Legacies of Isotype

ISOTYPE was a dramatic reconceptualization of statistical graphics in the 1930’s by Otto and Marie Neurath and their collaborators. Contemporary charts, such as seen in Brinton, were mostly black, simple dots or lines, tiny captions and full of dense grid lines, axes, ticks and labels. Isotype instead was bold; almost always devoid of grid lines, axes and tick marks; minimal bold sans serif text; and usually relied on repetition of expressive icons to convey quantities. Compare the two images below. Isotype evolved at the same time as Modernism, where these same ideas — broadly, “less is more” — was applied to many areas of design including architecture, art, dance, industrial design, etc.

How did Isotype’s visual language become diffused across charts, visualization and interfaces over the next few decades? Here’s three:

Pictographic Icons

Perhaps the best known feature of Isotype is the use of pictographic icons. Use of pictographic icons to indicate things became increasingly important with post-war globalization. Pictographic icons are recognizable across language and use less space than long labels. Standardized icons became popular across many areas of society such as highway traffic signs, Olympic symbols, airport signage, warning symbols and so on. And then Mac and Windows used icons as core interaction elements in graphic user interfaces (How many icons are visible in your screen right now? I have more than 125). Here’s a mid-1970’s set of standardized symbols for the US Dept. of Transport:


Standardized icons from mid 1970’s, US Dept. of Transport.

No Grids

The diffusion of Isotype benefited in part from technical changes to printing, moving from metal-based printing (which could handle fine detail) to offset printing (which was based on photographic compositing techniques and this reduced the ability to use fine details such as thin lines and crisp serifs). As such, thin grid lines and small text are more difficult to use than chunky icons, large patches of color and bold, heavy-weight labels. This lines up well with design ideology of Isotype. If we look at some charts from the mid-1970’s, we can see the remains of Isotype — few or no grid lines, minimal text, and expressive pictographs:


Charts from 1975: low on grids, low on text and some icons (Graphis Diagrams, 1976)

Labeled Values

Isotype worked hard to reduce text, but showing the numeric values seems to be important when we look at charts after Isotype. In the prior image, there are explicitly labelled numeric values in all six charts. Presumably viewers want an estimate of numerical quantities corresponding to the visual marks, and they don’t want the cognitive load of counting icons or guessing the area associated with a circles, folded corners or the relative width of smoke. Or, perhaps icons are difficult to express fractions. Regardless, the addition of numerical values either as labels on marks or labels on axes come back. This was probably one of the first aspects of Isotype that may have slipped — here’s a US Dept Agriculture bar chart from 1950, highly influenced by Isotype:


Chart from 1950, highly influenced by Isotype (compare to first pair of images).

It has the icons (although moved to the axis and explicitly labelled), and minimal grids (although an outer frame has been added to the plot area). And it labels the bars. In this chart, like the 1970’s charts, the values are explicitly labelled.

The take-away is that removing value labels completely may have been a bit too far on Isotype’s part. Even Haroz et al‘s study on “Isotype” charts always included quantities along the y-axis in all test conditions. Either a numeric axis or labelled bars or some numeric guidance on the values seems to be broadly desired. We see these labelled values in many charts, such as many Excel charts that label both the numeric axis and number value per bar (3 of the 11 quick styles provide both) such as this one:


or the USA Today Snapshots (which use many cues from Isotype, including pictographs, minimal text and no grids):
Or in the very first bar chart in the very first tutorial of D3js (“Let’s make a bar chart):





About richardbrath

Richard is a long time visualization designer and researcher. Professionally, I am one of the partners of Uncharted Software Inc. I have recently completed a PhD in data visualization at LSBU. The opinions on this blog are related to my personal interests in data visualization, particularly around research interests related to my PhD work- this blog is about exploratory aspects of data visualization not proven principles.
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1 Response to Legacies of Isotype

  1. Pingback: The transformation of Isotype | richardbrath

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