“Words divide, pictures unite,” or so went the motto of Isotype’s founder, the philosopher and sociologist, Otto Neurath. From its origins in 1920s Vienna, Isotype pioneered the use of simple, pictorial graphics to communicate complex information to a broad audience. The icons were meant to cross national and social divides in a time before widespread global communication. To do that, Isotype went back to basics and stripped away all things unnecessary, illogical, or alienating—and in doing so, helped to establish some of the core principles of graphic design.
Marie Neurath was responsible for a range of projects that took Isotype’s principles off the drawing board and put them successfully into practice.
Today, Isotype’s legacy can be seen everywhere from newspapers and textbooks to signage, transit maps, interfaces, and emojis. The pictograms designed for Isotype by Gerd Arntz in particular helped establish the field of information design, and their influence is visible in the “icons” that now seem obligatory in most major branding projects. But there’s more to Isotype than Arntz and Otto. A third figure of equal importance is Marie Neurath, a scientist, writer, and designer who made her mark in a male-dominated world.
From the very beginning, Marie Neurath was one of the driving forces behind Isotype—the name itself was her coinage. Following Otto’s death in 1945 she was Isotype’s sole leader, responsible for a range of projects that took Isotype’s principles off the drawing board and put them successfully into practice. Thanks to an exhibition at London’s House of Illustration, Marie Neurath: Picturing Science, her life and work are getting some much-deserved attention—in particular, the revolutionary children’s books she oversaw from the 1940s to the 1970s.
Marie Reidemeister, as she was before her 1941 marriage to Otto Neurath, was born in Braunschweig, Germany in 1898. In 1924, while on a trip to Vienna with the University of Göttingen, where she was studying math and physics, Marie met Otto through her brother Kurt. This meeting took place at the Museum for Housing and City Planning that Otto had founded a year earlier as part of his involvement in the left-wing Social Democrat party that governed Austria’s capital city. Marie was impressed by the clear, visually-lead infographic charts Otto had been working on and, sensing her enthusiasm, Otto asked if she would like to join his staff. Given Marie’s lack of experience, and the briefness of their meeting, it was an instinctive gamble, but one that paid off for both parties.
In March 1925, Marie joined the staff at the museum, which was newly renamed Museum for Social and Economic Affairs and had its own creative workshop to produce the material shown at its exhibitions. Marie’s official title was “transformer,” a term Otto coined to describe the holistic, collaborative role of the infographic maker. Writer and Isotype expert Robin Kinross has described “transformation” as a “process of analyzing, selecting, ordering, and then making visual some information, data, ideas, implications.”
Although she was purportedly self-effacing about her role, it was Marie, not Otto, who was behind Isotype’s name.
Otto and Marie, along with an ever-changing team of designers, bookbinders, and sociologists, were immersed in the collective job of developing the principles of what was then known as the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics. Their goal was to make data more readily understood through the logical, graphically clear, and, most of all, engaging, presentation of information. The drive to democratize knowledge was informed by Otto’s socialism, and the use of images rather than text reflected modernism’s strive for universalism. German artist Gerd Arntz joined the team in 1928 and helped solidify the aesthetic of the Vienna Method by developing the simple woodcut pictograms that would later become the visual expression of Isotype. Through a steady stream of commissions, Neurath and his team came to the principles and methods that would lead them to create a standardized “international picture language” that could cross language barriers.
The breakout of the Austrian Civil War in 1934, in which the fascists triumphed over the socialists, resulted in the banning of the Social Democratic Party in which Neurath was heavily involved, and the closure of his museum. Otto was in Moscow teaching his principles of infographics at the time of the fascist takeover, and never returned home. He and his team’s relocated to the Netherlands, a move that effectively rendered the name Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics as inappropriate. Marie came up with ISOTYPE, an acronym for International System of Typographic Picture Education, as the new label for all that they had been doing. Arntz designed a logo and Isotype was finally born. Although she was purportedly self-effacing about her role, it was Marie, not Otto, who was behind Isotype’s name, and her involvement was the catalyst that allowed it to grow from a Viennese museum to a movement with international influence.
