Talking in grams: Revisiting Isotype

Talking in grams: Revisiting Isotype.

Would you enter a toilet which has no gender segregation signages outside it,
without hesitation?

Why is it that we have gender specific pronouns for male (he) and female (she) and
not for other genders?

Why is it that only men are gentle as in gentlemen, and not women?

In 2016, North Carolina legislature has enacted a bill (Bathroom bill) which states that an individual may use gender specific toilets in public places according to the sex confirmed (at the time of birth) & mentioned in one’s own birth certificate. With this dicey ruling, protests ebbed from every corner within no time. Transgender rights activists decried the bill for obvious reasons and their protest received deserved attention, sending a wave of dissent across the country. As expected, the government realized the mistake and scrapped the bill later this year (2019). Let alone the bill, we as artists, designers and business people have a lot to look through this case – how we look at each other in a society.

To brush up a little history – gender segregated toilets/restrooms were not a reality until atleast two centuries ago. As a matter of fact, women didn’t even have toilets in public places around this time. They were expected to stay at home or leave early from social gatherings. Of course, times have changed eventually. This was precicely when toilets were segregated and signages of men and women (pictograms) were put up outside. Now, along with these two, transgender pictogram is also added to say that it is a gender-neutral toilet. But, if it is a neutral one, isn’t it enough to just put the word ‘toilet’ and drop the pictograms? Or is it better to create an all-gender pictogram so that it can be used in every possible place?

If a social problem such as this isn’t a prey for design, what is? After all, Isotype was born as a solution for one such problem.

Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) is a method of graphic design which was formulated (in the late 1920s; lasted till early 1970s) solely for educational purpose. It is often addressed as Vienna method as it originated in Vienna, Austria and was developed by Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz along with Marie Neurath for Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum. This system is desribed as language-like system which is capable of imparting factual information and satististics to common people in a condensed form.

The functional elements of this system are also called pictograms. The principle founders of this system hoped it to function parallelly with verbal languages because Isotype was thought to be the driving vehicle for ‘common knowledge in a common language’. Societal aspects such as housing, health, education and social administration were the main backgrounds of Isotype design, which altogether state that this system evolved more as a social need to build a communicative tool. Otto Neurath says that pictorial signs must be created that can be read, like letters and musical notations. It is a matter of creating a kind of hieroglyphic script suitable for international application (1928).
To understand the philosophy of Isotype, it is necessary to review the writing systems we have. Any writing system is used to represent elements or statements expressible in a language. These systems require characters, scripts, orthography and physical symbols to construct a meaning. Logographic, syllabic (Japanese), alphabetical (English), alphasyllabary (Telugu) and abjad (Arabic) are the widely known and recognizable writing systems for us. Out of all these, logographic system walks tall for it is the one which is inter-cultural and inter-lingual.

 

Pictograms (represent words) and ideograms (represent ideas) are the two constituents of logographic system which make it a univeral communicative tool. Modern day name for both of them is ‘icon’. The million icons we blink at everyday, such as of bus, tram, pedestrian, escalator etcetera – in public places; camera, search, battery, printer, alarm etcetera in PCs are pictograms which actually ring bells of individual words in the language we speak. Arrows directing this way, that way, no way, thumbs up for like, tick in a box for vote, pizza slice, martini glass, no smoking, restaurant cloche, knife & fork for a restaurant etcetera are ideograms.
Therefore, all that Isotype created are Ideograms and not pictograms, so to speak; leaving it open for debate.

Isotype started as a pictorial language which can inform the people about the government plans and policies in Vienna, through easily comprehensible pictograms (hereafter referred to as icons). For example, a mammoth statistical data of ration of Vienna is boiled down to one simple chart with silhouttes. However, it couldn’t become a universal language as expected by its founders; it rather became an international practice in the decades following the 70s. Even though most philosophers and designers who witnessed its course declared that it could never be a complete language (like a picture esperanto), its influence and effect is evident on modern day icons all over the world. Design critic and academician Ellen Lupton writes: Otto Neurath’s concept was continued after World War 2 by graphic designers internationally and its legacy includes both the design of statistical charts and the more generalized production of visual symbol sets, from travel signage to corporate identity marks (1987).

