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).

You may also like : Until everybody knows that everybody knows.

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.

You may also like : No-brands saw a future overlooking the past.

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?