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Otto Neurath is today remembered as the forefather of the
pictograms we see in airports and other spaces. But Neurath began
with other far higher ambitions, as conveyed by an upcoming
exhibition at the MAK Center
for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House in Hollywood.
“Otto Neurath: Gypsy Urbanism”—guest-curated by the critic Nader
Vossoughian, author of the book Otto
Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis—runs November 4
through January 31, 2010.
Isotype of mass production in non-European countries. From Otto
Neurath's Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (Society and Economy),
Vienna, 1930 (courtesy MAK Center).
The show celebrates Neurath's International System of
Typographic Picture Education—or Isotype—and recreates parts of the
Museum of Society and Economy that Neurath established in 1925.
There he used iconic and graphic images to express social and
economic patterns. He also designed the images to make up a “museum
without boundaries,” which was sent to remote sites like a kind of
bookmobile or a mini traveling exhibition. About a hundred of these
images are included.
Neurath's biography can be read as a persistence of high ideals
over constant frustration—and a sequence of lowered sights. He was
born in 1888 and played many roles: economic planner, housing
bureaucrat, professor, museum director. He worked with such figures
as Adolf Loos, Josef Frank, Le Corbusier and László Moholy-Nagy. In
1919, facing the wreckage of World War I, he began hoping to direct
an economy, for the short-lived “Soviet republic” in Bavaria. When
that regime collapsed, he moved to Vienna and directed housing
policy in the city, aiming to create garden-based housing
developments for the displaced through the Settlement and Allotment
Garden Association. The city government decided to emphasize
high-rise structures instead, so he departed.
Neurath refocused on the project of developing a museum of a new
kind, a pedagogical display of social and economic trends, which
eventually found a home in the city hall. But its greater impact
would be as traveling displays, neighborhood shows for which
Neurath designed clever presentation formats.
His efforts to develop the museum flowed from the conviction
that language was irreparably alloyed by ideology, so Neurath
proposed a series of symbols and charts to transcend it. He
declared that “words divide, images unite” and in Isotype offered
pictograms that were later called a “picture Esperanto.”
Chart of motor vehicles in the United States and abroad. From
Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft, 1930 (courtesy MAK Center).
Neurath was a leading figure in the so-called Vienna Circle of
philosophers and literary figures, which championed logical
positivism, a philosophy based largely on the ideas of Rudolf
Carnap and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The group believed that
traditional, language-based philosophy was hopelessly mired in
metaphysics. The only way to escape the inherent limits of language
was through mathematics, including the mathematics used to
represent logic and choice, such as Boolean algebra. Such an
approach dovetailed with Neurath's ideas for presenting social and
economic truths in numerical, graphic form.
The Isotype system for which Neurath is famous was at first
called simply the Viennese method. Many of its pictograms were
created by Gerd Arntz,
a graphic designer Neurath hired in 1928. Arntz emphasized the
simplification of shapes and silhouetting for easy reproduction and
Neurath was very conscious of the risk of presenting false
specificity to social statistics—numbers that were of necessity
estimates and approximations—especially when they were presented as
geometric elements such as curves in graphs. His dream of a
universal picture language found reception beyond Austria. His book
International Picture Language was published in London
in 1936. Two years later, another volume came out in New York. In
the United States Neurath became an influence on New Deal thinkers
The 100 charts and 30 text tables of “Society and Economy” made
a kind of atlas, mapping history and society,
including historic comparison of civilizations from Rome and Greece
to the present. His approach, he said, took inspiration from
and Comenius's Orbis
Pictus—or “world in pictures,” probably the first picture
book for children, published in 1658.
An oversimplification of racial types in the form of a
pictogram. From Otto Neurath's International Picture Language,
In turn, Neurath would inspire designers drawn to his
accessibility and light touch. His work echoes in charts and
illustrations like those Nigel Holmes has done for Time
magazine and other publications
But there is no wholly objective presentation even of numbers.