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As a well formulated and established design method, Isotype movement failed to travel across different domains. The last application of this method is said to be done by United States department of transportation (DOT) for traffic and road signs (1970s), which are also being used in other countries. Otto Neurath’s stylistic principles (silhouttes) remain the foundation for icons we see in the world today, whether it be on elevators or toilets or even in airports. The movement neither died nor evolved. All it proved is that this system is certainly a language, which is not put to use much.

Graphic designers from around the world were aware of Isotype and the applause and shrugg offs it received. It was unhurriedly accepted as a graphic design technique in a few years.

The fundamental and basic principle of Isotype movement is that the icons should be devoid of any emotional means. While the core principles – reduction, readability (comprehensibility) and consistency in design have been implemented while making an icon, emotionless-ness, which is a fundamental principle, had subsided in its evolution. This is evident when we observe the difference in charts made from 1925-43 and from 1944-71. In the last three decades of its existence, Isotype was used to ilustrate children’s literature, in which the basic nature of this method crossed boundaries in representing an object by being more emotional and less informative.

All this exposition proposes that Isotype design had a potential to be an icon and a symbol (semiotic) at any given time considering its cultural and social relevance. Like blackness of a blackbird is the iconicity of that bird, emotionless-ness is the iconicity of Isotype.

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Otto Neurath in 1927 wrote: Social museums have as their object – the person as a social being. Interestingly, the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum was described not as a museum for rare artifacts or for works of art, but it was conceived as a place to gain knowledge. Not only this, all the charts and icons exibited in the museum were said to be modifiable and reproducible. This being the inception of this movement, it grew up to become more descriptive and representative by including emotional aspects in the icons/images made for children’s literature. The idea of pictograms (as referred to, then) for children is conceived to be in the form of educational charts which help them in getting acquainted with the environment and surroundings. Therefore, this deviaton from emotionless-ness is palpable in Marie Neurath’s work, which depicts more descriptive images rather than silhouttes without any human features.

Ruth P.Ruinstein in his paper ‘Interpreting visual narratives’ (1997, pp. 725-728) quotes French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs who postulated that visual images are a part of core culture, like time and space, and give shape to a child’s orientation to social realities. Ideas, beliefs and values, that is. The basic constructs of collective life are embodied in images. They contain the central system of rules of behaviour and thought that controls much of what we do. These visual images are collectively called public memory. Artists who are unusually receptive to the group’s categories of visual images may intentionally employ such constructs in their work, updating and reaffirming or altering their traditional meaning (1980). This whole idea suits the ideology of Isotype design and its evolution without doubt. This detailed definition strengthens the notion of icons and their ability to carry information being a languge in itself.


Decades have passed leaving newer problems. Now, no smoking icon goes along with no vaping too. Toilets have three icons of gender. Bicycle way is merged with pedestrian way as a shared way icon elsewhere. Suitcase icons are replaced with trolleys.

‘If your dog poops, you scoop’ like icons surfaced now and then.

Whenever or wherever they appear, icons are only extensions of language; any natural language. So, does the English idiom ‘play a good knife and fork’ remind you of any icon?

ReeDay

Reeday

Creating identity for a battery company that believes it can and will change the way people perceive power.

ReeDay is a battery manufacturer who approached us for designing a logo and cracking a tagline. So we gave our grey cells a jolt and got down to the task. Used a bold font to denote the power-packed product and its mighty impact. The alphabet is slightly inclined forward to denote how they are future-ready. It’s in blue to denote that the product is trustworthy and intelligent – totally ahead of the curve. And the tagline – Ree-imagine Power – is to help people switch their imagination of power from AC to DC, and to bring to light a company that’s constantly reinventing the battery, shrinking its size and boosting its strength.

Until everybody knows that everybody knows.

Marks + Methods Blog Post
Marks + Methods Blog Post

Until everybody knows that everybody knows.

