Isotype in Moscow

Olivia Crough

Artwork by Hatem Imam, titled Statistic
Artwork: Statistic - By: Hatem Imam

Consider two visual representations of statistics. The first is a spiral, in which the downward trend of world trade ensnares national economies in a web-like graph (image 1). The graph, as it appeared in 1933, in the League of Nations’ World Economic Survey, registers the contraction of trade in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the end of the gold standard.[1] National business cycles now appeared interdependent and governed by global economic forces: the global economy had come into view through its collapse.[2] The second image is a set of pictograms recording the growth of cartels and monopolies in the same period in the United States and Germany (image 2). It is a page from Imperialism, a 1936 Soviet “album of diagrams, maps, cartograms, and schema” for the study of Lenin’s 1917 tract Imperialism: The Highest Stages of Capitalism. A team of designers trained in the new “Vienna Method” of infographics filled the pages with colorful pictograms animating statistical data, from the size of banks to the circulation of steel exports, in an empiricist and materialist critique of the emerging global economy. On another page, a trade spiral appears as a spider web encircling the globe (nearly centered on New York), surrounded by caricatures of J.P. Morgan, Basil Zaharoff, Henri Deterding, and John D. Rockefeller (image 3).

Imperialism was made at Izostat (1931-1940), an institute devoted to importing the Vienna Method, more commonly known as Isotype, to the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, the Viennese sociologist Otto Neurath (1882 – 1945) led “Red” Vienna’s progressive Gesellschafts und Wirtschaftsmuseum (Social and Economic Museum) to develop a standardized means of communicating complex statistical information to working class museum visitors. Working closely with the scientist Marie Reidemeister (1898 – 1986, later Marie Neurath), and a team of sociologists and designers, Neurath developed Isotype in tandem with the city’s progressive urban planning and social reform policies. 

From the outset, Neurath and Reideimeister considered social reform ineffective unless it was understood by its subjects; they treated sociological, scientific, and economic information as a public good. Such data, no matter how complex, merely had to be translated into an accessible form, a “teaching-picture.” As Rademeister would describe in an essay titled “The Transformer,” the task required a team of highly trained specialists able to read and interpret (“transform”) data from any field. Legibility, they determined, required standardization. Early on, Neurath and Reidemester established that time would run on the vertical axis, quantities on the horizontal. A greater number of icons would always represent a greater quantity of the material referent. The flattened icons would be printed without the use of perspective, and three-dimensionality would be conveyed through isometric drawing. Isotype acquired its distinctive appearance under the direction of Gerd Arntz, a core member of the Cologne Progressives. Arntz translated his openly political, signature woodcut prints into a dictionary of over 4,000 bold linocut icons (a worker, a factory, coal). Faceless human figures could be distinguished by gender, age, nationality, employment status, and profession, using simple costume markers. Different pictograms existed for “shoes produced by machine” and “shoes produced by handwork.”

To describe the Vienna Method as a “language” foregrounds its limitations in describing qualitative information. For Neurath, Isotype was meant to supplement other languages, and its strength lay in its ability to clearly convey empirical data and describe current and historical social and economic facts. It was a model of communication freed from psychology and other immaterial baggage. Better than a text, a designer well-trained in the Vienna Method could convey material conditions and processes as non-linear and open-ended (Neurath once told fellow logistical positivist Rudolf Carnap: “I do not accept semantics.”[3])

The idea that Bildung (educational formation or self-cultivation) would drive the improvement of the working class’s position underpinned the team’s work. Neurath, a progressive Social Democrat, advocated for collective ownership and believed in the ability of the built environment to shape a modern ‘Lebensform’ (form of life). But what good was the construction of mass housing, if its inhabitants couldn’t comprehend and discuss the ideas shaping it?[4]

Glancing at the history of visual statistics, a key precedent was the body of infographics made by W.E.B. Du Bois, and a team of Black sociologists, for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Sixty bright (gouache, watercolor, collage) maps, charts, and tables of empirical data told a complex story of Black life in America and the institutionalization of racism in United States’s Reconstruction-era policies.[5] Rather than proposing a standardized method, Du Bois and his colleagues explored the geometric forms data might take. Although it is unlikely Neurath saw Du Bois’s work, both were motivated by the aim to educate widely, and they shared skepticism toward the ability of a photographic display to convey social facts to a broad audience.

