The Missing Legacy of Marie Neurath

Recognizing the co-creator of the Isotype as a data visualization pioneer

Jason Forrest
Jan 20, 2020 · 20 min read

Historical credit is often hard to assign, and with the story of the Isotype is it even more cloudy. While there is no question that Otto Neurath invented, directed, and drove the evolution of the Isotype, it was Marie Neurath who served as his main contributor from 1926 until 1945 when he died. She continued for another 26 years after his death, working in the name of the Isotype Institute they co-created. While Otto Neurath pushed for its international adoption, Marie was the master who put it into practice.

There is a resurgence of interest in Marie Neurath and the Isotype Institute as a result of the exhibition “Marie Neurath: Picturing Science” at London’s House of Illustration. It’s a small but brilliant exhibition documenting the vibrant children’s books created by Marie after Otto’s death. The exhibition is filled with interesting documentation of the process and correspondence by Marie and her team, and includes many early drafts and prototypes.

Marie’s books are fantastic examples of visual explanations for children. The ‘Visual Science’ series focused on ways of diagramming diverse subjects as at atomic energy, telecommunications, and engineering. Each book came in student and teacher versions. Marie’s bright colors and elaborate cross-section diagrams add a layer of creativity that captivates anyone who views them (at any age). The show garnered wonderful reviews and several in-depth articles about this period of her work, but despite the recent attention, her emergence as a central figure in the history of data visualization remains unfulfilled.

Marie Neurath was a remarkable practitioner, with a life that mirrors the turbulent events of the 20th-Century, and a staggering output spanning education, industry, civil service, healthcare, economics, and publishing. Marie researched, calculated, and co-designed nearly every Isotype ever created, from the early days in Vienna in 1925 all the way to when she retired in 1971. This article seeks to explore her career and life in data.

Marie Neurath In Her Own Words

After Marie retired, she was invited to speak to the design students at the University of Reading (about an hour outside of London). This began a relationship that eventually led to the gift of the Isotype archives to the university in 1971. The Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection now resides at the University of Reading in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication. Its caretakers, Eric Kindel, Sue Walker, Christopher Burke, and Robin Kinross, have dutifully sifted through the years of notes, drawings, letters, and ephemera to publish books and curate exhibitions about the Neuraths over the years. The care this group continues to show in preserving the legacy of the Isotype has been generous, thoughtful and thorough.

One of their many offerings is the unassuming book “The Transformer” comprised mostly of an essay that Marie wrote in 1986 just months before her death. More of a letter than a formal record, “Vienna Method and Isotype: My Apprenticeship and Partnership With Otto Neurath” is her first-hand account of her professional life. The rest of the book is filled with notes by Robin Kinross, who spent time with Marie and became a close friend.

It’s a fascinating book that partially explains her life and partially explains the nature of her work — detailing along the way the various design innovations for each challenge. Marie’s recollections focus primarily on how the Isotype evolved and her role in creating nearly all of them. She doesn’t get bogged down in much personal detail and her even-keeled story doesn't dwell on the hardships the couple faced — but it reveals much through the details.

The Isotype archive is filled with Otto and Marie’s sketches, notes, and working fragments that went into producing their Isotype work from 1940 afterward. It is gathered into various bins by theme, project, and date. From hand-typed lists to sketches transferred from carbon papers to research notes and letters between Otto and Marie, and their clients, friends, and supporters — it’s all in there. While organized, there is a lot to absorb. This is all to say, the story of Marie Neurath can be definitively told in her own voice and from her own documents.

The Vienna Method Of Pictorial Statistics

For our purposes, Marie’s story starts with that of her collaborator and future husband, Otto Neurath, who was an urban planner and economist known for co-founding the Vienna Circle. He was, by all accounts, a very large, interesting, funny, and charismatic man. Animated and dynamic, his passion for education earned him the role as head of the Siedlungsmuseum (Museum for Housing and City Planning). In order to directly connect with the working classes, many of whom were only partially literate, Otto began to experiment with diagrams and visually focused exhibition design.

A young Marie Neurath (nee Reidemeister) traveled from Braunschweig, Germany to Vienna on a student trip in 1924 and toured Otto’s museum. She recounted meeting Otto for the first time. “Otto saw how impressed I was, and asked me if I could perhaps design things of this kind; but what should I say — I had never seen anything quite like it before. ‘But’, he asked, ‘If I started a museum where such charts are designed, would you be willing to join in?’ To which I replied without qualifications ‘yes’ and I meant it.”