In 2006, an american activist started a campaign to ‘empower through empathy’ among coloured women who have been sexually abused. After a decade, in 2011, a Hollywood actress took the campaign to twitter and tweeted about sexual harrassment and assault she had experienced in her workplace. The one hashtag she used in her tweets had propelled the campaign into the world. In just one day, the hashtag she used had been seen over 200,000 times online and had been tweeted more than 500,000 times. It is the #MeToo campaign, which stirred work cultures and social patterns all over the world and even after a year, it is still in the air.

In early 2011, 30 year dictatorial regime in Egypt came to an end with huge protests all over the country. It was a revolution which happened in 18 days and had reversed everything that came in its way. Millions of people protested and marched along the streets incessantly. Surprisingly, most of them were informed about those gatherings and events through one platform mainly which is a facebook page (created a few months before this). Atleast half of the protesters used facebook and more than thirty percent of them knew about those demonstrations through this social networking site, in which thousands of such pages mushroomed in hours.

These two incidents have nothing to tell us about brands but they can show us the fundamental communication-fabric by providing insights into a question brand owners grapple with – How does a brand message transmit in digital media. How we communicate with a brand and how we share those experiences on digital platforms are what stand around the core of digital branding. While a strong brand message can catapult a brand to furthest reaches of possibility, only visibility can give it watershed moments all along its journey.

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Following each thread in this communication fabric we mapped the journey of a message in social networks, which we articulated as the Brand Visibility Map. It is a strategy which tries to identify different clusters of people on social networks who collectively make the target audience of a brand. If we read the map from the tail end, we can see that large groups of people (Followers) are connected to a few people (Proponents) and these few people are further connected to fewer individuals (Catalysts). The roles of proponents and catalysts consolidate a brand message, individually. Apparently, the function of Proponents appear more decisive and enduring.

Marks + Methods brand visibility map

It took a decade and a catalyst (actress) for #MeToo like message, which is for social change, to reach wider audience. The outspoken women (proponents) took it further and inspired a million others. Likewise, a facebook page acted as a catalyst by informing about the wrong doings of the regime in Egypt and inspired all to protest. However, the pivotal role in both the incidents is of the proponents as they mobilized millions of followers. Proponents are the people who are present in different audience clusters. They are linked to the catalyst as well as the followers. Proponents are those who are active in social networks and whose activity can influence the decision and opinion of the many followers. So, a like or share by a proponent in a social network page could impact a few followers, all at once. Therefore, proponents carry a reliable stature in digital media. Connectors do not exibit such influential characters but they are capable enough to grab attention. This is observed clearly in FMCG sector where celebrities (Catalysts) endorse a brand. However, more consumers (Followers) choose a brand not because a celebrity endorsed it but because someone reliable in their acquaintances (Proponents) had used, commented on or recommend a product and eventually all the others jump on the bandwagon.

Sometimes, the Catalyst’s role is taken by brands too to bypass a barrier and directly communicate with the proponents. By reaching out to a number of proponents at the same time, it is easier to reach a million followers. If a brand message is directed towards a hundred proponents, it is implied that each proponent can relay that message to a thousand followers without a break in the chain and as these hundred people are connected with people like themselves and also many followers, the message travels in loops. This is why we see a brand message more than twice or thrice. However, this can be applied in digital platforms only.

With emphasis on impact over innovation, the ‘Brand Visibility Map’ had been formulated with sociological and psychological grounding. This model tries to define the target audience lucidly. To make sure that everybody knows about a brand, we employ visibility. To make sure that everybody knows that everybody knows, we use the Brand Visibility Map.

No-brands saw a future overlooking the past

No-brands saw a future overlooking the past.

Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity – is a statement made by Plato, more than two thousand years ago. If it wasn’t true, it must’ve been forgotten after at least a few centuries. If it is true, it must’ve been followed by many. Neither happened.

