Research at Kyushu University

Research Projects and Initiatives

Recent Studies at Faculty of Design

Learning the new from the old in the field of design: Investigating“Isotype,” the twentieth-century design project that was intended to “humanize knowledge”

Department of Content and Creative Design, Fuculty of Design
Professor Hisayasu Ihara

Icons and pictograms are common fixtures of signs in public spaces and on the screens of our data terminals. When we look back on the history of graphics, we discover that there was one project that represents the whole field of graphic design in the twentieth century. This is the visual technology project known as “Isotype.” In contrast to “pictogram,” which is a common noun that indicates a kind of graphic symbols direclty depict the objects they represent, “Isotype” is a neologism created as an acronym of “International System of Typographic Picture Education” that refers to a system of visual education that utilizes pictograms. The creator of this system - the philosopher Otto Neurath - was not a designer. He advocated the “humanization of knowledge” as his methodological concept, and he used this to create, in cooperation with colleagues who were designers, a multitude of iconographical symbols that visualized scientific and social issues in a way that could be easily understood by anyone.

■Alternating Between Historical Research and Practical Application

Isotype has been successfully used as a comprehensive representational system that can be utilized in diagrams and illustrations in scientific illustrated books mainly as a way of creating statistical graphs that utilize pictograms. Thus, currently it is valuable as a way to look back on the past. The objective is to elucidate how Isotype was conceived and put into practice and describe its global effect through cooperation with projects such as the “Isotype Revisited”project of the University of Reading in the UK.

I have personally been involved to some extent with the design of the contents of Kyushu University’s website “Kyushu University as Seen through Data.” The design of this site is more modern and dynamic than traditional Isotype design, but the concept of Isotype was utilized as a basic concept for communicating in an easily understandable and attractive way. This practical application is also considered a useful form of research into Isotype.

Fig.1, Isotype chart “Population and Live Stock”, designed by Gerd Arntz, 1943, from L.Florence, Only an ocean between, Georhr Harrap & Company Ltd.(London)

Fig.2, Isotype chart, “Economic Scheme”, designed by Gerd Arntz, from Otto Neurath, Modern Man in the Making, Alfred A. Knopf (New York) 1939.

Fig. 3, ISOTYPE: Design and Contexts, 1925-1971, C. Burke, E. Kindel, S. Walker (eds.) Hyphen Press (London), 2013, I contributed an essay ‘Isotype in America’ to the book.

■Utilization as a Design Resource

The collection of materials related to the effect of Isotype through the use of surveys is currently on-going. Although one objective of these collected materials is for use in education and research, they are also utilized as exhibition materials, as there are so few materials of this type. They have already been shown in exhibitions such as “Otto Neurath and Representation of the World: Otto Neurath and his Era” (Musashino Art University, 2007) and “Succession and Revival of Images” (Tama Art University, 2016). The latter of these two was an exhibition based on a research project related to “design resources.” Although small in number, the exhibited items were design materials that used Isotype and pictograms. These exhibitions allow the gathering of similar works from around the world for the purpose of comparative analysis. There are plans for future research that expands the scope beyond Isotype to include the entire graphic design “infrastructure” that consists of “papers,” “colors,” and “typography,” among other elements.

Fig. 4, “Otto Neurath and Representation of the World: Otto Neurath and his Era” Exhibition catalog, Library of Musashino Art University, 20017

Fig. 5, “Succession and Revival of IMAGES” Exhibition, Tama Art University, 2016

Fig.6. Display of material related to Isotype, in “Succession and Revival of IMAGES” Exhibition, 2016

Department of Content and Creative Design, Fuculty of Design
Professor Hisayasu Ihara

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