Isotype International picture language

Isotype: international picture language is a display currently on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This small but comprehensive exhibition is one of the results of Isotype Revisited, an ongoing research project of the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading.

Isotype is a popular subject in visual communication: the last ten years have seen the appearance of a good amount of publications and some exhibitions. Despite this, Isotype’s broader scope is still to be fully understood by the design community, that tends to be mainly fascinated by Gerd Arntz’s pictograms, its most conspicuous aspect, but not necessarily the most important.

Isotype Revisited has the merit of presenting a much wider view on the project carried on by Otto Neurath and his associates, expanding the research to cover less well-known subjects.

The exhibition presents all the steps in the developement of Isotype: the early work done at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Vienna – including the pre-Gerd Arntz period; the collaboration with the Soviet institute of pictorial statistics (Izostat); the Dutch period and the collaboration with American institutions and publishers; the publications and films made in Britain during the war to support the home front; and finally the work done by Marie Neurath and the Isotype Institute in the post-was period: a series of books for children and the collaboration with West African countries.

The show displays original material from the Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection, ranging from the well-known charts from the Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft atlas (1930) and Modern Man in the Making (1939), to rarely seen items such as the animated charts produced for the documentaries directed by Paul Rotha. Some of the historical maps and charts collected by Otto Neurath during his lifetime are also on display. (More details on the contents of the exhibitions can be found here.)

Connected to the Isotype Revisited project is a series of books published by Hyphen Press. The first one, issued in 2009, is The transformer: principles of making Isotype charts, by Marie Neurath and Robin Kinross: a small but indispensable book that has at its centre the concept of transformation, one of the great innovations established by Neurath: anticipating the role that would later be known as information architect, the transformer in the Isotype team had the responsibility of analysing data and to devise the most meaningful arrangement, one that would not just present numbers pictorially, but would also make their implications visible.

Included in the book is an essay by Robin Kinross, Lessons of Isotype, that finally puts Isotype in the right perspective, connecting it not only to information visualization, but to the wider field of visual communication design, in relation to projects by Harry Beck, Jan Tschichold, Max Bill, Anthony Froshaugh, Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, that all share the same “Isotype way of thinking”.

The most recent publication is From hieroglyphics to Isotype, Otto Neurath’s “visual autobiography”, edited by Matthew Eve and Christopher Burke. The series will be completed next year with a book of essays concerning the main research themes carried out at Reading.

The Isotype Revisited project team: Eric Kindel, Sue Walker, Christopher Burke, Matthew Eve, Emma Minns, Sue Perks.

International picture language
10 december 2010 – 13 march 2011
Victoria and Albert Museum
Room 17a

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