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Isotype: Graphic detail

Is a picture worth a thousand words? The creators of isotype, an image-based language, thought so. They used it to explain the 20th century's biggest ideas.

Nick Duerden
Tuesday 14 December 2010 01:00 GMT
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A new exhibition at London's V&A Museum aims to shed light on one of the more enduring graphic designs of the 20th century, the isotype. Isotype is an acronym that stands for International System of Typographic Picture Education, a somewhat clunky explanation for something that effectively describes how pictures can be used to explain complex issues easily, at a glance. But the exhibition, one of its curators says, seeks to illustrate an even greater significance.

"This display aims to show that isotype was far more than just a method of showing statistics pictorially," says Professor Sue Walker, Dean of Reading University's Faculty of arts and humanities, "but also that it occupies a genuinely important place in design history."

Its influence remains all around us today. The London Underground map is the perfect example of isotype, as are public street and sports venue signs, and even our computers, mobile phones and iPads.

"Its legacy endures with many of our present-day information designers," Professor Walker says.

The reasons are obvious: the images are often beautiful to look at. And, as is so often the cyclical way of these things, the isotype could be poised to enjoy a major revival. Many of the best images here possess a whiff of Eastern Bloc chic that students have always seemed so taken by, the kind they frame and put up on dorm walls. It can be only a matter of time before Habitat does likewise.

It began as a movement in post-war Vienna in the early 1920s, the work of Otto Neurath, his second wife, Marie, and a small group of artists. Employed by governments to convey convoluted information to the proletariat, they worked on a succession of mostly public-health campaigns in Austria before, in 1931, being retained by the Soviet authorities to help to establish an institute of statistics. Under the unwieldy banner of the All-Union Institute of Pictorial Statistics of Soviet Construction and Economy, they spent three years doing what many would have considered impossible: transforming something dull and lumpen into appealing visuals, and in doing so, communicating the claimed economic and social achievements of the Soviet Union to a mass audience.

Their subsequent success cemented their reputation, and they now began to diversify. In the Netherlands they undertook an arts project, Around Rembrandt, in celebration of Holland's most lauded artist, while in America they created tuberculosis awareness campaigns. After fleeing the Nazi invasion in their native country, they relocated to Oxford in the 1940s, where they returned to their roots and reconnected with issues of social welfare, doing for post-war Britain what they had done in Austria two decades previously. Here, they visualised information about the budding Welfare State, and produced booklets examining the process of social reconstruction.

By the 1950s, their work had spread to Africa, where it was judged that the isotype process could work wonders in countries where populations were often only semi-literate. In Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria they created campaigns for social betterment, including use of free health care and primary education, the modernisation of agriculture, and also a universal enfranchisement.

Although Otto Neurath died in 1945, his wife continued their pioneering work, later concentrating on writing books for children. In many ways this made perfect sense, the dissemination of weighty messages into easily digestible chunks always her particular forte. She remained true to the isotype principles as well, which meant that her attention to detail was unwavering.

"There was always a very strict set of design guidelines in the way they visualised their messages," Professor Walker says, "and she was a stickler for it even here."

One could even say obsessively so. When she wrote a children's tome on the London Underground, for example, to all intents and purposes a pretty picture book, she spent many months researching every facet of the system, from how the Tube trains worked to how the escalators functioned, before transforming what was surely a surfeit of information into a fashion amenable to four-year-olds.

Marie Neurath retired in 1971, and donated her collection to Reading University, where she occasionally lectured. She died in 1986, but her and her husband's work lives on today. The Austrian Cultural Forum (London) is promoting this V&A event with national pride, and a succession of modern-day students are heading out into the design world still in the grip of its influence. Although its curator suggests it would be wrong to consider these as works of art, she does concede that it is likely the Neuraths always had an eye on legacy.

"Oh, I'm sure they hoped these images would endure," Professor Walker confirms. "They certainly deserve to."

Isotype: International Picture Language runs until 13 March 2011; www.vam.ac.uk

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