Instinctively Otto had found a collaborator in Marie and shortly thereafter founded the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum (Museum for Social and Economic Affairs) in Vienna in 1925. Marie finished her studies in Germany and reported to work for Otto two months after the museum started.

The Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum became a hit and Otto’s visionary approach toward using streamlined graphics to communicate statistical information quickly became known as ‘the Vienna method of pictorial statistics.’ As the museum’s acclaim spread across Europe, talented people found themselves drawn to Otto like Gerd Arntz who emigrated from Germany with his family to begin working at the Museum in 1928. Arntz became the primary designer of the Isotype style and refined and designed many of the Isotype Icons. The trio of Otto, Marie and Gerd became the nucleus of all Isotype work from 1928–1941.

The Transformer

What makes Marie Neurath so particularly interesting is her role in the team, as she referred to herself as “the Transformer”. Today we would consider the work of the Transformer somewhere between a data scientist and an information designer.

Marie explained the work of the transformer: “From the data given in words and figures, a way has to be found to extract the essential facts and put them into picture form. It is the responsibility of the transformer to understand the data, to get all necessary information from the expert, to decide what is worth transmitting to the public, how to make it understandable, how to link it with general knowledge or with information already given in other charts. In this sense, the transformer is the trustee of the public. He has to remember the rules and to keep them, adding new variations where advisable, at the same time avoiding unnecessary deviations which would only confuse. He has to produce a rough chart in which many details have been decided: title; arrangement, type number, and color of symbol; caption, etc. It is a blueprint from which the artist works.”

As the team at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum formed so did their working methods. Marie recounts the process. “An idea was formed by Otto; he discussed it with an expert to have his idea checked and to get suitable material. The transformer was present at such discussions to get acquainted with the subject. The transformer then took over the material and developed the way to present it visually. The sketch (in pencil and colored pencils) was discussed with Neurath (and sometimes the expert) until a final rush was agreed upon; this was copied into a duplicate book, and the colored top copy handed to the artist who took charge of design and finished artwork, in constant contact with Neurath and the transformer.”

Top left: The hand of Marie Neurath transforming statistics, Top right: Gerd Arntz drawing the pictogram for ‘unemployed’ — note Marie’s notes in the lower right of the photo, Bottom Left: A technician cuts out the printed pictogram, Bottom Right: three team members assemble a chart. All images were taken at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum (Photographs by Walter Pfitzner, about 1930)

32 Years Before ‘Design Thinking’

Otto, Marie, and Gerd constantly iterated on design ideas in search of finding communication efficiencies. While working in the museum one day, Marie discovered that informal audience feedback was an important influence on design iteration. “I often had to take school classes ‘round the museum and liked to do this. I was able to ask questions, and the children could find the answers in the charts…. Through these conversations, one could also notice when a chart was not easy enough to understand and this taught us, the producers, something.” She also said, more directly “As long as we had a museum we had a testing ground for our work…”

Keep in mind — this was in 1927, 32 years before John E. Arnold first uses the term ‘design thinking’ in his book “Creative Engineering” in 1959. Kinross elaborates, “now we might call this process simply ‘design’…in the wish to extrapolate from Isotype, or to include Isotype in a broad stream of design thinking… it is here in the process of visually configuring material… that the great value of isotype lies.”

Putting it differently: the need to find a method that bridged the gap between creator and audience became central to the success of the work. Otto Neurath’s team was at the same intersection of science, design, and communication three decades earlier for the same reasons that went on to drive innovation across the rest of the 20th-Century. Indeed, Design Thinking activities such as context analysis, problem finding, ideation, creative thinking, sketching, prototyping, testing and evaluating are all parts of the process of creating an Isotype — with the additional steps of detailed research, data analysis, and data encoding.

History Gets In the Way

But Otto, Marie, and Gerd were on a collision course with the political events happening across Europe. As word of the Vienna Method spread, Otto created new foundations to spread his techniques and educational approach. First, he began to collaborate with Paul Otlet in 1929 by extending the Mundaneum from the Hague to Vienna, which paved the way for more collaborative work for the World Social Economic Congress in Amsterdam in 1931. That same year the team helped launch the IZOSTAT in Moscow, and lastly, explored a potential spin-off in London in 1932. Otto even began talks with interested groups in the USA and traveled to New York in 1933. It was an exciting development for the group as they began to teach their practice and extend their team internationally — but it all came at the wrong time.

