Review: Modern Man in the Making & Joy and Fear

Do a search for “neurath” on the Nightingale website and you will find a dozen articles about people and books that use the Isotype method. Go ahead, try it. These are articles about the history of data visualization, about designers working in the 1930s and 40s in Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, the US and UK, who developed and applied a method of visual design suitable for mass communication. One of the most recognizable features was the use of flat outline shapes to represent quantities, repeating these units to represent total numbers. The motivation was to create a pictorial language more accessible than spoken language and mental arithmetic. Initially known as the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics, the technique was branded as Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education). The sociologist, city planner, museum administrator, and economist driving this method was Otto Neurath.

If you have come across charts by Neurath in lectures and anthologies, chances are they came from Modern Man in the Making, the one major book he published in English in 1939. The book, subtitled “for the intelligent citizen who wants to understand the world he lives in”, contains a summary of all the social and economic analysis that Neurath had been writing about and visualizing for nearly two decades. It is a presentation of statistics comparing how the world has changed from 1800 to the present (1938). It contains what we all need to know in order to face the challenges of the Modern. Much has been written in recent years about the enormous contributions by Gerd Arntz and Marie (Reidemeister) Neurath to all the visual work published under Neurath’s name, and they are both given credit in the book’s acknowledgement section. They were a team but Otto Neurath was the author.

The book has been often referenced and rarely seen in the past 85 years. Now, Lars Muller Publishers has reprinted the entire book, just as it originally appeared. The publisher has gone so far as to forego binding in a 21st century preface, instead tipping a separate folded page with a short essay by the historian Gunther Sandner about the book and Neurath’s political biography.

What is the point today of going back to data from 1939? What is there to be learned from a book describing a “modern” world before the German invasion of Poland, the firebombing of Dresden, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Holocaust, the American use of atomic bombs in Japan, the invention of transistors, and the distribution of antibiotics?

For one thing, there is much to learn here for anyone telling data stories. Neurath and his team were among the best storytellers of their time, and they lead the reader through “Trends towards Modernity” and “The State of the World” with a rhythmic combination of text and graphics. The book is a remarkable example of integration of text and graphics. One great example of this integration is the chart showing changes in the weaving of cloth in England during the 19th century. The graphic, given plenty of space and sharp contrasting colors, shows the population of home weavers entirely replaced by boxed-in factory weavers while the volume of cloth produced increases by 100-fold. The multiple dimensions behind the data – the movement of child labor from the home into factories, the enforced 18-hour workdays – are found in the adjacent text. That is how the chart is meant to be read.

So, there are lessons to be learned by looking directly at Modern Man in the Making and reading a story that is not about now. The book has many examples of profiles, arrangements of data where part of the story is in the exterior shape. The section on Social Environment begins with income levels to create “profiles of happiness”. In the “Profile of Personal Income in Great Britain, 1934” each icon is arranged vertically by Income Classes representing 2% of total population. There is only one classification of people. The text describes how the income distribution creates “enormous mountains and wide plains.” The fiscal distance between the majority population and the fraction of a single icon representing the very wealthy is enormous. This is followed by “Profile of Family Income in Columbia, South Carolina, 1933”. (The source of this data is cited in the Appendix as “Consumer Use by Selected Goods and Services by Income Classes” from the US Department of Commerce.) The 50 icons represent the same 2% of total population, but the US data is classified as two kinds of people: white and Negroes. The profile is a more gradual curve. We are decades before the US civil rights movement, and the text around the chart does not mention racial categories. Neurath’s text is focused on class mobility, the need for improved housing, and the elimination of “pauperism”.

Questions of ‘what if’ stare you in the face. In the 21st century, the US Department of Commerce has six consumer classifications: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Two or More Races. The 2021 census for Great Britain has five classifications: White, Asian, Black, Mixed, and Other. What if someone repeated this profile exercise today? Would these classifications tell a more nuanced story? What profile would the distribution of income resemble?

