Rare & Beautiful

Imagining Information: Symbols, Isotype, and Book Design

Rare book expert Peter Kraus explores some milestone moments in the history of infographics and book design.

By Peter Kraus September 21, 2022

Pages from Railways under London by Marie Reidemeister (Neurath) (1948, 1964).

The world of book illustration tends to divide itself into two simple categories—books illustrated by artists, intended as works of art, and books that use illustration to portray particular information about the subject at hand, such as architecture, nature, or medicine. There is an interesting third class of books, however, where illustrations are created to render what to many is often dry statistical material, but in an easily digestible and visually appealing form.

From Oliver Byrne, The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, in which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols are used instead of Letters for the Greater Ease of Learners (1847).

In 1847, an English civil engineer named Oliver Byrne, living in one of the world’s most isolated places, the Falkland Islands, published an extraordinary book entitled The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, in which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols are used instead of Letters for the Greater Ease of Learners. The book was intended as a mathematics textbook, but in fact it is very much a work of art, which in many ways anticipated avant-garde books of the twentieth century and the field of information design.

At the same time that Byrne was working on his edition of Euclid, another engineer, Charles Joseph Minard in France, was devising a series of statistical maps and charts whose use of color and layout distinguished them from anything that had gone before, and also gave them a remarkable artistic quality. A good example is his 1858 map showing cattle sent to Paris for consumption. Minard’s ideas were taken up by the French government and reached their highest form in the series of statistical annuals Album de Statistique Graphique (Album of statistics charts) published by the Ministry of the Interior from 1879 to 1897.

From Album de Statistique Graphique (Album of statistics charts) by Charles Joseph Minard (1886). Photo: David Rumsey Map Collection

It was not until the mid-1920s, however, when the Viennese philosopher and political economist Otto Neurath and the German artist Gerd Arntz, working at the Gesellschafts-und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Vienna, organized this line of thinking. They created the “Isotype” (International System of Typographic Picture Education, originally known as the Vienna Method), which offered book designers a whole new form of book illustration.

Panel from Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (Society and Economy) by Otto Neurath and Gerd Arnzt showing agriculturally productive areas around the world (1930).

The stated aim was to “represent social facts pictorially” using a series of simplified, visually striking abstracted symbols to make quantitative information memorable. As is often the case with groundbreaking approaches, Neurath and Arntz’s first major publication, in 1930, turned out to be the masterpiece of the genre, and it has never been equaled or surpassed. The book, Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft: bildstatistisches Elementarwerk. Das Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Wien zeigt in 100 Farbigen Bildtafeln Produktionsformen, Gesellschaftsordnungen, Kulturstufen, Lebenshaltungen (Society and economy: pictorial statistical elementary work. The Social and Economic Museum in Vienna shows forms of production, social orders, cultural levels, attitudes to life in 100 colored picture panels), can be seen as the beginning of what was to become a global trend of designed information (or information architecture).

From Industriia sotsializma (The industry of socialism), designed by El Lissitzky (1935).

Of great importance to the development of this trend was the fact that between 1931 and 1934 Arntz and Neurath made trips to the Soviet Union to help set up IZOSTAT, the All-Union Institute of Pictorial Statistics of Soviet Construction and Economy. Two major publications using Isotype were published in the USSR during the 1930s. Both were designed by Constructivist artist and bookmaker El Lissitzky and are notable masterpieces. The first, published in 1935, is Industriia sotsializma (The industry of socialism) and the second, An Album Illustrating the State Organization and National Economy of the U.S.S.R., from 1939, is one of the most visually stunning of all Isotype books.

An Album Illustrating the State Organization and National Economy of the U.S.S.R., designed by El Lissitzky (1939).

Both Neurath and Arntz emigrated to the Netherlands in 1934, but even before they arrived, Peter Alma, a Dutch artist who had also gone to Moscow with them, helped to disseminate their design ideas by contributing to an issue of the architecture and art periodical Wendingen devoted to infographics.

From Mala vlastiveda, designed by Ladislav Sutnar and Augustin Tschinkel (1935).

Perhaps the most impressive example of the use of Isotype in the Netherlands was Neurath’s contribution to “The Functional City” created for the eponymous exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1935. Neurath’s “Historical Table” for the exhibition was a major document of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). The same year in Prague, the great Czech graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar, along with Augustin Tschinkel, who had previously worked with Arntz and Neurath at the Gesellschafts-und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Vienna, produced the exquisitely designed textbook Mala vlastiveda (The little civics reader).

The “Historical Table” for “The Functional City,” designed by Otto Neurath (1935).

In 1936, Neurath published the first of his two classic books on Isotype, International Picture Language: The First Rules of Isotype, which was followed in 1939 by Modern Man in the Making. While not quite qualifying as works of art, they are key documents in the history of the Isotype system.

From Landsmen and Seafarers, designed by Otto Neurath (1945).

Just ahead of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in World War II, Neurath and his assistant Marie Reidemeister, who later became his wife, fled Germany to England where Neurath produced a number of books featuring outstanding dust jackets by his fellow exile, the artist John Heartfield. Among the most striking of these books is Landsmen and Seafarers by Maurice Lovell from a series exploring the relaitonship of Britain to the Soviet Union.

After the war, and Otto Neurath’s death in 1945, Reidemeister carried on Neurath’s work, becoming a pioneering graphic designer in her own right with a series of children’s books illustrated with Isotype, of which Railways under London (see illustration at the beginning of this article) is perhaps the best example.

In 1950, the Polish government published what is clearly a tribute to Lissitzky’s 1939 Album in the form of Die durchfuhrung des dreijahrplans des wiederaufbaus der wirtschaft in Polen (Implementation of the three-year plan for economic reconstruction in Poland). The Chinese government followed with its publication in 1955 of First five-year plan for Development of the National Economy of the Peoples Republic of China in 1953–1957. Like its Polish counterpart, it was obviously inspired by Lissitzky, but on a much more modest scale.

From Die durchfuhrung des dreijahrplans des wiederaufbaus der wirtschaft in Polen (Implementation of the three-year plan for economic reconstruction in Poland) (1950). 

Isotype was developed to solve a communication problem, but its larger cultural potential quickly captured the imagination of artists, illustrators, and book designers during the first half of the twentieth century. In the hands of gifted designers such as Lissitzky and Sutnar, this symbolic language not only communicated information successfully but opened the doors to a completely new way of approaching book design.

For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.

Previous articles in this series, which highlights important design books from the past, can be found on Peter’s Designers & Books profile page.

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