A Brief history of isotype

Lab Reports, Timelines, Visualization


ISOTYPE: International System of Typographic Picture Education

ISOTYPE (International System of TYpographic Picture Education) was developed in 1924 as a universal picture language with the purpose of educating the public on social statistics in charts using multiples of same-size icons to represent quantitative information (as opposed to bar or line graphs). Otto Neurath, Austrian social scientist, economist, philosopher, and theorist behind the method (which began as the Vienna Method), believed that this form of ‘visual education‘ was a way to make social science statistics more accessible to the public, regardless of education, class, or age. The philosophy behind this was rooted in socialist utopian ideals. Otto Neurath, Isotype illustrator Gerd Arntz, and data transformer Marie Reidemeister (later Marie Neurath), were the primary members of the group behind the Vienna Method/ISOTYPE. In 1935, the group fled to the Hague from Vienna during the rise of Austrian fascism. It was there that they decided to have a more international scope and the method was renamed to ISOTYPE. In 1940, Neurath and Reidemeister fled to England (where they later married) during the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands.

Source: “There’s Work for All” By Michael Young and Theodor Prager via eagereyes.org


In creating a timeline of the history of ISOTYPE, I used TimelineJS by Knightlab, which connects to data entered into a Google Spreadsheet.

Sample of data used from Google Spreadsheet


I compiled dates and details on ISOTYPE milestones by doing research using various sources including Milestones in the history of thematic cartography, statistical graphics, and data visualization (M. Friendly & D.J. Denis), Isotype Revisited (University of Reading), Designhistory.org, and Wikipedia. At the same time, I wanted to include images on the timeline that best illustrated the method. I thought the ISOTYPE charts on unemployment were particularly interesting.


This is a topic that has a potential to be explored much more in depth, both due to the political and social contexts as well as its influence on the design of modern-day infographics. I merely grazed the surface of this with this timeline. I also had some challenges with image sourcing, as I was somewhat limited to digitized book plates to display the original visualizations, some of which betray the wear and tear of the pages.