In 1934, Austrian Fascists seized Vienna, and with it, the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum. It’s exhibits, charts, and sculptures were all burned and the museum destroyed. At nearly the same time, the Russian government defaulted on payments from the IZOSTAT, so the team was also without the funds to continue at scale. Gerd Arntz invited Otto and Marie to The Hague to ride out the storm, but it turned out the war would catch them only a few years later. Marie explains, “the {Vienna method} was lost when we left Vienna in 1934. We could survive only as citizens of the world. Never again did we have a home like Vienna.”

Internationalism: from Vienna Method to Isotype

Safely in the Netherlands, Otto Neurath was in touch with C.K. Ogden who was developing an easy to learn variation of the English language called ‘Basic English’ (or British American Scientific International Commercial). It was agreed that Marie and Otto would illustrate the introductory book and create a second book explaining the tenents of Isotype.

Marie recounts, “The two Basic books forced us to find a new name for the method, and the formation of the word ‘Basic’ helped in this. One afternoon I sat down and played around with it. I arrived at ‘International System of Teaching In Pictures’ — Isotip; that did not sound quite right yet, except for the first syllable. It was then only a short step to Isotype but I did not succeed in finding a good sequence of words for it, and we stayed with the not entirely satisfactory solution of ‘International System of TYpographic Picture Education’. When Otto returned in the evening from a meeting in Amsterdam he was pleased with the name and, the next day, asked Arntz to design a symbol for it. Both name and symbol were published then, for the first time, in “International Picture Language”. Marie’s name stuck: Isotype was easy to remember, the logo looked great, and it represented both the work and its the authors.

Despite the war, the team’s work continued to spread internationally and Otto was again invited to New York City to work with the Tuberculosis Association. While in New York, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf requested to see him and asked for a picture book on Isotype. Otto suggested a book about the modern world. Marie describes his return, “He came home with this good news: we already have so much material for this, we just need to get down to it, he said. Just before we started on the work, we had a discussion, and this time it was I who urged: you have been given complete freedom, why not use the opportunity to make something quite new?… Modern Man in the Making appeared in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war in Europe. It was published in the USA and Britain… It was the last piece of work that we carried out with our old colleagues. Then the invasion came. At the parting, Neurath said: everyone must decide for themselves now.”

Exodus from Europe

“When the Dutch surrendered” Marie recalls, “Neurath and I decided to escape, and the two others to stay.”

Artist and lecturer, Michelle Henning tells the story of their escape:

“There were soldiers on the beach. An oil depot was on fire and the air was black with smoke. British and Dutch troops had been destroying fuel reserves along the coast to prevent the Germans using them. Otto said, “If we don’t find a boat I’m going on a piece of wood”… they found [a boat called] the Zeemanshoop… More than forty people had already gathered on board when they arrived. Otto joked that when they jumped from the high dock, they jumped “head over heels”. Marie said that his weight nearly sank the little boat. They thought they were the last to join the already overloaded boat. A Dutch soldier shot his gun into the air to prevent any more refugees from boarding.

On arrival in Britain, both Otto and Marie were classified as “Enemy Aliens”… the British military had persuaded the Home Secretary Sir John Anderson, “that every male enemy alien between sixteen and seventy should be removed forthwith from the coastal strip.” …[This] meant that the majority of newly arrived refugees from Europe, mostly Jews, were among the three thousand people interned. Otto and Marie were separated and taken into custody as they landed at Dover.

Neurath explained to the British police that he was the author of the book Modern Man in the Making. To prove it, he pulled from his pocket a review of the book illustrated with a photograph of him. This review was one of very few documents and papers he had brought from the Hague. Neurath later wrote that: “the bobbies did know Modern Man in the Making, and did hardly believe that the author was with them. Fortunately, I had with me a review of my book with a photo of mine”.

Otto and Marie both recollect that during this time they were both largely relieved as they arrived at their respective Isle Of Man internment camps. Otto said, “Both of us regarded the first weeks in prison etc. as a kind of relaxation or holidays after the tension in Holland.” They had lost their museum, their Foundations across Europe were broken by the war and they had effectively nothing left but each other, but their work was still growing in influence and very much alive.

