Neurath, Bliss and the Language of the Pictogram
Neurath, Bliss and the Language of the Pictogram
Neurath, Bliss and the Language of the Pictogram
By Phil Patton October 20, 2009

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.

Pictogram of manufacturing in non-European countries, from Neurath’s Society and Economy.

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 elsewhere. From Society and Economy, Vienna, 1930.

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 high-contrast recognizability.

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 and designers.

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 Diderot's Encyclopédie and Comenius's Orbis Pictus—or “world in pictures,” probably the first picture book for children, published in 1658.

Isotype pictogram from Otto Neurath’s International Picture Language, 1936.

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 Midlands.

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 reach.

Many would see an irony in this result: Neurath's ideal of a world language to teach socialism turned into a global code for capitalism.

He died in 1945, a year before George Orwell wrote his famous essay “Politics 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.


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 1949.

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 was needed.

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 words.”

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.

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 instance.

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.

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