

“Visual education leads to internationalization much more than word education does. One can use the same visual arguments, connected with different words for explanation in various languages; one can even vary the remarks on the same visual material. Visual education is related to the extension of intellectual democracy within single communities and within mankind, it is an element of international social planning and engineering.”
(Neurath and Cohen, 2012: 247)

On the left: ‘How densely populated have the Germans lived?’ Demonstration model on population density in Germany through the centuries. From the collection Technik im Bild. On the right: Isotype posters and spectators during an exhibition at the Wiener Volkshalle (City Hall) at the beginning of the 1930s.

The role of the transformer

By the early 1930s, Neurath was the leader of a small yet very creative team (25 employees ca.) split into four groups: data collectors, graphic artists, technical assistants, and transformers. The principal transformer from the beginning until the end of the Isotype Institute was Otto Neurath’s wife, mathematician Marie Neurath. The transformer was a “trustee of the public”, but also the person in charge of analyzing data and shaping it into a draft graphic form. She was both a visual editor and liaison between data collectors and graphic artists, dealing with external commissioners and balancing both their desires and the requirements of the exhibition’s users. It was her responsibility to “understand the data, to get all necessary information from the expert, to decide what is worth transmitting to the public, how to make it understandable” and “how to link it with general knowledge or with information already given in other charts” (Weller, 2010: 61). This kind of personality, able to create visual aids, manage a huge amount of information, and deal with both commissioners and users, reveals Isotype’s pioneering strategy for an effective visual communication system, which undeniably exerted great influence on the modern and contemporary design of information. In similar ways, in fact, many claim the transformer to be the prototype of the modern information designer.

Today, like in the 1930s, the transformer usually starts with what to say and then figures out how best to say it. Like Marie Neurath, graphic designers working with information typically start by discussing the content of the message with the experts; when the point is made, the transformer/graphic designer works visually to best represent what was previously agreed on with the expert. This mutual exchange of content and form between the two goes on until a final decision is taken. Eventually, the graph can be tested on the selected public for the exhibition. What is crucial about the transformer is its role as overseer of the whole process of communication — what is said, how it is said, and what its effect is.

Between content and form

To many extents, transformers today are widely challenged by new technological implications in the display of information, as well as by the increased amount of information available online. A fundamental aspect of the transformer’s role today is to balance content and form, making sure that none of the above prevails onto the other. Also, the final challenge is to make the content look interesting and visually appealing, in a world (the online one) where ads and lots of other visual elements function as ‘competitors’. For this, it becomes decisive to know the audience the transformer will be talking to, as creating a successful language is a result of studying the public. Analyzing the audience’s competence in terms of reading and understanding indeed might be a good starting point to properly address certain issues visually. Different target populations have different levels of reading competence, and it is the job of the transformer to know their audience, to make sure the language is tailor-made to their requirements.

In the era of digital information and knowledge production, the transformer serves as an often necessary mediator between the experts and the public, who don’t usually go along well in terms of trust and message realization. Implementing this expertise in the world of design means to be aware now more than ever of the reader the message is addressed to. It is essential to sneak into their world of communication, to understand it, to copy and improve its mechanisms, and eventually to display accurate information. Ultimately, the role of the contemporary transformer is to organize a system that questions the reader’s opinion about facts through a process of curiosity-making and personal engagement using the tools and processes of design.

A design perspective to cultural practices

In the 1930s, Otto Neurath adopted the scientific world-conception as a facilitation method for a thriving democratic society. Following this purpose, the Isotype Institute was founded on the principles of language democratization and visual learning, projecting logical positivist theories onto a visual idiom. The question that closes this review is what an updated version of the Isotype would be like in the digital world, and how it would deal with today’s information ecosystem. Nowadays, designers should try to re-answer some of the questions that Neurath asked himself in the 1930s, but applied to a different and evolved context: How to interact with the online public? How to transfer the scientific attitude through digital platforms? Is it possible to unify visual, verbal, and data language in one cohesive system?

When knowledge becomes relative and contextual, a shift in the readership’s parameters is necessary. We need to overturn the paradigm of the reader from a spectator position to an explorer one. From the spectator's position, knowledge is seen as an abstract, closed system owned by isolated units, and this brings users to think by an exclusionary logic of either-or, good or bad, right or wrong. From the explorer's position, instead, knowledge is seen as an embodied, open system created by people in a mutual relationship with the world, informed by logic and causality systems. In this digital news era, it becomes essential to challenge ours and other assumptions, to envision other ways of thinking and conceiving the world, introducing philosophical questions in the media landscape discourse. The ultimate goal for any designer working in the communication sphere should be to humanize human doubts, questions, and uncertainties. To help readers not fall into the trap of seeing reality as black or white, as often proposed in present times. To show that complexity is not something to shy away from, but rather a starting point that leads to knowledge.