After years of contact with the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations (VOKS), Neurath, Reidemeister, and Arntz traveled to Moscow in 1931 to open Izostat, The All-Union Institute of Pictorial Statistics of Soviet Construction and Economy.[6] They arrived during Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), in the midst of a massive industrialization and collectivization drive (and devastating famines), and heated debates over the “correct” form of Proletarian art and architecture. The government had closed the interdisciplinary art and technical school Vkhutemas in 1930, and would soon replace all existing artistic groups with official, often restrictive, unions. Neurath had met the avant-garde artist El Lissitzky at the Pressa Exhibition in 1928, and, had Neurath’s team arrived a few years earlier, they likely would have had an easier time collaborating with members of the avant garde, many of whom had already fallen out of official favor.

The concept of pictorial statistics predated Isotype in the Soviet Union, where a rapidly expanding print industry in the 1920s propelled experimentation in advertising, book design, journals, and educational and agitational posters and broadsheets. Avant garde artists, including Varvara Stepanova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Lissitzky, developed an array of cross-media agitational techniques within the constraints of the flat, printed page. Designer Lydia Naumova (1902 – 1986) adapted two texts by the Russian labor historian S. Sorbonskii into educational posters dense with photographs, text, and statistical data in the form of pie charts, graphs, and other diagrams. In contrast with the linear arrangement of text and history in Sorbonskii’s books, Naumova’s History of the International Trade Union Movement (1926), recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, turns the flat space of pictorial representation into a collage of visual techniques as that symbolically “process” information.[7] Naumova carried this forward in her 1929 poster Every Worker Must Keep a Keen Eye on How the Net Cost of Production Is Lowered at Their Workplace, made with architect and designer Elena Semenova, which instructs workers to themselves track their factory’s numbers (a typically managerial task).

Izostat’s primary subject was the first and second Five-Year Plans, including agitational posters for domestic use and books for export abroad. Titles such as Socialism under Construction (Социализм на стройке1933) tracked the increase in workers’ sanitoria, preserved fish, and cinemas. The method appealed especially to ongoing literacy campaigns. In 1938, Izostat hired Rodchenko and Stepanova to design a large-format book publicizing the city’s ambitious reconstruction. In Moscow Under Reconstruction (Москва реконструируется), Isotype narrates urban planning as a spatial and temporal amalgamation of housing, leisure, education, health, and transportation, and Moscow figures as a model for other socialist cities.

Izostat employees were trained by representatives from Vienna, but they departed from the Vienna Method in many ways. Influenced by the shifting dictates of Socialist Realist representation, human pictograms were sometimes given faces and perspectival backdrops. In depicting the first and second Five Year Plans, employees projected unrealized numbers as guaranteed achievements. Moreover, their work participated in the whitewashing of forced collectivization and labor camps, and these publications alone do not provide a full picture of statistics’ prominent role in Soviet planning, including the redrawing of borders and the manipulation of national categories (such as “Tajik”) in Soviet Central Asia.[8] And for reasons that remain unclear, Izostat did not engage in the Comintern’s sustained work organizing with anti-colonialist and communist movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which waned in the 1930s, but would continue after the second World War.

The most striking difference was the intention to make workers produce their own charts. In contrast to Neurath and Reidemeister, who considered the Vienna Method the purview of technicians, lead Izostat designer Ivan Ivanitskii regarded the deskilling of the method as essential to its development in a socialist context. Once simplified, he proposed, any worker would be able to order a standardized grid and ready-made stickers or rubber stamps.[9] In envisioning the production of statistics as mass practice—and as mass participation in the production of history—Ivanitskii also aligned Isotype with movements for the practice of amateur (самодеятельный) art among workers, which have been sidelined in the history of Soviet art. 

In an early proposal for the Gesellschafts Museum, Neurath writes, “It is important to show the whole of the earth’s surface, with its variety of economic forms in different eras, in order to reflect how the capitalist order gradually takes hold of the whole world and eradicates all other forms of economy.” Numbers are narrativized not to simply convey, or justify, the state of a crisis (an economic collapse, a pandemic). Instead, they make a viewer aware of their historical and spatial position. Neurath’s imagined viewer sees capitalism’s construction in all its historical contingency, and, simultaneously, in its global configuration. And this view may prompt them to speculate—to reach their own conclusions as they consider alternative world orders.