Working from The Hague, the team continued to grow Isotype, focusing on publications and education. Adjusting was difficult, but a few commissions from America eased their economic woes, including a book for Knopf called Modern Man in the Making, which was published in America and Britain in 1939. Despite that, stability was short-lived, and the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam in 1940 and subsequent Dutch surrender lead Otto and Marie to flee to England aboard a lifeboat. Arntz decided to stay in The Netherlands, ending his association with Isotype, but Otto, a well-known socialist and a “half-Jew,” according to Nazi classification, didn’t have that option. Otto’s background had limited him before; he would have married Marie in 1937 after the death of his wife Olga, were it not forbidden for a German citizen of Jewish descent to marry an “Aryan.”
The pair were freed in 1941 after a range of advocates, including Albert Einstein, had petitioned for their release.
Otto and Marie, an Austrian and a German, were deemed “Enemy Aliens” in Britain and were split up, traveling between various prisons and internment camps. The pair were freed in 1941 after a range of advocates, including Albert Einstein, had petitioned for their release. The pair were reunited after ten months apart, then married and relocated to Oxford to found the Isotype Institute as equal partners. Although lacking their old staff, the Neurath’s made a quick start, working on plans for post-war rebuilding and propaganda films for the Ministry of Information. After the success they achieved with Knopf, they began to consider publishing as a critical future outlet for Isotype’s ideas. Otto had an agreement with the London-based book packaging company Adprint, run by fellow Viennese émigré Wolfgang Foges, to produce a series of picture-based educational books for children. Preparatory sketches had been made for two titles, Just Boxes and Tips for Tots, prior to Otto’s death in 1945.
The death of her husband, who had been her creative partner for two decades, was a blow for Marie, but she was also no stranger to adversity. Following his death, she evolved Otto’s slightly confusing Just Boxes idea, which was about looking inside the “boxes” of “modern implements,” into the first Isotype book, published by Max Parrish in 1948. A later book, If you could see inside, used simple cross-section illustrations to reveal the inner workings of a mixture of everyday and unexpected things, like a house, an egg, and a volcano. The use of cut-through illustrations to show, rather than tell, how things work became a method used regularly by Neurath on the Isotype children’s books for the next two decades. As a technique, it spoke directly to the innate curiosity of children and their desire to understand the world around them. In children’s educational books Marie found an ideal place to put Isotype’s methods into practice. Young readers were more engaged by pictures than words, and this focus on the visual meant these books were easily translated and published abroad, fulfilling Isotype’s original aims of being truly international.
Over the next two decades, under Marie’s watch, scores of educational illustrated Isotype books were made. The books were distinct from other children’s books of the time with their colorful graphic covers, double-page spreads, and the logical use of color that added meaning to the content, rather than just visual appeal. In the words of Sue Walker, a co-curator for the exhibition at the House of Illustration and a professor at the University of Reading, Isotype’s books used “close alignment of text and image,” something that we can now see “reflected in the work of information designers.” The text of these children’s books was different from their competitors, too. Neurath, who wrote or co-wrote many of them, had a genius for the simple explanation of complex ideas, and as Walker’s co-curator, Katie Nairne, notes, the tone was always “clear for children without being patronizing.” Isotype never fell into the trap of dumbing down.
Taken on their own, the Isotype children’s books would represent a successful career for Marie and signify a notable contribution to graphic design methodology. But while the kids’ books were steadily being released, she also lead a variety of large scale Isotype projects in Nigeria, and towards the end of her career, Marie was dedicated to preserving and documenting the history of Isotype, culminating in an archive at the University of Reading. Modesty lead her to frequently downplay her own part in the story of Isotype, but in reality, no discussion of Isotype can do without her.