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New Series: ISOTYPE Books

Presenting facts through data is not a recent idea. Otto and Marie Neurath created ISOTYPE in the 1920s and then ran their ISOTYPE Institute for more than two decades. During that time, they created charts for a wide variety of publications. In this series, I will show a number of these charts that I have found, and discuss the context they appeared in.

Over the past year, I have bought a number of books containing ISOTYPE charts. Some contain many of them, some just a single one. Some use them throughout, some just have them as the inside cover. These are all from the 1940s through the 1960s.

What I’m trying to understand and illustrate at the same time is how prevalent ISOTYPE was for a while. I’ll be looking for hints in the books to see if authors felt the need to explain them, or just assumed that people smart enough to read the books would also get the charts (the latter seems to be the case, from what I’ve seen). Steve Haroz, Steven Franconeri, and I have also shown that the technique is effective as a means of showing data so people remember what they've seen.

While ISOTYPE, Neurath, and Gerd Arntz are known in information design circles, visualization people seem to be largely unaware. Yet there seems to be a forgotten success story for data-based communication, and a perhaps a useful bit of history – it’s not like our history is so rich that we can’t use some of that.

In addition to the charts, these books are also fascinating time documents. Some were published just after World War II. I will try to capture some of that as well.

The plan is to write one ISOTYPE posting a month. With my current collection, that should give me enough material through this year at least (depending on how I group them, since some of them are series). In addition, I also want to talk about Neurath’s own writing, in particular Modern Man in the Making and his autobiography, From Hieroglyphics to ISOTYPE. Marie Neurath’s books after the war will also make an appearance at some point (they’re less numbers-based, but a similar style). I’m also starting to discover some of the other players in this space, like Rudolf Modley, who used ISOTYPE-style charts for various purposes.

There is clearly a lot to explore that visualization folks don’t seem to be aware of. I hope to shed some light on this under-appreciated part of our history.

Posted by Robert Kosara on January 15, 2017. Filed under isotype.