We love and respect the complex history of what has become the sensemaking profession today. Here are more example images from Humantific’s Isotype Institute Collection. These are from 1955.
The Vienna-based Isotype Institute team, active in the 1920s-1950s, is widely recognized as an early pioneer in the commercial application of visual sensemaking. They applied their unique skill-set to the explanation of many business subjects, in addition to their social subjects work. These “Isotype Charts” are part of a 16-diagram series that explains the chemistry, manufacture, and use of plastics, with an emphasis on their application in the building industries. They appeared in the 1955 book, entitled Plastics and Building.
Isotype Institute work was not always focused on driving towards changemaking. In examples like this one, their focus was on explaining existing conditions within industries—what we would call the “today” picture—without any particular reference or speculation about the “tomorrow” picture.
Today, Humantific would consider this to be part of the Yin (without the Yang) component of changemaking. Pictures of “today” are not only helpful in constructing collective understanding of existing conditions—they are also great jumping-off points for cocreating futures.
We might point out that Isotype Institute was not just making sense of data-sets and information. They were looking at, and deciphering, many complex phenomena taking place in the field of focus, much of it rather abstract—including processes, chemical compositions, and various applications. They were using skills which can be referred to as information design, but they were not just designers of information. They could make sense of any subject, regardless of its state. From the Humantific perspective, they were early professional sensemakers. Their professional sensemaking often informed and accelerated the everyday sensemaking of others operating in organizational settings and in the public realm.
The output of Isotype Institute is immensely impressive and still highly influential today.
Note: For those interested in the finer points of Information Design history, we will point out three additional details:
Design was not a word that was used within Isotype Institute.
Isotype images were not made by individuals, but rather by a collaborative effort, within which the ‘Transformer” played a significant role—acting as Mediator, Organizer, Shaper between the information research and the graphic form.
Otto Neurath died in 1945, at the age of 63. Some see significant differences in images acredited to Isotype made after this date.
Image Source: Mactaggart, E. F. and H. H. Chambers. Plastic and Building. 1955. Diagrams designed by the Isotype Institute. Humantific Collection, New York.