Navigating through sprawling airports and massive sports stadiums is frustrating enough with them, and traversing through such a labyrinthine world is unimaginable without them. I refer to those minimal pictographs of man, woman, child, car, sink, toilet, etc., that—like the five famous musical notes used to communicate with aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind—are intelligible to all.
These symbols are just the most visible descendants of a more complex strategic pictorial language system called Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education), the visual data vocabulary conceived by Otto and Marie Neurath and designed by Gerd Arntz in the 1920s to ensure that essential information was universally accessible regardless of literacy or culture. Isotype remains the foremost influence on data visualization, but many of today’s designers may not realize that there was a humanitarian, utopian ethos underlying the language’s creation.
The Isotype images, now called “symbol-signs” or “pictographs,” have been adapted, retrofitted, and reinvented for thousands of uses—from corporate trademarks to pornographic parodies. In 1974 the U.S. Department of Transportation collaborated with the AIGA and the design firm Cook and Shanosky Associates on 50 “passenger/pedestrian” symbols, including telephone, first aid, and nursery, and these are the basis of ubiquitous “wayfinding” iconography in most public places.
Drowning as we are in digital information, in recent years there has been renewed interest in Otto and Marie Neurath, the missionaries of information universality. And no one has been more active in spreading Neurath’s gospel in its purest form than London-based publisher Hyphen Press and its founder Robin Kinross. As a postgraduate student at University of Reading, home of the main archive of the Neuraths' visual work, Kinross did research on this subject and worked on editorial and translation projects with Marie Neurath until her death in 1986. A portion of this research is published in Hyphen’s latest book, Isotype: Design and Contexts 1925-1971, edited by Christopher Burke, Eric Kindel, and Sue Walker. It’s a richly illustrated anthology of historical and critical essays—a must-have for anyone interested in the roots of data visualization and how graphics are used to serve public welfare and illuminate complex issues.