Class Project Ideas: Feb. 2, 2009




I was moving some piles of junk and came across a 1934 U.S. Public Works Administration book on Mississippi Valley public works projects (Report of the Mississippi Valley Committee of the Public Works Administration, October 1, 1934).  The book is full of maps and other information graphics influenced by Otto Neurath’s picture language, isotype.  Isotype is visually distinctive and activist and populist in intent.

Some examples of the isotype “language” from a 1937 article by Neurath:

isotype_lang1 sotype_lang2 sotype_lang3 sotype_lang4

It struck me that we could use isotype inspired maps and graphics for our “dis-orientation” guide and poster.  We are copying the idea of the UNC map, but with an entirely different look.  Isotype – with its activist and populist bent – seems to be very appropriate.  And funky-retro.

Further, I think we can roll the majority of class projects into this poster, or at least some part of each of the projects, so we have a green/sustainability oriented dis-orientation map.  Isotype is certainly related to cartography and GIS and the goals and intent of our projects.  Further, isotype design was at its peak during the 1930s – the last great depression.  That corresponds with the current not-so-great semi-depression.


Otto Neurath (1882 – 1945) was a philosopher, sociologist, and political scientist. One of his many concerns was education, and in particular, enhancing the understanding of statistics and other numeric data.  To this end Neurath, Gerd Arntz, and Marie Reidemeister created the pictorial language isotype. A few examples open this posting.

We may want to have the last set of readings / student presentations focus on the ideas behind isotype – thus focusing on the way we plan to present our work to the eager public.


A few interesting isotype & Neurath resources to look at:

The Isotype Institute carries on the tradition of isotype, and includes many isotype graphics to look at.

1930 Atlas of Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (Society and Economy): big PDF of entire atlas.  Sybilla Nikolow discusses the atlas in her article “Society and Economy: An Atlas in Otto Neurath’s Pictorial Statistics from 1930.” (PDF)

Ellen Lupton reviews the history and significance of isotype in her article “Reading Isotype.” (PDF)


Neurath and the Vienna Method of Picture Statistics (PDF).  A chapter out of an e-book called Speaking of Graphics An Essay on Graphicacy in Science, Technology and Business by Paul J. Lewi.  Seems like a nice overview of the history of isotype and its characteristics.

The DADA Companion has much information on design and art related to isotype.  Search for “isotype” or “Neurath.”

A new book should be out in April of 2009 called The Transformer: Principles of Making Isotype Charts by Marie Neurath and Robin Kinross.  A copy is ordered for our library.

Gerd Arntz Web Archive. A super collection of thousands of isotype symbols designed by Arntz.  All seem to be free to use.  The site also has a breif biography of Arntz.

gmdh02_00158_0 gmdh02_00094_0gmdh02_00045

Austin Kleon’s blog on graphic design has a nice posting on isotype, comics, and information graphics design. Search the blog for other isotype references.

The web magazine Mute has a feature called The Dutch Are Weeping in Four Universal Pictorial Languages At Least that reviews a series of contemporary exhibits that focus on isotype and related ideas.  One exhibit called After Neurath has a significant amount of information and links.

The New York Times summarized 2007 US and Coalition member deaths in Iraq in a isotype-esque chart (click for larger version):


Stroom De Haag writes (in the online magazine Archined) about Neurath as the “grandfather of open source.”

Lots more out there…


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