Monday, October 24, 2011

The Language of Visual Symbols

I've always been interested by good design, both in the real world (The Design of Everyday Things is an incredible book) and in the use of symbols to depict data, and so I read a NYTimes review of newly published design books called "The Design of Symbols" with great interest. Without this, I never would have known that  one man laid the foundation for an innumerable amount of instantly recognizable graphic icons: Otto Neurath, who developed a “system of sign symbols, which became known as the International System of Typographic Picture Education (Isotype)". Money Quote:
Neurath may not be a household name, but he is a major figure in the world of visual statistics. [Each of his] primary concerns: community, democracy and globalism... contributed to a narrative that Neurath believed could be made more transparent by the application of his pictures. Man “receives his education in the most comfortable of means, partly during his periods of rest, through optical impressions,” he wrote. According to Vossoughian, he believed that “the dissemination of images or pictures could foster Bildung, that is, education and self-actualization.”
One of the best examples of how Isotype symbols were used to raise popular awareness is to be found in “Modern Man in the Making,” Neurath’s opus, published by Knopf in 1939; it beautifully demonstrates his means of presenting otherwise impenetrable data in bite-size, though not dumbed-down, nuggets, with layouts that are clean, crisp and easy on the eye. In his own book, Vossoughian makes clear that Neurath was the father of the current trend in information graphics, in print and on the Web, and that the prototypes he created are still as timely as ever.
This sounds incredible, and could be really useful to me in my everyday work as an Instructional Designer. Also, as I get older, I'm fascinated about the back stories of everyday items that people all take for granted. There's a huge amount of hidden history in just about everything. Here, the review notes that iconic symbols like the CBS "eye" and the IBM corporate logo achieve their power partly due to the foundation that Neurath laid. I'll have to read up more on this, and regret that I don't have the time to learn about all of these backstories!

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