Isotypes and elephants: Picture language as visual writing in the work and correspondence of Otto Neurath
Henning, M. (2013) Isotypes and elephants: Picture language as visual writing in the work and correspondence of Otto Neurath. In: Harrow, S., ed. (2013) The Art of the Text. University of Wales Press, pp. 129-150. ISBN 978-0708326596
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This chapter describes the Isotype method of pictorial statistics, invented in 1920s Vienna by the Vienna Circle philosopher and sociologist Otto Neurath, and compares it to Neurath’s own signature drawings of a cartoon elephant. Isotype was among the first standardised systems for representing social facts in pictures. Neurath presented it as a picture language, an artificial language like Esperanto. Although he did not draw the symbols, he exerted a strong influence on their visual appearance and established the basic principles and conventions of Isotype. In his correspondence he did draw, signing his letters with a distinctive cartoon of an elephant. This chapter uses these two different practices to consider what a picture language might entail. In particular it addresses the differences between the standardized and geometric appearance and systematic method of Isotype, and the diverse, playful, improvised and amateurish signatures. It shows how the signature drawings came closer to natural language by becoming dialogic or “scriptible”, as Neurath’s correspondents began to draw in response. This quality is absent in the methodical, impersonal Isotype, but Isotype has been a lasting influence on contemporary visual icon systems, road and airport signage and visual instructions, while the elephant died with its author.
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