Visualization of Social Facts, by Frank Hartmann

Originally published June 20, 2005

What can still be learned from a historical intervention in visualisation is how to bypass language with new symbolic tools – an approach once set by social philosopher Otto Neurath and his team under graphic designer Gerd Arntz. Conceived as a lingua franca for the modern world, Isotype (International System Of Typographic Picture Education) was developed in Vienna of the late 1920’s. Presented as perhaps the first scientific logo system, Isotype served to visualise social and economic relations especially for the uneducated receiver to ease reception of complex matters. Isotype was developed from a specific socialist concept of adult education enhancing existing scientific arguments with an education through the eye. In well received exhibitions in European cities and printed material data graphics, the visual display of quantitative information served the dissemination of knowledge beyond reading, generally accessible independently from individual educational backgrounds.

The visual features of Isotype were meant to present clear cut information, avoiding possible misunderstanding. Isotype should function within the international nature of picture language, and the icons to make connections across recipient cultures rather than to simply depict things. These icons of objectivity were meticulously crafted mainly with the aim of visualising the invisible economic factors which make the functioning of society.

Thus a picture language emerges from the consistent use of expert graphic design. In themselves, signs were constructed as clearly as possible so they could be used without the help of words. They were then arranged into fact pictures according to a set of rules concerning serialisation, iconicity and consistency in use. Elements or pictograms were reduced to the smallest possible detail of what they represented (e.g. starting with the outline of a “man” and if necessary, with additional attributes to identify the man as “worker”, “coal worker”, “unemployed” etc). In the pictures, perspective was abandoned, illustrating details banned and any use of colors standardised.

The specific aspect of Neurath’s Isotype system is not the notion of truth in the modes of representation, be it in pictures or words, but the factor of transformation in the way we use signs in our communications. The construction of signs (expert level) and the rules for using them (community level) are of the same importance. Together they form a means of modernist information aesthetics.

Frank Hartmann