(a) Our philosophy is based on three core principles, which remain unchanged to this day: Selection of materials, Streamlining of processes, Simplification of packages. Our products are succinct, but they are not in the minimalist style. They are like empty vessels. Simplicity and emptiness yield the ultimate universality, embracing the feelings and thoughts of all people. We do not make objects to entice responses of strong affinity, like, ‘This is what I really want’ or, ‘I must have this.’ Our goal is to give customers a rational satisfaction, expressed with “This will do.”

(b) Our sourcing philosophy is simple: better for people, better for the planet. We value curation and focus. Less is more. Less but better. We value things that are easy to use and understand. We’re committed to reducing our impact on the environment. For us it’s about progress, not perfection. Across all of our product categories, we have focused on ‘Just What Matters’ for that specific category. We listen to our community. This is a win-win: high- quality stuff for you and a donation for another in need.

Among the many types of brands, no-brands have a subtly quirky appearance because they do not appear everywhere. They do not surprise you in magazines. Their adverts are silent. They do not expect queues outside their stores. No flagship products too. They do not leave labels or marks on their products overtly. All they possess and express is creativity and consistency.

The above two paragraphs (a & b) are excerpts from brand descriptions of two no-brands, which are widely known among the few peoples who look out for such brands. These clusters of consumers are identified to be the ones who choose function over brand badges. They too are like the billion others, but their choice of brands depends on the invisibility of the brands they use. They pick brands which do not possess self-expressive benefits. So, such consumers would buy a luxury car like Lexus even without the iconic grille or an iphone without the bitten apple.

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Clothing collection completely in bland colours, 90 degree socks, wrist-watch with a plain dial, simple storage units, moisturizers which put ‘cruelty free & sulphate free’ instead of a logo, unbleached-paper bags – likewise, they appear different in & out. While all their competitors are selling the same moisturizer saying it will protect and nourish the skin which thereby results in enhanced self-confidence and beter performance at the work place, no-brands still sell it by saying that it protects the skin, only. They talk the bare minimum yet fulfil the bare essentials, which is why these brands are able to grow slowly and slowly with maximum customer retention. These consumers employ these brands like counter signalling tools making it difficult to comprehend their personality traits. So, regret in choice, which is a common consumer behaviour trait, is nearly absent in these consumers.

No-brands came as a consequence of excessive branding activities all over the world. Before the modern branding revolution, which took off in the mid 1900s, buying and selling was carried out on more or less the same principles which no-brands have imbibed today. Extravagant branding left the industry with significant losses and the generics breathed into the daily lives of the masses. Over a few decades, the generics, which like no-brands do not carry a logo or a name or an identity, have been rejected by people. Brands took over again slowly thereafter. The frills and decorations around branded goods got revived with more subtlety. However, no-brands chose a more democratic way of doing business by identifying people who chase away loudness and chaos while embracing function and satisfaction. With such an overarching goal, these brands have achieved sustainability and consistency.

The future of these brands is simple, as they describe themselves. They would maintain a strictly narrow product line. People would not flock to the stores. Yet their presence is so promising that more such brands could emerge or a few other brands could revamp their branding principles like no-brands.

Brand behaviour as the new catalyst of branding.

Brand behaviour as the new catalyst of branding.

Ms. M is a 48 year old chef. She closes the kitchen by 10 at night. Before driving home, she smokes a cigarette on the rooftop. On the way back home, she sometimes picks up groceries and other supplies from a supermarket. She spends only twenty minutes going around and picking the ones she uses regularly. After going home, she usually watches late night talk shows while checking messages in the bed. This is her life.

The cigarette she smokes, the car she drives, the supermarket, the toothpaste, ketchup and the shampoo she uses, the jeans and shoes she wears, the goggles she puts on, the lipstick she wears, the faucet in her kitchen, her handbag, her smartphone and even the zipper of her pants – every little or big and important or essential thing is made by a brand. This is the life we see around her. She wakes up to a brandscape (like a landscape) everyday.

