Updated: Nov 16, 2020
I had never heard of Marie Neurath until last month.
It’s likely that my parents would remember her work from their childhoods, and it's undeniable that I have ignorantly appreciated her influence throughout my adult life: when driving my car, using an app on my phone, trying not to get lost on the tube, or while reading a chart depicting the upward curve of Covid-19.
Getting any clues?
"Words divide, pictures unite."
Marie Neurath was a social scientist and ‘transformer’ – what we would now call a graphic designer. During the 1920s onwards, Marie, alongside her husband Otto and the artist Gerd Arntz, worked on the development of the simplified pictographic language, ISOTYPE – an acronym for International System of Typographic Picture Education. Their aim was to create a system that would enable essential information to be universally accessible, regardless of literacy or culture. This, they hoped, would democratise knowledge, so that ‘large data volumes [could be] translated into comprehensible and memorable visual form.’
Examples of Otto and Marie's early work, using Isotype, or, as it was originally known, the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics.
In 1941, in the midst of WW2, Marie and Otto fled the continent for Oxford, where they founded the Isotype Institute. It was there that they produced some of the best examples of the Isotype’s principles in practice, in the form of over 80 children’s books.
It is these books that are the focus of a recent exhibition from the House of Illustration in collaboration with the University of Reading. Originally (physically) on show in November 2019, Marie Neurath: Picturing Science has been reconfigured into an excellent online exhibition. While a traditional curator may bemoan the restrictions of a linear webpage, I found the digital format was well-suited to this information-heavy exhibition. With a simplicity of which the Neurath's would be proud, the exhibition allows you to explore various examples of their books, and introduces the ideas of visual education that underpin them.
“These pictures, called Isotype charts, are not meant to show you exactly how things look but to give you information about them, like a map or an engineer’s blue-print.”
Over half of the books the Neurath’s published were dedicated to scientific education. They employ Isotype principles, so that the pictures, or 'charts' are simple and diagrammatic and ‘all details which are unnecessary, all complications which might confuse, are omitted. Every line, every colour has it’s part to play in telling the story.’ The results are surprisingly striking. The minimal colour palettes and simple shapes create a distinctive aesthetic that remains profoundly influential in contemporary graphic design. The page layouts are unpredictably experimental, with the 'close alignment' of image and text carefully varied to maintain the eye's attention.
The books often draw parallels between seemingly unrelated concepts through a particular theme, such as, “If you could see inside” or “Machines which seem to think”. In this way they appeal to the younger reader, gently encouraging their imagination and curiosity. Through familiar subjects like 'how a kettle boils', or 'how bread is produced', the mundanity of every day life is injected with a little bit of wonder.
The result is that they are genuinely interesting and powerfully engaging. You literally can't help but learn something. Naturally some of the topics are slightly outdated, but I found myself getting really drawn it at times. One particular favourite was a diagram explaining the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, something I've often wondered about while driving over a particularly impressive example. OK, so I still wouldn't be able to build a bridge myself, but I could certainly explain how it was done to someone else.
These books are really successful examples of the theories espoused by Marie and Otto Neurath. They enact the incredible communicative power of the image: taking complex concepts of engineering, biology, physics and chemistry and stripping them down to the bare essentials. In fact, I actually prefer the term "transformer" over graphic designer, as an explanation for what the Neurath's were doing in their work.
I would really recommend having a look at the exhibition, even if you can only spare 5 minutes with a cup of tea (another joy of the digital format). It's worth getting to know the revolutionary work of the Neuraths, whether it's because you're a graphic design nerd, or just have a desperate need to know more about the lifecycle of a frog.