Theo Deutinger took on this ‘what if’ challenge. Inspired by Neurath’s book, he put together his own team of researchers and designers, and produced a contemporary Isotype portrait of the Modern. Joy and Fear, subtitled An Illustrated Report on Modernity, takes up the task of visualizing the asymmetries of the modern world. Neurath has been judged by some as an unrealistic optimist, believing that the improvements in health, technology, and quality of life so characteristic of the Modern in the US and Europe would eliminate fundamental problems and unite mankind. Deutinger, who likes to focus on nuclear weapons, the killing of animals to produce food, and plastic and apparel waste, is not such an optimist, yet he remains fascinated with the transformations of our current world. As he points out, some of the features of life in the 1930s have continued to develop – stocks of food, weapons production, automobiles – while many current features – nuclear weapons, global tourism, digital media – did not exist in that earlier Modern time. He updates examples directly when he can, such as the home and factory weaving chart. He describes in his text the shift of textile production from the US and Europe to South Asia, accompanied by a chart showing the enormous growth since 1990 of “Garment Workers and Exports in Bangladesh”.

A book page with a pictograph which reads "Garment Workers and Exports in Bangladesh" where people and factories are drawn to represent the data in years 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2020.

He proves uninterested in any changes in distribution of income among racial classifications but is very interested in changes to where and how things are produced. The most dramatic example is the revision of Neurath’s “Pig Iron Production”, which showed the annual production of iron in the US, UK, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union from 1900 through 1939, with marks to highlight the years of WWI, the Russian Civil War, and the Great Depression. Joy and Fear extends this through 2023, and adds China as the sixth producer. The result requires a five-page foldout to represent the enormous increase in iron production in China since the 1900s. Any reader would stop counting icons and get the point.

Perhaps the most interesting classification he carried over from Modern Man in the Making is the division of the world into six regions. The first and fourth of these regions are the Americas: United States & Canada, Latin America. Europe is the third region. In 1930 it excluded the Soviet Union; today it excludes Russia or CIS. The sixth region is the Far East, combining China, Japan and Korea. The fifth region are the Southern Territories, a catch-all of everything else in Asia and Africa. Combining data from Saudi Arabia to South Africa to India to Indonesia may not be the best way to view the world today, but it does provide Deutinger with direct comparison to Neurath’s work in charts. For example, Neurath’s “Sources of Power” shows three kinds of power sources to produce electricity. Deutinger is able to update the chart to represent power sources in 2020 with icons for coal, oil, gas, nuclear, biofuel, wind, solar, and hydroelectric and unused dams, while adjusting the icon unit by a factor of 60 to account for the billions of kilowatts produced.

The allure and power of Isotype charts using the alignment of icons and colors to tell a dramatic story at a glance. A danger of the method is overloaded designs with symbols that seem to spill across the page. Deutinger manages to create strong visuals with an Isotype 100% bar chart. He shows us the dramatic change of people employed in agriculture, manufacturing, and services jobs in the US with 100 symbols representing the population. In a single glance we can see the services sector grow and the agricultural workers shrink to 1%.

Pages 42 and 43, presenting text and a visual representation of employment per sector in the USA from 1840 to 2020.

Everyone involved in data visualization and information design should experience Otto Neurath’s work in this book. Looking at isolated charts by the original Isotype team only tells part of the story. The rest is in the chapters and the two-page spreads. In addition, we can all learn something about the contemporary world and this design method by seeing modernity through Deutinger’s eyes. His book is both an answer to and a renewal of the ‘what if’ challenge. After reading this, particularly the very thin section on Digital Times, I ask myself much more can we learn? As designers, how much more can we distill into charts that tell a clear and compelling story?

These books are available via their publishers (EU) or Bookshop.org (US).
Modern Man in the Making by Otto NeurathLars Müller Publishers | Bookshop | Amazon
Joy and Fear by Theo DeutingerLars Müller Publishers | Bookshop | Amazon

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Paul Kahn’s engagement with visualization of large knowledge structures began with hypertext research projects in the 1980s and continued with the development of diagram techniques for describing information architecture. He taught Information Design History for 7 years at Northeastern University’s Information Design & Data Visualization program. He created Kahn+Assoc., the first agency in France focused on information architecture, preceded by a decade leading Dynamic Diagrams in Providence RI. He served as Experience Design Director at Mad*Pow and now devotes himself to teaching and writing in France. In 2020 he led Covid-19 Online Visualization Collection (COVIC), and has written about insights from the thousands of visualizations created during the pandemic.