Today’s blog post comes to you courtesy of Wolfsonian Associate Librarian and rare book cataloguer extraordinaire, Dr. Nicolae Harsanyi who has been overseeing the work of one of our volunteers. Here is his report:

Retired project manager for Miami-Dade County and former president of the Miami Beach Historical Preservation League, Richard Hoberman has been volunteering in the Wolfsonian Library since April 2011. He has helped our library operations by creating metadata links in the catalog records of mostly architectural portfolios and other oversize materials. His efforts make it possible for digital images of the plates to be viewed by anyone interested in the holdings of our collection. Mr. Hoberman has thus contributed substantially to the digitizing effort of the library and museum.

Among the latest oversize items that he has worked on is a hefty portfolio of statistical data published in Vienna in 1930. Consisting of 100 pictorial charts and 30 text tables, Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft: Bildstatistisches Elementarwerk [Economy and society: Elementary pictorial statistics] had been commissioned by Leipziger
Bibliographisches Institut,
an important publisher of reference works and dictionaries.


The portfolio is the work of Otto Neurath (1882-1945), the founder of the Museum of Society and Economy in Vienna. As the subtitle suggests, Society and Economy is a pictorial encyclopedia, a reference work in which knowledge is presented and communicated by means of a visual language. Neurath believed that knowledge should be made accessible independently of an individual’s educational background.  By systematizing pictorial representation in a new visual language, he assumed that the “reader” would be able to comprehend and make connections otherwise distorted by abstract verbal or numerical expressions. Neurath imagined a new media culture in which every person would have access to knowledge through a visual experience.

The 100 charts included in the portfolio conjure up image of populations of countries and continents, of world powers and their political and military relations, of trade and industry, and of the growth of cities, their social structure, and workers’ conditions. Everything is orderly visualized in easily decipherable diagrams. It was Neurath’s graphic designer, Gerd Arntz (1900-1988) who developed standardized or serialized visual figures for expressing statistical phenomena in charts called ISOTYPES.


Important for the overview is the way in which the symbols are employed within the page’s grid. Here too, simplicity rules. Horizontal arrangement represents changes in quantities, while vertical arrangement shows a passage of time or a comparison between various data.

The plate below is titled ‘Numbers of motor vehicles in the  world’ (USA and rest of the world).  Even if one cannot read German, the subject reveals itself through the ‘speaking signs’ of the automobiles, each of which represents 2.5 million vehicles.  An accompanying illustration sometimes appears in the background of these infographics to enliven the composition and to add a geographical or content-related connotation.

In order to construct an accurate and accessible image of quantitative data, Neurath invented a new method of visualizing quantities. Instead of using bigger symbols to represent greater numbers of items (as had been done in the past) he chose to use more of the same sized symbols to represent more objects. He also adopted so-called “speaking signs,” rather than abstract, conventional signs. The plate shown below  presents the ‘Development of rubber production since 1895’ ; each green tire represents 25 thousand metric tons of wild or cultivated rubber, while an orange tire stands for the same amount of recycled rubber. These colors also provide a link to the map at the top of the chart, in which they are used to mark the parts of the world where the different kinds of production take place.

The signs (cut by Arntz in linoleum blocks) were graphical reductions from realistic figures. The generic symbols (‘man’, for instance) can, by means of small variations or
additions (such as standardized signs for various activities) acquire a specific content (industrial worker, manual labor, etc.).



Migratory movements of population (emigration, immigration) are presented in a dramatic display on another portfolio plate.

A very eloquent manifestation of this representational device is Plate 78 which deals with “Slavery in the USA.” The legend reads: White population (slave owners with a whip in hand); Negro slaves.

While perusing the plates in this portfolio nowadays, one cannot help noticing the use of racial stereotypes in picturing the various populations of the globe.

Besides conveying the statistical message the use of color is also employed to enhance the effect of the information delivered.  The explosion of red in the third map, for example, emphasizes the spectacular growth in population of New York City.

As a model for visual statistics, the atlas was a success. In 1931, Neurath and Arntz were invited to apply their method in a new institute for visual statistics in the Soviet Union, Isostat. The 1934 portfolio of Soviet propaganda statistics The Struggle for Five Years in Four shows the strong influence of the ISOTYPE pictorial language as evidenced by a comparison of the following plates.

Several other plates of this Soviet album are currently on display in the vestibule of our library within the exhibit Statistically Speaking. These and tens of thousands of other digital images are also accessible to the public via our online catalog thanks to the collaborative work of our volunteer metadata creators Richard Hoberman, Ashley Dugdale, Miguel Regojo, and our Digital Library Specialist, David Almeida.

Today, Neurath is remembered as the forefather of pictograms we see in airports and other public spaces.

~ by "The Chief" on October 29, 2011.

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