The Isotype Movement … Has It Been Replaced By Emoji?

As I was reading in chapter 16 this week about Bauhaus and the New Typography I read a segment about the Isotype Movement… And it just tickled my brain a bit.  First of all I like the word… Isotype.  I know, it’s kind of random but hey It’s been that kind of day for me.

Any way…. Let me tell. you a little bit about the Isotype Movement.  A gentleman by the name of Otto Neurath who was inspired as a child by Egyptian wall frescoes that he’d seen in Vienna as a child sought to create a system of ‘elementary pictographs to present complex data’ specifically relating to issues important to the public such as housing, health and economics.  This is paraphrased from our text book, Meggs p. 341. Originally Isotype was called the Vienna Method but was renamed Isotype which is an acronym for International System of Typographic Picture Education.  Frankly it’s just easier to say Isotype.

In the meanwhile, Marie Reidermesiter compiled heaps of data which was then turned over to the graphic designers.  From there it was necessary to come up with catchy little descriptive pictographs for each hunk of data that needed to be represented.  At the inception of this program in 1934 these pictographs had to be drawn or cut out of paper!  Talk about a lot of work!  Creative genius Gerd Arntz joined the team as a woodcut artist who ended up taking the responsibility of designing the vast majority of these designs – which were often reduced to about 1/2 centimeter (1/5th of an inch) tall.  These designs had to represent an obvious thing such as a drunk man, an unemployed man, an emigrant man so they could be placed in charts and diagrams. (Meggs p.341). Here take a look at some of these examples:

Book cover of 'From Hieroglyphics to Isotype' by Otto Neurath
Book cover of ‘From Hieroglyphics to Isotype’ by Otto Neurath
Title:Gesellschaftsgliederung in Nürnberg Creator:  illustrator:  Arntz, Gerd
Title: Gesellschaftsgliederung in Nürnberg
illustrator: Arntz, Gerd

While doing a little additional research on Isotype I came across this interesting article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy you can take a look at it here:  It’s titled  Supplement to Otto Neurath Visual Education and quite interesting and yet intensely dry reading at the same time.  However this article, copyrighted in 2014 by Jordi Cat <>, goes in to a heck of a lot more detail on Isotype than our textbook ever could.  And, it bears repeating…. Definitely interesting subject matter – I’d highly recommend spending the time reading this info if you have any interest on the subject at all and wish to get really in depth on it.  Here’s an excerpt of the page that I found interesting… As I said it’s a little dry:

ISOTYPE (International System Of Typographic Picture Education) method, expressed the modernist ideals of minimalism, functionalism, of design, with the factuality, universality and neutrality, relative autonomy and stability, of the visual with respect to interpretation and cultural references. It had an abstracted, simplified, elemental and Gestalt-like conventional quality intended to convey a concept through the constructed representation of a typical individual—also similar to Bauhaus ‘essential types’, a graphic product of the same German intellectual culture of typology which included taxonomy, morphology, physiognomics (discussed by Neurath in 1921)

Jordi Cat put it much better and way more intellectually than I could have at any rate and there are a few of Otto Neurath’s Isotype images as examples as well.

Aside from my awesome discovery of Jordi Cat’s Supplement to Otto Neurath, I’ll go back to our regular text book’s teachings for a moment before I move on, as I’d wanted to mention another thing.  According to our text one of Neurath’s assitance, Rudolf Modley, came to America sometime in the 1930’s.  Further research on my part was unfruitful unfortunately.  Google didn’t serve up anything useful… I didn’t even find any juicy tidbits on wikipedia and they seem to have random stuff on just about everybody!… Any way Modley was responsible for bringing Isotype to America and established his on business which began as Pictorial Statistics, Inc and eventually became the Pictographic Corporation, the North American branch of the Isotype movement.

Our text finishes off the Isotype segment by saying this:

The Isotype group’s contribution to visual communications is the set of conventions they developed to formalize the use of pictorial language. This includes a pictorial syntax (a system of connecting images to create an ordered structure and meaning) and the design of simplified pictographs. The impact of their work on post-World War II graphic design includes research toward the development of universal visual-language systems and the extensive use of pictographs in signage and information systems

I thing that wraps the segment up nicely. Today we can see how Isotype has influenced our daily lives. Every time we cross the street, use the bathroom or see a handicapped sign, these symbols have all been derived from the Isotype pictograph language created by Otto Neurath. Here are a few examples I grabbed from the internet:

Pedestrian Cross Walk Sign. Stop / Walk
Pedestrian Cross Walk Sign. Stop / Walk
Traditional Men & Women signage
Traditional Men & Women signage
Traditional Handicapped Sign
Traditional Handicapped Sign

And this one is my favorite… It’s a photograph I took while in Canada it’s a cautionary pictograph. Let’s see if you can guess it’s meaning:

You can't touch this! Sign in Whistler Canada on Electrified equipment.
You can’t touch this! Sign in Whistler Canada on Electrified equipment.

Seeing signs everywhere I go now makes me think of my buddy Otto Neurath especially when I see REALLY FUNNY signs like the one above… Well I suppose if you’re getting electrocuted it’s not so funny.  It also makes me REALLY appreciate Otto.  Because really, when I’m driving by at 80mph… I mean at 65mph because I don’t speed at all! I really don’t have time to read the fine print! Simple to the point symbols make life so much easier to deal with in our fast paced world.

Which leads me to the last point I’d like to make tonight…. How about those emoji’s??? Aren’t they today’s equivalent of an Isotype? Think about it?  You can pretty much have an entire conversation without writing a word via an instant chat.  Just a few acronym’s such as LOL, OMG, YSFOS squished in between a few meaningful emoticons and you have the bulk of a robust conversation in today’s world… I weep for the future.  All sarcasm aside.  Emoticons and emoji make office conversations on the instant chat fast, especially when you can’t have a long drawn out conversation or when office politics prevent you from “actually saying something” the emoji can be used to let the other person think what they will allowing you to safely dodge a potentially ugly situation.

Emoji are also vastly popular on many social media outlets such as Facebook and also via text messaging.

Here are some playful examples of emoticons:

Emoticons for Facebook
Emoticons for Facebook

With that folks I’ll wish you a good night!  Sweet Dreams!

Sweet Dreams Emoticon
Sweet Dreams Emoticon

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