Reaching the People: Isotype Beyond the West

Eric Kindel


Isotype’s claim to internationality is embedded in its very name and in the title of Otto Neurath’s International picture language (1936), the book that describes Isotype most fully. Isotype’s international character is generally located in its techniques of graphic configuration that incorporate pictograms and other simplified graphic imagery to produce compelling and widely understood visual explanations that rely only minimally on verbal language. But just how international did Isotype prove to be when deployed beyond the modernised West where, by far, the bulk of its work was directed? – This paper will take as its case study the export of Isotype to British colonial West Africa in the mid 1950s, where it encountered the only significant test of its suitability in the developing, non-Western world. The paper will explore how the international effectiveness of Isotype was pursued, paradoxically, through strategies of locally responsive modification and use. It will identify how shifts in Isotype techniques of graphic configuration and changes in graphic imagery (including pictograms) helped in the adaptation of Isotype to West African contexts. It will also consider how the use of vernacular languages together with English amplified Isotype’s ability to ‘speak’ to audiences with force and clarity. Further attention will be directed towards Isotype’s work ‘on the ground’ in schools, hospitals and community centres where it was hoped a better understanding of local sites of learning and reception could be gained, an understanding that in turn would better shape Isotype’s delivery. And possibly most revealing of Isotype’s internationality, the paper will review attempts to train local peoples to make Isotype work themselves.


20th century philosophy; philosophy; social studies; Wittgenstein Ludwig; Gold Coast; isotype; Nigeria; Awolowo Obafemi; Buffalo Books; Neurath Marie; Neurath Otto; Sierra Leone; Vienna method; West Africa

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