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Enlightening info design in the spirit of Isotype: With “Joy and Fear”, Theo Deutinger presents a picture-statistical illustrated report on the present with which he wants to continue Otto Neurath’s legendary book “Modern Man in the Making”.

Review by Thomas Wagner

© Lars Müller Publisher

“Statistics”, says Otto Neurath, “is joy for the successful”. The citizens of the USA proudly tell of the tallest skyscrapers, the fastest aeroplanes and that their country produces more petroleum, coal and automobiles than all other countries put together. Numbers, said the national economist, philosopher and popular educator, who was born in Vienna in 1882 and died in exile in England in 1945, “become the flags of victory”. Statistics, however, were also “an essential part of the socialist order” for every thinking worker, which is why it was necessary to know “how to apply certain quantities of labour, machines, raw materials, so that a certain quantity of housing, food, clothing, education, amusements, nursing, etc. is secured, the distribution of which is carried out according to certain principles”.

Emancipation through Processed Data

If statistics are not to be knowledge of power, how can citizens be informed and how can the social and economic foundations of a democratic society be communicated? How can empirical data be prepared in such a way that they have an enlightening effect and stimulate discussion? In order to inform a democratic public about the problems of the time and the reasons for their emergence, the “Society and Economy Museum” was founded in Vienna in 1925 under Neurath’s leadership. Together with his team, he developed the so-called “Vienna Method of Picture Statistics”, which was later renamed “Isotype” (International System of Typographic Picture Education). The aim was to educate responsible citizens by means of clear information presented in pictures: A small figure with a shouldered rifle, cut out as if with scissors, represented 100,000 soldiers; the development of coal and oil production became comprehensible by means of rows of briquettes and oil barrels.

Work, Leisure, Sleep
© Lars Müller Publisher

Modern Man in the Making

After “Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft” (Society and Economy), the “elementary pictorial statistical work” published in 1930, “Modern Man in the Making” from 1939 marks the culmination of a popular education by social statistics. The book goes back to a generous commission from the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, who gave Neurath great freedom as an author. His most important collaborator (and later wife) Marie Reidemeister convinced him to break new ground: Instead of stringing together infographics, Neurath combined text and diagram, whereby the picture statistics have to be read along, as it were, in order to follow the argumentation. Reidemeister prepared the statistical data graphically and coordinated it with Neurath and Gerd Arntz to maintain unity. In doing so, she anticipated the role of today’s information designers. Topics were negotiated that are still relevant today – from globalisation to war and economy to migration. Neurath’s approach embodies the enormous dynamics of modernity: “modern man” is constantly “in the making”; he is not only changing, not only in the process of becoming, he is also “made”, determined by external factors and influences. A view that corresponded to Neurath, who not only adopted a materialist perspective as a national economist.

Continuing Neurath’s Classic

With “Joy and Fear”, Theo Deutinger wants to continue nothing less than Neurath’s “Modern Man in the Making”. Deutinger, born in 1971, is an architect, writer and curator as well as the founder and director of “The Department”, an office that combines architecture with research, visualisation and artistic thinking. He became known for his writings on the transformation of European urban culture and socio-cultural studies such as the “Handbook of Tyranny”. In “Joy and Fear”, Deutinger now explores the question of how humans are repeatedly shaped anew and differently through promises and failures in the development of modern society. The book contains texts, illustrations and pictograms on topics as diverse as iron production, the Manhattan Project, consumerism, the plastic age, war, migration, leisure, ageing and much more.

At the beginning, Deutinger reports that he came across the Dutch version of Neurath’s book in his favourite antiquarian bookshop about 20 years ago and immediately felt “a strong connection”: “What fascinated me about the book was the attempt to describe the emergence of modernity – a time long gone, I thought. Having grown up in the 90s and 00s, I had been led to believe we were living in postmodern times. Somehow I had always taken the prefix ‘post’ very literally – as a time after modernity.”

A Lot Has Changed

Since the world has changed in many ways since 1939 (the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima in 1945), Deutinger’s idea at first was simply to take Neurath’s book and extend his picture statistics to the present day. “But as soon as I entered the world of Isotype, I was carried away by cars, horses and ships, almost crushed by gears and haunted by figures. I got too caught up in Otto Neurath’s thinking, an intellectual of the industrial age. To continue his story, I had to break away from the man and stick more to the Isotype method.” In the end, Deutinger says, a dialogue emerged “between us, the people of today, and Neurath, the man from the past”.

The result is a stimulating mix of themes whose development has continued into the present, others that have changed since the 1930s, and entirely new things. Nuclear energy, the internet and the rise of China, Deutinger says, required “new narratives, new illustrations and a new Isotype”. The pictograms of the historical Isotype were changed as little as possible, and new ones were designed in the style of the originals. The dilemma was also addressed that in Neurath’s work, due to the times, all figures representing humanity are men (or, if they represent a woman, they wear a dress), Native Americans are printed in red, and Asians wear cone-shaped hats made of rice straw: the pictogram for humans was made more androgynous so that all genders would feel represented. Efforts had also been made to eliminate sexist, racist and other exclusionary biases in the illustrations.

© Lars Müller Publisher

Can Developments Be Objectified?

The image statistics in particular are astonishing from time to time, especially when they directly demonstrate that the quantities produced or consumed have exploded in recent decades. It proves problematic to objectify developments – whether in the past or the present. When, for example, Neurath points out in 1939 that “migration is not yet the subject of international planning”, Deutinger states evaluatively “that things have only gotten worse”. Today, “migration is the subject of restrictive national planning” and is “used as a political instrument above all by the growing number of right-wing populist politicians”. At best, the receiving countries see migrants as “a potential rejuvenating factor for an ageing population to keep the pension coffers running”. The criteria by which something is measured have also changed in many ways. Whether it is the welfare state, population growth or agriculture, fossil fuels or the “dawn of consumerism”, global trade, convenience and lifestyle, the plastic age or digitalisation – everything is presented in a sensible, balanced and materially rich way. But while the picture statistics are startling, the text is only able to name the complexity of the systems and the resulting challenges, but rarely to get through them.

There is too much Information Today

As admirable as Deutinger’s enterprise is and how much the isotype still fascinates today – Neurath’s method of updating meets a fundamentally changed media structure of the public. Information is anything but neutral. Reception expectations and attitudes are also quite different today. Not to forget: Where once there was a lack of information (not only among workers), today there is too much confusion in the thicket of mere opinions. (Not to mention “big data”, “fake news” and the triumph of statistical averages through AI.) In addition, Deutinger’s talk of “modernity” remains vague, sweeping, without illuminating differentiation. Even if text and image statistics want to provide a remedy – data sets and statistics remain. From which Deutinger concludes at the end: “In the 157 illustrations of this book, we are all represented twice – once as individual people and once as part of the world population as a whole.” The “insidious beast” called modernity, he says, addresses us as individuals, but feeds on quantities, processes them and produces ever greater numbers. Somewhere in between, we are looking for a way into the future.

© Lars Müller Publisher

Joy and Fear

Theo Deutinger

Design: Theo Deutinger
Hardcover, 216 p., 217 illustrations
Text in English
Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich 2023
ISBN 978-3-03778-743-4
45,00 Euro

Lars Müller has announced a reprint of the original edition of Otto Neurath’s “Modern Man in the Making” for spring 2024.

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