People choose only a few brands and let them occupy their lives. This choice doesn’t happen in a jab because it involves less of selling and more of buying and at 48, we don’t make choices like when we were 28. For sure, it might have taken Ms. M more than a decade or so to settle down with a few brands when she can choose from a hundred other options anytime. What helped her make a decision that suits her future? It is certainly the brand behaviour.

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We at M+M, studied the in-betweens of brands and consumers. We did our know-do-feel exercise in different ways over and over again on several brands and identified that brand behaviour is the prerequisite to consumer behaviour. Consumers can be identified as groups of different archetypes. Some look for trend-right products while some search for those that are oblivious to trends. They pay attention to only a few brands. Some brands do not advertise and some do extensively. Some brands open outlets only in high-streets. A few brands behave like team players and a few like individual athletes. Some always occupy the most preferred shelf in the store and some stay in the less viewed shelves.

A set of consumers have a habit of fishing out the less know brands. They shop that way. Another set gravitates towards brands that do eccentric ads. Some like surprises while some hate them especially when it comes from brands. Most of the brands are vocalic about their nature while a few remain silent. Some brands are respected while some are embraced. All these are brand behaviours which can alter the zeroeth moment of truth. The buying cycles of people involve a lot of time gaps and it is then when they get to observe and experience the brand as a whole which includes it emotional and functional benefits. While this is the tail end, the head starts with advertising and branding. Advertising lets know people while branding can help them remember. Both are cogs in the same machine.

Consumer behaviour helps a brand know its customer better. Behaviour is what one does and says. Brands do a lot and say a lot too, through ads, package, the language they use, the name they carry and the consumer needs they address. It is the basis on which people describe brands and products as innovative or stylish or better functioning or as moonshot. So, this brand behaviour helps the consumers build an identity of the firm which is trying to carry a dialogue with them. The audiences try to know who the speaker is before participating in the dialogue.

Brand behaviour has several sprints to run in the near future as service based brands are increasingly valued on par with product based brands. The behavioural patterns of brands are expected to be consistent even after the consumer makes the choice in the days to come, so that brands make room for experience. So, a bank might consider its customers more valuable than its reserves and starts to stay in touch with them like a well-wisher. A transport network company might shift its interests towards passengers’ safety. OS providers might start respecting privacy.

Not only at a personal level, brands are using this as a catalyst in their transformation, with a universal humane touch. Today, this is seen overtly among all global brands. We have seen automobile firms talking about climate change and many other brands belonging to diverse markets have fused rainbows with their logos in support of LGBT rights. No monsoon had ever seen so many rainbows. The catalyst seems to be working.

Ucchvas

Ucchvas

A direct mailer with not just a fancy desktop item, but something useful wrapped in a heartfelt message.

It was Doctor’s Day and we were presented with the opportunity to surprise the doctors with a gift that could acknowledge their commitment. A useless sovouneir is not our style, so we designed a concept around a useful product – the power bank,
and related it to how the doctors empower the lives of patients.

How visible is an apple in a cart full of apples?

advertising
advertising

How visible is an apple in a cart full of apples?

Come to think of it, visibility is a simple concept.
Whatever stands out has your attention.
If you were given a basket full of apples, your eyes would be all over the place.
Place a lemon in it, and you’re hooked, to that one little outstanding piece of difference.
The apples will slowly fade into being an abstract backdrop for the lemon to become the centre of your focus.

Visibility is like spilling some ink into a glass of plain water.
It’s about disrupting the pattern, breaking the symmetry and inducing something new into the mundane scheme of things.
Spotting the difference in monotony is not an acquired skill for humans; it’s totally instinctive.
Like in the haze of Monday morning madness, where we move like the machines we’ve evolved into, fueled by paid momentum, the lone person sitting on the pavement and doing nothing grabs our eye.
We all crave to be that difference.
We all crave visibility, but it won’t happen until we break out of the crowd.

However, when it comes to brands, the game changes a bit.
Visibility becomes not just the concept of standing out, but also reaching out.
Back in the day, advertising was driven by what’s in the packet.
Today, it’s driven by what’s on it.
So many brands trying to sell the same products, so how does your brand emerge visible?
Why will the consumer lay his finger on your brand out of the enormous labeled landscape that stares at him from the racks of supermarkets?

