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ISOTYPE: The Inclusion Factor

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

From the Humantific Collection here are more early Isotype Institute visualizations. Today in some circles, these might be referred to as “data visualizations” or “infographics”, previously referred to as “statistical graphics”, “picture statistics”, “pictorial statistics”, “information design” and or “information visualizations”.  🙂 No shortage of terms now in play. If we want to use such terms these might be thought of as societal context infographics made with a specific, very practical purpose in mind.

Close to our own Humantific work, in terms on social change-making intention, we have deep respect for the work of Isotype[International System of Typographic Picture Education] Institute. Led by Otto Neurath [1882-1945], Isotype was a pioneer in the realm of what we know today to be Social SenseMaking. In the tsunami of data visualizations being generated today it is important to note some fundamental differences.

Much of what Isotype Institute was doing in the 1920s-1940s was making sense of data in order to enable understanding, that would in turn help to drive change at the scale of societies. Lets’ note that this intention is very different from much of the trendy data visualizations being generated on-line today, the purpose of which is often to drive eyeballs to web sites in order to sell more corn flakes. Hey, nothing wrong with cornfakes, but selling more is unlikely to help address the many societal challenges facing us in our communities and on planet earth. It was this type and scale of challenge that Isotype Institutewas engaged in.

Isotype founder, social scientist and scientific philosopher, Otto Neurath, in particular, was deeply interested in contributing to the creation of a better, more unified world [“Words Divide, Pictures Unite”] and had specific notions regarding how that might best be accomplished. Neurath viewed societal change-making as an every man & every woman kind of responsibility. One that required fuel.

Often not so well understood is the interconnected notion of designed and deliberate inclusion underneath Isotype logic. Neurath and his team conceived Isotype as an inclusive language. They recognized that in situations were a wide audience is sought, more than words are needed.

Applying the Isotype approach to the society of the United Kingdom, the New Democracy book series circa 1940s [examples shown here] was focused on making various complex dimensions of British society clear and engaging after the war. In this book the focus was on the state of employment/unemployment. [The famous Isotypeunemployed worker symbol created by Gerd Arntz appears.] Reading the stated intentions of that series one can see early seeds of the modern Social SenseMaking movement from the Isotype perspective.

From the book Introduction: “Democracy will only live on and become once again a dynamic force if it can boldly turn those techniques and discoveries [scientific advances] to its own purposes, using them to put an end to unemployment, insecurity and want, and to open up new frontiers of human life and freedom…This is a task which cannot be left to the statesman and the expert. It is the individual responsibility of every citizen…but the citizen can only take an active part in that community if he/she is properly informed about choices and possibilities before it. To contribute to this body of informed opinion as a basis of social action, is the purpose of this series.”

Not only does the monumental body of Isotype Institute work stand as meaningful and beautiful information design but it continues to remind us that data visualization is a powerful change-making fuel that can be used in multiple contexts. Many firms engaged in data visualization today, including Humantific, continue to stand on the shoulders of Isotype building forward into the future. Some seem to understand the inclusion factor more so than others.

At Humantific we have, since our founding, vastly expanded upon the underlying notion of inclusion, applying it to organizational culture building, innovation process design, environment design, values and behavior considerations etc. Today we view every aspect of enabling innovation in organizations through the lens of inclusion, the seeds of which were very much a part of Neurath’s Isotypeapproach.

Of course today, not only is the data available vastly increased in scale, but leading practices know that making complexity understandable is in itself no longer enough, if the goal is to drive and actualize change. Unlike the logic of the Isotype era we are today integrating a much deeper level of changemaking process skills into the changemaking equation. Enabling inclusion is, in part, how we get this job done.

We believe this integration into sense-making, idea-making, decision-making, opportunity-making, change-making represents the next meaningful wave of realizations just starting to emerge into mainstream consciousness in the so-called big data era. Without integration into change-making the promise of big data and data visualization falls short.

Images Source: There’s Work For All, The New Democracy Series. 1945. By Michael Young & Theodor Prager. 14 Diagrams designed by the Isotype Institute. Humantific Collection, New York.



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