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What is Isotype?

The International System Of TYpographic Picture Education is an absolutely fascinating case study in design ethics.

Isotype was developed by the Viennese social scientist and philosopher Otto Neurath. Neurath saw a virtually illiterate proletariat emancipating, stimulated by socialism. For their advancement, he knew, they would need knowledge of the world around them. This knowledge should, he thought, not take the form of (relatively opaque) written language, but should rather be directly illustrated in straightforward images.

Gerd Arntz was the designer tasked with making Isotype’s pictograms. In sum, Arntz designed some 4000 such signs, which symbolized data from industry, demographics, politics and economy.

A symbol from Isotype

The process of selecting the relevant symbols, creating the rules, and prescribing the interplay between Isotype and (say) German is a design task of absolutely epic proportions, which is to say nothing of the ideological component of the project. All told, I expect Isotype to prove incredibly compelling grist for thinking about design ethics, political ideology and design, and design communication.* It is in my estimation a rare find indeed.

* Another outspoken goal of Isotype was to overcome barriers of language and culture, and to be universally understood. The pictograms were systematically employed in combination with stylized maps and diagrams to produce extensive collections of visual statistics. Their system became a world-wide emulated example of what we now call infographics.
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PaulMar 17, 2009

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On a similar note, check out AIGA’s Symbol Signs.

This system of 50 symbol signs was designed for use at the crossroads of modern life: in airports and other transportation hubs and at large international events. Produced through a collaboration between the AIGA and the U.S. Department of Transportation, they are an example of how public-minded designers can address a universal communication need.

Prior to this effort, numerous international, national and local organizations had devised symbols to guide passengers and pedestrians through transportation facilities and other sites of international exchange. While effective individual symbols had been designed, there was no system of signs that communicated the required range of complex messages, addressed people of different ages and cultures and were clearly legible at a distance.

Nick Senske at 9:37pm on Sun, Mar 15th.

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