Words Divide - Pictures Unite: Otto Neurath, Isotype, and the Unity of Science

Exhibit curated by Dr. John Capps, Dr. Evelyn Brister, and Ethan Adler. Exhibit compiled by Rebekah Walker.

Otto Neurath (1882-1945) was an Austrian sociologist, economist, and philosopher. Starting in the 1920s he spearheaded the development of ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education), a pictorial language originally designed to convey complex economic, social, and historical data. As Europe rebuilt after WWI, Neurath used Isotype to educate ordinary citizens—many of whom were illiterate or semi-literate—about the economic, industrial, and social forces that were shaping the 20th century. Neurath’s team created visual depictions of these forces, their historical evolution, and the connections between them. These works, published in books, portfolios, and on posters, were designed to give people the information they needed for effective democratic participation and decision-making.

At the same time, as one of the organizers of the “Vienna Circle” of philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, Neurath was also promoting the “unity of science.” This was the idea that there should be a common language spoken by all scientists, from theoretical physicists to biologists, sociologists, economists, and psychologists. Just as Isotype was designed as a universal visual language for presenting complex information, the unity of science movement was designed to provide a common scientific language that would foster communication and interdisciplinary collaboration among the world’s scientists. Neurath believed that unifying science would make it more effective at solving problems. Combined with Isotype, the unity of science would make democratic decision-making smarter and more effective.

RIT’s Cary Graphic Arts Collection contains several examples of Isotype and Neurath’s many attempts to bring his ideas to a wide audience. These works are a window to a crucial period in the history of information design. In the years before Europe—including Neurath’s native Austria—descended into fascism, nationalism and a second World War, Isotype was an important attempt to convey social scientific information to those who most needed it. In a world where words could spread confusion, misunderstanding, disagreement, and propaganda, Isotype aimed to give clarity, insight, unity, and truth. In this way Isotype became the living embodiment of Neurath’s claim “words divide — pictures unite.”


Modern Man in the Making, p. 73, "Annual Iron Production and Immigration"

Neurath’s Modern Man in the Making (1939) used Isotype to illuminate the social, scientific, and political factors that shaped the modern world. This graphic shows the connection between U.S. iron production and immigration. Greater industrial production, represented by the production of unrefined pig iron, creates the conditions for increased immigration. To show increases in iron production and immigration Isotype uses more symbols not bigger symbols. Neurath argued that doing so gives a more direct, truthful, and easily-grasped picture of the underlying facts.


Modern Man in the Making, p. 45, "Urbanization, Births and Deaths".

The top half of this graphic from Modern Man in the Making (1939) shows that, between 1840 and 1930, the percentage of British living in cities doubled while birth and death rates fell roughly in half. This indicates that one of the consequences of increased urbanization is lower infant mortality and higher overall health. The bottom half of the graphic is a cross-cultural comparison suggesting a general connection between greater urbanization and improved public health. Marie Neurath, Otto Neurath's wife and director of the Isotype Institute, wrote, "Isotype…endeavors to spread general knowledge in simple everyday terms and aims at a wider acceptance of the scientific attitude" (M. Neurath 1950, 22).


Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft, p. 47, “Development of Coal and Oil Production since 1870”.

This plate from Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft [Society and Economy] was printed in 1930 before Marie Neurath coined the term “Isotype”. Known at the time as the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics, this visual language allowed for the visual representation of numerical data. As Marie Neurath observed, there are “persons who miss part of essential knowledge because they have a certain fear of a table of figures” and, as a result, they miss out on “striking facts of general interest.” While a graph might convey this information, “an Isotype chart is easier still” (M. Neurath 1955, 32).


Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft, plates 58-59. 

These two plates show how different nations dominate the markets for specific products and commodities. For example, Sweden dominates the market in matches, Germany in potassium, and the United States in copper, sulfur, cars, film, oil, corn, and cotton. Being able to read German is useful but not necessary: the graphics alone show that Great Britain and the United States control production of a larger number of products and commodities than the rest of the world combined. While these charts could not predict the eruption—within the decade—of a second World War, they do help predict who would emerge victorious in a global conflict.

Plate 58 translation: “Monopolistic Production in European Countries, non-European Countries, and the USSR”.


Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft, plate #81, “Viennese Social Structure in 1700 and the Present”.

Literally, “Isotype” means “same type.” This means that the same symbol is consistently used to refer to the same concept or object, thus minimizing confusion and misunderstanding. In turn, different symbols must be used to represent different objects or, in this case, different professions and occupations. This plate is an excellent example of how Isotype can present an enormous amount of data by using slight but significant differences in symbols. Since 1700 the Viennese workforce has changed: the workforce is much larger (represented by gray shadows behind the figures), new professions have emerged (such as industrial or factory work), and other professions have dwindled relative to the overall economy. Through creative design the chart conveys the distribution of specific occupations, the distribution of men, women, and children across the economy and, through the use of color, the general distribution of occupations across professional, agricultural, governmental, and working class categories.


Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft, plate #82, "Erwerbstätige Bevölkerung der Erde" (“Worldwide Employment”).

This plate shows the distribution of various occupations across different parts of the world. Isotype’s visual representation makes it immediately obvious that in some parts of the world—particularly Asia and the Indian sub-continent—a large percentage of the population work as small, subsistence farmers (the green symbols). In other parts of the world—notably in North and South America—people are more likely to work in factories, on large farms, or at professional occupations. Neurath believed that many people’s lives had not changed since the Middle Ages. Indeed, he believed the Middle Ages would not end until everyone “can participate in a common culture and the canyon between educated and uneducated people has disappeared” (“From ‘Vienna Method’ to ‘Isotype’” 224). He designed Isotype to serve two functions. The first is to clearly and accurately describe the modern world, and the second is to thereby foster greater “communication and understanding” and “the organized building of a better civilization” (225).


Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft, Plate #91, "Wealth Distribution in Germany".

This plate uses only a few simple symbols to present several layers of economic data. It shows that a relatively small number of people—1-2% of the population—have significant wealth (>100,000 Marks, roughly equal to $350,000 today). Moreover, this group has a disproportionate share of Germany's assets: more than the larger middle class and nearly as much as the entire working class and the German nation itself. It is difficult to see how either words or tables of numbers could describe the situation as clearly or efficiently. As Marie Neurath noted, "We do not say: what you can say in words, we can also say in pictures. What we say is: Don't say in words what you can say in pictures" (Neurath 1950, 26).


Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft, Plate #101, "Society and Economy - Introduction".

In his Introduction to the portfolio "Society and Economy" Neurath explains some of the many principles that guided both the genesis of the project and its execution: namely, to use a logically constructed visual language to display new connections across data sets and disciplines, thereby shedding light on the current state of human civilization and its evolution. Isotype not only reveals these connections but also conveys them clearly and efficiently: as Neurath writes here, "it is better to remember simplified pictures than to forget accurate numbers." As with his program for unified science, Neurath holds that a common language, based on a common set of assumptions and principles, allows for a better, more complete understanding of social and scientific problems, their sources, and their possible solutions.


Modern Man in the Making, p. 68-69.

These charts from Modern Man in the Making show the connection between energy production, industrialization, and urbanization which, we saw earlier, is a sign of lower death rates. Constructing these charts and graphics required an interdisciplinary team of researchers, artists, designers, and "transformers" who devised ways of visually representing numerical data. It also required an overall strategy, a "uniform method" and a "grammar" to ensure that information was presented consistently. Just as the unity of science required that scientists develop loyalties to researchers in other disciplines, Neurath's Isotype projects required a team approach—based on trust and common methods—to analyze and present scientific information.


Modern Man in the Making, p. 131, "Where has the 13th floor gone to?"

Modern Man in the Making describes the process by which the modern world was coming into existence. But Neurath was under no illusions that this process was inevitable. As this final graphic shows, there are vestiges of superstition and tradition even in the grandest projects of the modern world: e.g., no 13th floor in modern skyscrapers. Neurath himself was forced to flee both Austria and the Netherlands as Nazi Germany seized both countries. The fact that many of the issues Neurath highlighted—e.g., income and wealth distribution—are still topics of conversation suggests that the early 21st century faces the same problems as the early 20th. While Neurath’s claim that “words divide — pictures unite” may be unfair to words (and too fair to pictures), today we are more aware than ever of the need for clearly presented, honest information.

References and Further Reading: 

  • Burke, C. 2009. “Isotype: Representing Social Facts Pictorially.” Information Design Journal 17: 211–223.
  • Lupton, E. 1986. “Reading Isotype.” Design Issues 3: 47-58.
  • Neurath, M. 1950. “Report On The Last Years of Isotype Work.” Synthese 8: 22-27.
  • Neurath, M. 1955. “ISOTYPE.” Health Education Journal 13: 28–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/001789695501300104
  • Neurath, O. 1930. Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft. Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut.
  • Neurath, O. 1939. Modern Man in the Making. New York: Knopf.
  • Neurath, O. 1945/1973. “From Vienna Method to Isotype.” In Empiricism and Sociology edited by M. Neurath and R. Cohen, 214-248. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Neurath, O., H. Hahn, and R. Carnap. 1929/1973. “The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle.” In Empiricism and Sociology edited by M. Neurath and R. Cohen, 299-318. Dordrecht: Springer.
Words Divide - Pictures Unite: Otto Neurath, Isotype, and the Unity of Science