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Simple. You need a distinctive mark and a genius method to promote that mark, to push it so deep into the lives of your target consumers that it’s hard for them to imagine a day without you.
A mark they can relate to; a mark they can proudly talk about to their friends and family when they huddle around dinner and drinks after a hard day’s work; a mark that doesn’t just compliment their personality, but also reflects it.

This may sound arbitrary to the context, but apparently, on a dark night the human eye can see a candle flame flickering up to 48 kilometers away. That’s the power of our vision; the power of spotting a speck of light on an infinitely dark canvas. But the brands today don’t have the luxury of such a stark contrast. There are so many. Like a heap of entangled wires on an electric pole. It’s hard to make out which one is for what. What if all the wires were not black and had different colors marking their individual purpose?
Mark. That’s the keyword. That’s the solution. That’s visibility. That’s what you are striving for and that’s exactly what we are here for; unless you want to be an apple in a cart full of apples.

Man who sold record labels launches a fancy airline.

Man who sold record labels launches a fancy airline.

That’s Richard Branson for you! The man who took a leap from an industry he dominated to an industry where he started a virgin, purely on the basis of two things: instinct and experience. Not industry experience, mind you.

The problem with facing a challenge is not experience but ignorance. Ignoring the right questions and thinking upstream often pulls back people and brands from trying new things and exploring new ideas. When you want to establish a new brand or if you want to enter a different category it’s often thought that along with vision, prior experience would be necessary, but many people and brands proved otherwise. Category experience will certainly help in foresight and will relatively make our decision-making process easier, but it may also hinder lateral thinking and confine our ideas to that industry or category.

Jeff Bezos was a hedge fund manager before starting Amazon and Richard Reed worked as an account manager at an advertising agency before starting Innocent Drinks with two of his fellow Cambridge graduates. They were not just successful in making a mark, but also in making a difference in their respective industries as we knew them.

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We usually interpret groundbreaking as ideas that have not been executed before but it’s not entirely true. Groundbreaking ideas can be those which are packaged and presented differently as compared to how they were treated before. When people or brands with experience in different categories pursued a new domain, they changed the status quo by doing things differently. Moreover, the end users chose brands according to their preference and beliefs. If a transport service treats them the way a neighborhood restaurant does, they will prefer their services over others.

By imagining products and services differently than the established brands, new brands can create their own space in the market; and to do that one need not be from the same category and the so-called category experience doesn’t have much role to play. There will be situations where experience will matter the most but when we understand how users consume products or services of the category, we can bring freshness and innovation to the fore and reinvent the category. In our experience in branding we have seen, read and experienced many ambitious people and brands that challenged market leaders and unfortunately many succumbed to the pressure of category standards or archaic stereotypes.

With a long-term vision and a strategy-driven business plan brands can defy standards and offer products and services that resonate well with those who matter most – the consumers. By failing to invest in new ideas and innovation in set categories, established brands tend to make the category mundane and open doors to fresh brands. To conclude, we should always ask the question whether we should disrupt the core of the category or develop the product or service to the point it hasn’t reached yet. To further conclude, after years of Coca Cola calling itself the official drink, Pepsi came in and said, ‘nothing official about it.’ A game is best enjoyed when it’s played with the intention of changing it, and only a fresh new perspective can achieve that.

Shupraja

Shupraja

A battery manufacturer with its veins spreading into solar power.

They wanted to position themselves as an energy group and not just another product brand. So the logo had to be extendable, dynamic and also sophisticated at the same time. Electrifying, but not loud. Aggressive, but not arrogant.

Scots Pine International School

Scots Pine International School

A school with an international approach, highlighting the importance of grooming every child’s individual potential.

We artistically integrated the distinct characteristic of a pine into a shield. To show the strength of right schooling and also the holistic nature of their curriculum.

To fuse the vibrant shades of kids with the seriousness of quality education. And to give the school a global outlook. Here’s an identity created for the future.