Isotype Visualizations as a Chance for
Participation & Civic Education
Eva Mayr & Günther Schreder
Center for Cognition, Information & Management
Danube University Krems
… uses computer-supported, interactive
visual representations of abstract data
to amplify cognition
to enable insights
(Card, MacKinlay, & Shneiderman, 1999)
and to motivate action
Otto Neurath (1882-1945)
„Statistics is a tool of proletarian battle,
statistics is a necessary element of the
socialist system, statistics is a delight for the
international proletariat struggling with the
(O. Neurath, 1927/1994, p. 297)
Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics
„At the first look,
you see the most important points,
at the second,
the less important points,
at the third, the details,
at the fourth, nothing more.“
(O. Neurath, 1936, p. 27)
= International System Of TYpographic Picture Education
• Consistent use of the same symbols
• Symbols of the same size are repeated according to their frequency
• High resemblance to the object they represent
• Flexibly combinable, e.g. with attributes or other symbols
• Can display frequency, location, history, duration, density, …
Current Use of Isotype
“We are not able to take over the old signs as they are. Adjustments
have to be made in relation to the forms of today and tomorrow.”
(Neurath, 1936, p. 40)
Influences in …
• Information visualization
• Pictogram design (Gerd Arntz!)
• Mass media graphics
Evaluating Isotype – (1) Communication View
A successful data visualization …
… understands its audience
… sets up a clear framework
… tells a story
… was evaluated, but
… built on rules, but
partly implicit to transformer
… has a narrative character
activates narrative thinking
Evaluating Isotype – (2) Cognitive View
Likenesses can be readily
recognized, faster understood,
and better memorized
… results in lower cognitive load
… more ressources for deeper
levels of processing -> active
reception, free opinion formation
… triggers reflective thinking,
reasoning, and discussion, rather
than only communicating facts
„Reading a picture language
is like making observations with the eye
in everyday experience: […]
the man has two legs;
the picture-sign has two legs;
but the word-sign ‘man’ has not two legs”
(Neurath, 1936, p. 20)
Isotype-based pictorial statistics clearly have
potential, but they do not play a prominent role in
information visualization nowadays.
- Why is this the case?
Drawbacks of the Isotype Approach
(1) Isotype was not included in research on graph comprehension, though
some Isotype rules are supported by their results.
(Brase, 2008; Cleveland & McGill, 1984, 1985; Jansen, 2009)
(2) Otto Neurath‘s work might be rejected due to political reasons.
(Ihara, 2009; Jansen, 2009)
(3) The design paradigm of a low data:ink-ratio contradicts Isotype rules.
(Friel, Curcio, & Bright, 2001; Jansen, 2009; Tufte, 1983)
(4) Visual presentation is preferred by people with lower educational levels.
(O. Neurath, 1933/1994)
(5) Isotype is not implemented in Excel nor in visualization taxonomies.
(Chi, 2000; Rehkämper, 2011)
(6) Isotype has to be learned.
(M. Neurath & Kinross, 2009)
(7) Not all concepts can be represented by symbols adequately.
(Müller & Reautschnig, 2011)
Why has Isotype potential for participation and civic education?
• It provides easy access to statistics.
• It poses no (or little) requirements concerning educational level or prior
• It activates a motivation for active reception.
„The Isotype-way of representing statistical facts
heads in the right direction
and […] we should rediscover its basic ideas“
(Rehkämper, 2011, p. 3)
Isotype – The next steps
• Making explicit the rules of data-Isotype transformation
(M. Neurath & Kinross, 2009)
• Evaluating these rules systematically
• Generating modern visual analogies
• Developing modern Isotype-based information visualizations on the web
“The internet provides an unprecedented opportunity
to bring these pictorial statistics, possibly in animated form,
within everyone’s reach.
In this way, the ‘E’ (for education) in Isotype could regain its former status”
(Jansen, 2009, p. 239)
= an interactive information visualization based on Isotype
• It allows users to select statistical data, display them, interact with them
and discover relationships within them.
• It allows users to generate information visualizations themselves
Isotype 2.0 empowers the public by …
(1) … informing people on relevant social, environmental, or political topics.
(2) … enabling them to actively participate in society and politics based.
(3) … allowing them to inform others and help them to become active
THANK YOU !