ReAppreciating Fritz Kahn
Congratulations to our friends and colleagues Thilo von Debschitz and Uta von Debschitz for the successful redesign and republishing of the new expanded 390 page volume on Fritz Kahn. Bigger and better than the previous 2011 version this large format 2013 monograph will become an inspiring historical volume for many interested in the early days of what might be called metaphorical or analogous information design.
Inside are wonderful early versions of several forms of information design (now often being redepicted as “info-graphics”) including data visualizations and idea or concept visualizations. You don’t have to agree with every idea to appreciate the richness of this amazing work.
Dr. Fritz Kahn (1888-1968) has been referred to as “the lost pioneer of info graphics”. I would say Kahn is among a half-dozen or so pioneers who were until recently lost or at least under appreciated by new generations entering the “info-graphics” industry. Kahn was a medical doctor and popular science writer who illustrated the form and function of the human body with spectacular, modern industrial analogies. As Thilo von Debschitz pointed out in his 2011 SenseMaker Dialogs talk here in New York, Fritz Kahn was not interested in picturing reality; instead, he sought to show the principles that guided it, the story behind the operations. Fritz Kahn’s influence has rippled through history to the present in animation, art, film and information design.
Fritz Kahn’s flourishing career as a doctor, popular science writer, and artist came to an abrupt halt when the Nazis rose to power. Because of the oppressive censorship during the Third Reich, most of the works created by Fritz Kahn were banned, publicly burned, and destroyed. He later emigrated to the United States and had an operational studio here on 97th Street in New York City. Not himself an artist, illustrator or designer by training, much of the work attributed to the Kahn Studio was executed by other professionals under his direction.
For several years Thilo and Uta scoured the globe in search of what little remains of Kahn’s original drawings and publications, several of which we are honored to have in the Humantific Visual SenseMaking Collection including this fabulous hand-made drawing of insects below from the 1952 Das Buch Der Natur [The Book of Nature]. It is a wonderful early example from the analogous school of information design, comparing a firefly to the tail light of a car, etc. It is also a great example from the “not everything is data visualization” school of information design..:-) Many Fritz Kahn visuals are not based on data-sets. ( See Update below.)
The fact that this incredible volume of work was created long before the arrival of computer technology makes it all the more spectacular to appreciate.
Of course unlike what we do today at Humantific, many of the early information graphics pioneers including Otto Neurath (1882-1945) of Isotype and Fritz Kahn (1888-1968) did not integrate and or connect the collective action of understanding with cocreated changemaking. Today this hybrid combining represents among the most significant shifts underway in the visual sensemaking industry. It is not just the technologies and the data volumes that have changed. It is what we do with the outputs that ultimately makes the difference. Today we much more deliberately combine sensemaking with changemaking.
UPDATE Nov 15: Our brief analysis of the 277 visualizations included in the “illustrations” section of this book indicates that 71% (198) were/are metaphorical (not based on data). We considered 18% (49) to be hybrid and only 11% (30) were data based visualizations.