One of Neurath's diagrams on “social problems of the present”
offers up a diagram of continents with racial types—e.g,. an Asian
figure with conical hat and yellow skin. Isotypes could not
entirely escape stereotypes.
Neurath left Vienna in 1934 and moved to the United Kingdom. He
worked a planner for the town of Bilston in the British
Neurath's symbols eventually served as the basis for
international icons used in airports and railroad stations. They
were stylized to seem styleless, and they fit neatly with modern
sans serif types, radiating efficiency, corporate power and global
Many would see an irony in this result: Neurath's ideal of a
world language to teach socialism turned into a global code for
He died in 1945, a year before George Orwell wrote his famous
and the English Language.” In the wake of the war, surveying
the effects of ideology and propaganda on language, Orwell declared
that “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of
language.” Words had become debased by the abuse of ideologues.
Examples of Blissymbolics pictorial language.
Neurath was deeply skeptical of language for similar reasons. He
was an advocate of the image because he had so little trust in
words. An even more extreme approach belonged to Charles Bliss,
father of a system of graphic language he called Blissymbolics. Bliss,
who was 15 years younger than Neurath but had suffered through the
war, carried the Isotype idea further in his system, which he also
named “World Writing” in his book Semantography published in
For both Neurath and Bliss, the failings of language and the
failings of western civilization in the 20th century were so
closely bound together that a radically new strategy of symbolism
Bliss was even more pessimistic about language than Neurath was.
For Bliss language seemed to have not just failed to save humanity,
but had contributed to its destruction. Words had been forced into
the service of totalitarianism and were now hopelessly corrupted.
He went beyond Neurath's motto, “words divide, images unite,” to
declare that “the language barrier is real, and its cost is
ultimately measured in lives… Millions were put to death because of
Bliss's ideas were shaped by his own childhood spent in Europe
and China, to which his family had fled the Nazis. Bliss was born
Karl Kasiel Blitz in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, a mixture of
peoples where, as he wrote in 1965, “20 different nationalities
hated each other, mainly because they spoke and thought in
different languages.” He came to be believe that the letters that
had once been respected and valued as the essence of human and
divine values had been proven by two world wars and the Holocaust
to be not just empty but, often, outright tools of evil.
“Creativity builds bridges to a more humane world” written in
Blissymbolics (source: CID).
In a world that seemed to him to have reverted to primitivism,
he proposed a fresh, vital but primitive alphabet of symbols. Bliss
did not want to burn books or destroy words outright. He promised
“no language will be replaced, only alphabets and logographies” by
the introduction of his system. But alphabets, he believed were
unnatural. They were “mere inventions by committee.” Instead, image
would supplant word.
Bliss wanted in effect to return before the phonetic era to a
hieroglyphic system. Unlike Isotypes, Blissymbolics had a kind of
grammar. Unlike a pure pictographic system, Bliss's pictographic
system restricted the number of basic signs but added inflecting
marks so the basic symbols could be combined to make something like
sentences. The signs were marked with indicators, not unlike the
slash element used commonly in signage today to indicate
prohibition. A little box made a sign a noun, for instance. A
brevet-like form signified action. Like Neurath, Bliss found his
area of operations continually reduced. He developed an
international organization, Blissymbolics Communication
International. Frustrated by efforts at having his system
universally adopted, Bliss ended up late in his life applying his
system for the use of the learning disabled or physically
handicapped. It proved of use for cerebral palsy patients, for
But for Bliss, who died in 1985, such limited use ignored the
wider truth, that words were a handicap under which all human
beings suffered and from which only images could release them. For
a graphic designer, it might be the ultimate hubris.
To see all of Neurath's
pictograms from Gessellschaft und Wirtschaft,click here to download the PDF(external link to 14.5
This system of 50 symbol signs, produced by AIGA and the U.S. Department of Transportation, was designed for use at the crossroads of modern life.
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