The roots of the pictogram can be traced to the revolutionary art scene in the Rhineland of the 1920s. They are closely connected to the so-called Cologne Progressives. This group of artists campaigned for more social justice and wanted to exemplify a new social order to the population in the way they lived their lives. Their goal was to educate people about inequality in society, but also to promote the aesthetic education of all social classes through art and design.
The core of the Cologne Progressives comprised the artists Gerd Arntz, Heinrich Hoerle and Franz Wilhelm Seiwert. Their works are characterised by a visual language oriented towards reason, also known as “figurative constructivism”. In their oil paintings and woodcuts, for example, the artists deliberately refrained from individual, emotional expression. Instead, they characterised groups of people on the basis of “typical” qualities and features.
They often arranged the figures in the form of a grid, i.e. along horizontal and vertical axes. This visual structure or layout was intended to illustrate the social order of the Weimar Republic and the level of crisis in the interwar period. According to the Cologne Progressives, only artistic expression controlled by reason could bring about enlightenment.
The artist and graphic designer Gerd Arntz (1900-1988), who later worked with Otto Neurath at the Vienna Museum for Social and Economic Affairs, is today regarded as a trailblazer of the modern pictogram.
“Readable” without words, the first modern pictograms were created in Vienna almost a century ago. From 1925 onwards during the early part of the interwar period, the economist, philosopher and Austro-Marxist Otto Neurath (1882–1945) experimented with various series of countable pictograms.
Neurath translated complex social facts into easily comprehensible diagrams. With aid of visual symbols, his aim was to clarify social relationships for the multilingual Viennese urban population, especially the poor and less-well educated. His primary drive was, therefore, the pursuit of educational and political goals.
Initially, Neurath’s pictograms closely adhered to reality. Only over time did a more abstract, reduced formal language emerge. In 1928, the artist and graphic designer Gerd Arntz was commissioned by Neurath to design the first modern pictogram: it is characterised by fine geometry and formal simplicity.
The prerequisite was teamwork with a clear division of labour: the scientific department collected facts about society on an ongoing basis. The “transformer” Marie Reidemeister transferred these statistics into preliminary diagrams according to the combinatory rules of the “Vienna Method”. In the graphics studio, the artists would then draw the corresponding pictograms very precisely and etch them into lino.
One of the largest and most important projects produced by the team around Otto Neurath was the pictorial atlas Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (Society and Economy). This reference work is an encyclopaedic compilation of the knowledge of its time: coloured plates depict the global development of peoples and historical cultures down the centuries. Trade and economies, raw materials, distribution of wealth, infant mortality – statistical data of this kind were correlated visually.
The atlas was intended to serve the “education of the eye”, but above all to advance social reform through enlightenment. In “Red Vienna”, education was an important political concern. In addition to adult education, the Vienna Method held sway for this reason in primary schools in almost every subject (especially arithmetic, natural science and geography). By painting, cutting out and pasting on rows of pictograms, children and young people were supposed to learn about the world and become politically responsible individuals.
Even today, the Vienna Atlas is a good example of the extent to which visual presentation facilitates understanding. And now in 2021, let’s take a closer look: depicted according to skin colour, the stereotypical pictograms for different peoples seem disconcerting. And where are the women in this “World Atlas”?
Pictorial statistics were aimed at as broad a public as possible. Accordingly, the display of diagrams and pictorial panels was a key component of the Vienna Method. This basic idea also gave rise to the Vienna Museum for Social and Economic Affairs, which opened in 1927. It was the first museum of its kind in the world.
The viewing of display panels, reliefs and movable models was intended to impart knowledge, promote the self-empowerment of the visitors and stimulate open debate.
To support this endeavour, Otto Neurath’s team developed an advanced exhibition concept that even included interactive elements: it comprised mobile museum architecture as well as interactive machines in question-and-answer mode for the purposes of autolearning. The wooden display boards often presented the Western capitalist system in a critical light, and it was not long before the Soviet Union began to show keen interest in the Vienna Method.
The Moscow institute IZOSTAT, where Gerd Arntz taught graphic artists, designers and linoleum printers, existed in parallel between 1931 and 1934. IZOSTAT produced pictorial statistics for the daily newspaper Pravda as well as publications on the government’s political five-year plan.
The Vienna pictograms oscillate between commercial graphics and art. For a long time, Otto Neurath was convinced that the modern pictogram was all about the communication of facts. He saw neither the scope nor the need for artistic embellishment. In contrast, the artist and graphic designer Gerd Arntz championed a more aesthetic approach to pictograms. In his view, this might also have led to a change and further development of the Vienna Method itself.
From 1929 onward, Gerd Arntz designed a large number of predominantly free sociological graphics. Due to his persecution by the Nazis and his forced emigration, the works were largely burnt in a shed in 1934.
The surviving copies still demonstrate to this day the creative potential for development of the modern pictogram. This also applies to the first collection of Arntz’s pictograms made in the Netherlands. They reflect the contradictions of society at the time, but also the inherent cultural ambiguities of pictograms.