Contrast Neurath’s proposal with the view of a capitalist world economy that materialized in dire graphs and charts on pages of economic reports and business cycles produced by newly-formed international institutions. A network of information gathering, it seemed, could be marshaled to supplant the waning political arrangement of empire.[10] Historian Quinn Slobodian has recently argued that, during that period, “neoliberalism was born out of projects of world observation, global statistics gathering, and international investigations of the business cycle.”[11] And we can surmise that access to that information needed only to exist at the level of the specialist or manager, not the employee of a coal mine, the resident of a new mass housing complex, or the unemployed worker seeking to better understand their position. Unsurprisingly, Neurath clashed with F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises in interwar Vienna. By the end of the 1930s, Slobodian concludes, neoliberals had turned against the idea that the global economy could be made visible through numbers.

The Vienna Method, a mode of thought that emerged alongside the formation of neoliberalism, was internationalist, not globalist. For those who viewed print media, in particular journals, as an arena for organizing workers across international lines, Isotype promised a standardized system of communication rooted in a materialist understanding of the world. Indeed, Isotype would appear, among other places, in leftwing journals in the United States, at a time of militant class struggle, social activism, and coalition building in connection with the front populaire.[12] Seen in this light, we can revisit Isotype alongside other moments in the history of progressive print design, such as the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Peoples’ Graphic Workshop), founded in 1937 in Mexico City, and the journals of postwar Third Worldist coalitions.[13] If capitalism requires visualization, how might alternatives be visualized? My intention in introducing this episode in the history of graphic design, in the context of The Derivative, is to suggest that historicizing statistics as modes of worldmaking might help us better respond to, and engage with, the data used to justify austerity and crisis.


[1] This spiral was first made by Oskar Morgenstern in 1933 to visualize declining trade in Austria, and was then republished by J.P. Condliffe. See Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 59-62.

[2] As Susan Buck-Morss writes in her foundational text on the visualization of capitalism, mapping the economy—in other words, discovering and inventing it—was an outgrowth of navigational maps. “Because the economy is not found as an empirical object among other worldly things, in order for it to be “seen” by human perception it has to undergo a process… of representational mapping.” See Buck-Morss, “Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display,” Critical Inquiry 21:2 (Winter 1996): 439-440.

[3] Karl Müller, “Neurath’s Theory of Pictorial-Statistical Representation,” in Rediscovering the Forgotten Vienna Circle (Dordrecht, 1991), 232.

[4] Eve Blau, “Isotype and Architecture in Red Vienna: The Modern Projects of Otto Neurath and Josef Frank,” in Austrian Studies 14 (2006), 233.

[5] In the introduction to the first publication compiling these images, Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert write that Du Bois’s work could prompt people today to imagine “how data might be reimagined as a form of accountability and even protest in the age of Black Lives Matter.” W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018), 22.

[6] Izostat was restructured to sever ties with Vienna in 1934 and closed in 1940. For a detailed history see Emma Minns, “Picturing Soviet Progress: Izostat 1931-4,” in Isotype: Design and Contexts, 1925-1971 (London: Hyphen Press, 2013): 257-81.

[7] In his perceptive analysis, Devin Fore writes that Naumova’s posters “suggest that under standing the workings of political revolution—its relays, advances, and recursions—demands a mode of thinking that is as spatial as it is temporal.” See “Lydia Naumova,” in Jodi Hauptman and Adrian Sudhalter eds., Engineer, Agitator, Constructor (NY: MoMA, 2020), 97.

[8] Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan (Cornell UP, 2015), 297-302.

[9] Ivan Ivanitskii, Izobratitel’naia statistika i venskii metod (Moscow: Ogiz-Izogiz, 1932),43.

[10] Slobodian, Globalists, 68.

[11] Ibid., 57-58.

[12] Pictorial statistics would also be used by public health campaigns and other educational initiatives not directly tied to leftwing labor organizing. In many cases, designers borrowed from the Vienna Method without fully adopting its standards, or its grounding in logical positivism.

[13] For more on the latter, see Rossen Djagolov’s excellent new book, From Internationalism to Postcolonialism (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2020).