What else could they do but continue to work? Despite the lack of resources, Otto and Marie continued to do so in the internment camps. On visiting the Isotype archives earlier this year, from among the detailed notes and sketches from this period I found a chocolate wrapper, it's inside covered with notes for a history chart. As paper was in short supply during the war one can see how Marie continued to work with whatever was at hand.

The Isotype Institute after Otto Neurath

After Otto and Marie were released from the internment camps, the pair were wedded in 1941. As the war concluded, they began planning a series of projects: a foundation in the USA, a series of books on post-war politics in England, and the initial plans for a series of children’s books. The world showed signs of blooming again. In 1942, as the newlywed Neuraths established their lives in England, they also co-founded the Isotype Institute in England. But just a few years later, Otto Neurath suddenly died in 1945, possibly from a stroke.

While Otto Neurath was the figurehead of the Isotype Institute, he was deliberate across his career to call out the collective ownership of the Isotype by his team. Being a staunch feminist, Otto always credited Marie with her central role from the earliest days all the way up to founding the Institute. Marie explains “Neurath had thought out the transfer: he had considered us as partners in our contract of employment with the Institute; both of us were Secretaries of the institute and ‘Directors of Studies’; when either of us dies, the duties and rights fell to the other… I had to carry the work on, and I had to take final responsibilities myself.”

As Marie Neurath continued to work after Otto’s death, relationships with publishers and clients like the filmmaker Paul Rotha were in place so the work of the Isotype Institute continued. Marie found a new team to help create the charts, and in doing so, new forms of experimentation began to emerge in the design of the Isotype.

For example, a series of projects for the magazine Future in England (which was created in the image of Fortune magazine in the United States) pushed the aesthetic boundaries of her work. We see a more illustrational approach to the Isotype in these pieces, with graphic flourishes that suit the more sensational format of the magazine design. This is particularly interesting, as it shows the influence of the Isotype on other designers, and in turn the work Marie created in reaction to their portfolios. This kind of visual evolution is seen across her work throughout the rest of her career.

A Test of Internationalism: The Isotype in Africa

Then, in 1950, Marie was contacted by Obafemi Awolowo, the Prime minister of Western Nigeria. This began a series of fascinating projects by the Isotype Institute for the Nigerian government as well as neighboring projects in Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast.

This was, in many ways, the ultimate test of the Isotype in determining the efficiency of visual education for a non-western audience. With this in mind, Marie traveled several times to Africa to learn more about the culture and began testing initial designs for their cultural effectiveness.

Pamphlet front covers, Ibadan: Western Regional Government, 1955

Throughout this period, Marie used her working process to learn about the cultural differences that her Isotype designs needed to transcend. She explains how she tested her work one day in a classroom, “When I came to Western Nigeria for the second time, I was able to bring proofs of some booklets with me to try them out… I saw with pleasure how the children eagerly examined the pictures… Of course, the symbols had to ‘speak’ to the Nigerians, just as they had to the Viennese; men, women, children had to look as they did [in Africa]; houses could not have chimneys; but in the essential rules of transformation, nothing needed to be changed.”

Design historian and educator Erik Kindel explains the full story of this work in “Reaching the People: Isotype Beyond the West”. One fascinating story explains how Marie customized the colors used in her work in collaboration with a local authority. “[He] also offered thoughts on the use of color: yellow, in his view, had been correctly deployed to designate a healthy person; red by contrast should represent tuberculosis because of its Yoruba associations with danger and misfortune; blue, suggesting happiness, as appropriate for depictions of treatment and protection, and for doctors.”

As political situations shifted in Africa, Marie’s Isotype work trailed off, but she felt a sense of accomplishment in her approach to testing the international reach of the Isotype. She recounts years later, “The methods and approach are, I think, more universal than the symbols are. I had to discover this when I worked for Africans for some time. I had to make things clear to them, and I could not force our ‘international symbols’ on them. Many symbols, of man, woman, house, tree, field, etc. had to be specifically designed for them. When things are equal all over the world the symbols can be the same.”

The Missing (and Difficult) Legacy of the Isotype

Despite regular interest from the design community, the legacy of the Isotype remains challenging in its peekaboo influence. While references to the Neuraths can be seen across design as a whole (in the application of the pictogram and the use of icons across our information systems) mainstream recognition of their name remains elusive.

