Academic journal article Visible Language

Otto Neurath's Isotype and the Rhetoric of Neutrality

Academic journal article Visible Language

Otto Neurath's Isotype and the Rhetoric of Neutrality

Article excerpt


Based on the modernist belief in universal, objective and neutral communication, Otto Neurath's Isotype sought to provide a pictorial language system that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. This essay attempts to do a rhetorical analysis of Isotype, while recognizing that the underlying modernist principles are an unattainable dream. Employing Robin Kinross' notion of "rhetoric of neutrality" as a central theoretical concept, this essay gathers relevant theoretical concepts from rhetorical studies and linguistics, applying them into the analysis. The essay analyzes Isotype in two phases. First, it addresses the rhetorical aspects embedded in Isotype such as stylistic choices, value systems, political or cultural assumptions and visual arguments. Second, it examines how Neurath actively employs the rhetoric of neutrality with simplified form, limited colors, typeface and a generic quality and clustering of pictorial symbols to enhance objective and neutral properties of Isotype.

In the history of graphic design, there have been attempts to create a pictorial language system that solves the problem of 'babelization' in verbal language. Isotype, which stands for International System of Typographic Picture Education, is a representative example of those attempts. It is a system of pictorial symbols designed by the Viennese philosopher and social scientist Otto Neurath for the purpose of communicating social and economic information to a general public. It has been applied in books, posters, museums and educational materials. Neurath's emphasis on the power of vision, and his belief that the system of pictorial language can provide a universal medium of communication that transcends the limits of language, encouraged him to develop Isotype.

Isotype is a realization of Neurath's philosophical background, logical positivism. As a member of the Vienna Circle, Neurath shares a common philosophical belief with a group of philosophers such as Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Herbert Feigl, Hans Hahn, Viktor Kraft and Friedrich Waismann, who contributed to founding logical positivism in the 1920s and 1930s. "Logical positivism brought together two philosophical attitudes that had previously been contradictory: rationalism, which studies reality through logic, geometry and mathematics, rather than observation; and empiricism (or positivism), which claims that the only access to knowledge is through direct human observation."1 Neurath integrates rationalism and empiricism by codifying empirical experiences to symbolic logic with recourse to a pictorial symbol system called Isotype.

Neurath holds the conviction that a universal pictorial language system is something attainable and will enhance the efficiency of communication. In terms of the historical context of graphic design, his conviction is grounded in the modernist faith in universality, objectivity and neutrality in communication. Under the influence of Modernism, graphic design views communication as an objective process that involves "the scientifically predictable transmission of meaning."2 For objective communication, designers seek a universal vocabulary of visual forms based on clarity, unity and rationality. To create a universal visual form, the modern graphic designer eliminates all the nonessential elements such as historical associations, personal expression, styles and decoration to purify the design only through the most basic elements. Elimination of all the expressive components renders modern graphic design neutral.

However, both Neurath's conviction and the modernist ideals that provide a philosophical ground for it have been questioned by subsequent generations of designers and writers. For example, Ellen Lupton criticizes and challenges the modernist belief in universality, neutrality and objectivity in communication that underlies Isotype by distinguishing the key notion in her discussion, interpretation, from perception. …

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