This could partially be due to the complexity of the process behind creating an Isotype. During their lifetimes, Otto and Marie fiercely resisted the systematic definition of the Isotype, as the ethical standards needed to interpret the data were difficult to pin down at the time. They were often asked to reduce the Isotype to a more easily teachable format, but time after time, the pair refused. Otto wisely understood that a tremendous amount of summing and aggregation of data went into creating Isotypes and the reduction of the data in service of the overall message could be easily misused to present false information. The carefully crafted context of the charts was deeply important to Otto and Marie and every detail was considered, from the color, text, and orientation of the icons to each data story they represented and overall design. As a result, they felt that the Isotype could only be personally taught by them alone.

Indeed, Gerd Artnz independently continued after the war to make Isotype-based work in the Netherlands for the rest of his career to mixed acceptance by Otto and Marie. Rudolf Modley, a former intern at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum, considered himself a protege of Otto’s and set up his Pictorial Statistics, Inc. in the United States, which was then roundly rejected by Otto Neurath for his treatment of the underlying data.

Marie trained several people in transformation in Vienna, Moscow, and England and had made plans to train several Nigerians, but curiously, none of her students continued creating Isotypes on their own. Despite her efforts before and after Otto’s death, a specific school of “transformation” never materialized. As she reached her later years, she recalled “I tried to introduce a successor to my work. Nothing succeeded…I was now over 70 years old and I decided to bring the work to a close. So it had a real end just as it had a very clear beginning.”

Marie’s co-author and friend Robin Kinross provides a slightly different perspective. “My view is that Isotype can be continued now, not as some settled and defined system or method, but rather as an approach to design: not just in making pictorial statistics or presentations of information, but in any field of designing. In the last analysis, Isotype is a way of thinking.”

We see so many aspects of Transformation spread throughout data and design practices today, though Marie’s groundbreaking approach was decades ahead of its time. As the Transformer Marie was considered to be the “trustee of the public”, a designation we see newly echoed in contemporary UX design as the “user advocate”. While UX methodologies may be applied in data visualization now, a widely adopted user-centered practice is still rare. And only recently have university programs emerged that focus on data visualization through studying both data science as well as design. While it’s not easy to train in these various skills, it is certainly possible, and Marie Neurath came across it naturally.

Recognizing A Pioneer in Data Visualization History

As our community continues to expand the focus of data visualization history, we need to ensure that Marie Neurath’s accomplishments are celebrated in addition to the work of Otto Neurath — not only because she practiced his work longer than he did, but because she partnered with him in evolving and refining its vocabulary. While their work was a deeply collaborative effort she was the only unifying factor in all Isotypes across all 45 years. Project after project, chart after chart, it was Marie Neurath who compiled the data, who established the story, and who created the design.

Despite the fantastic research by those at the University of Reading (and many others), Marie Neurath’s story has still not been understood or embraced by a new generation of designers. It is time to change this.

We need to embrace her identity as an innovator in information design, data visualization and celebrate her role in visual education. It is time that her tireless efforts, generosity of spirit, and revolutionary ideas gain their own place in history.

If you want to learn more about Otto and Marie Neurath, there are quite a few fantastic resources to get you started.

Isotype: Design and Contexts 1925–-1971,

by Christopher Burke, Eric Kindel, Sue Walker | 2014

amazon, ebay, abebooks

There are a number of books on Isotype, but this is the bible. But if you are really interested, then you should jump directly into this astonishing, epic book, as it is the definitive book on the subject that explains all aspects of their work, practice, and lives.

The Transformer: Principles of Making Isotype Charts

by Marie Neurath and Robin Kinross | 2009

amazon, ebay, abebooks

Written the year she died, this is Marie’s first-hand account of her work (and life) with annotations by her friend Robin Kinross. It is quoted throughout this article.

Huge thanks to Alyssa Bell, RJ Andrews, Paul Kahn, and Elijah Meeks for the edits and support!

This will come in a series of articles about Isotype. I’ll try to add the other stories here:

Lessons of Isotype — PART 1

Lessons of Isotype — PART 2

Lessons of Isotype — PART 3

Explaining a Single Isotype

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Thanks to RJ Andrews, Elijah Meeks, Alyssa Bell, and Paul Kahn

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Jason Forrest

Written by

Dataviz Designer at McKinsey, Editor-in-chief at Nightingale, Electronic Musician. Contact & more: jasonforrestftw.com

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Jason Forrest

Written by

Dataviz Designer at McKinsey, Editor-in-chief at Nightingale, Electronic Musician. Contact & more: jasonforrestftw.com

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

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