a history of the stick figure

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The origin of the stick figure as an information graphic.

The origin of the stick figure as an information graphic.

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  • A history of the stick figure by Eric Lewallen\n@elew\neric@schematagroup.com\n\nThe stick figure. You already know him - that little, iconic, round-headed fellow that helps you cross the street, helps you find a bathroom, or warns you about construction or danger. But where did he come from?\n
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  • Certainly, pictorial representations of the human form have been around for a long time, since pre-history. But our stick figure’s past actually begins with statistics, and for that, we need to jump back to around 1920 in postwar Vienna, and the work of social scientist Otto Neurath.\n
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  • At this time, much of Europe is still reeling from the aftermath of WWI. Vienna is suffering from widespread shortages and political disorder. People are looking for answers to fundamental social questions:\nHow did we let this war happen?\nHow do we rebuild?\nHow do we keep it from happening again?\nAcross Europe there is a growing interest in constructed universal languages such as Volapük, Interglossa, and Esperanto. Many people feel that through a common language, we can better understand each other and avoid conflict.\n
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  • However, Neurath believed it was words that had led to the misunderstandings in the first place.\nHis fascination with ancient picture-writing led him to develop a system of picture statistics he called the Vienna Method. This system allowed the visualization of social economic facts using a minimum of words.\n
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  • To develop his system he collaborated with Gerd Arntz, a Vienna artist well known for his black and white woodcuts.\nArntz worked in a simple style that could be easily understood by ordinary people.\n
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  • Neurath molded this style into simple stick figures that became the building blocks of picture statistics. \nHe had invented a new way to display quantitative information. For greater quantities he used more symbols instead of bigger symbols as was traditionally done. \n
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  • Images could be combined to communicate different messages. For example, a stick figure becomes a worker by simply superimposing a symbol on him. Image libraries were created so stick figures can be produced quickly with consistent form.\n
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  • Neurath named his system ISOTYPE, which is an acronym for International System of Typographic Picture Education.\nThis stick figure logo was used as a signature on his diagrams and says “I’m going to tell you a story about you”.\n
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  • The following are a few examples of charts in the ISOTYPE style from 1939. \nWhat’s important here is that you can perceive the patterns and relationships at a glance. You immediately know by looking that this chart is about people. \nYou can see by color and symbols that there are about as many factory weavers in 1880 as there were home weavers in 1820.\n(Modern Man in the Making, Otto Neurath 1939)\n
  • This chart shows mortality rates in a central European town from 1591 to 1936. \nHere the stick figures are replaced by crosses because they’ve died. \nJust by looking it’s very easy to see the death toll from WWI was no where near the losses from the plagues in the 1600’s.\nFor exact quantities you can count the figures according to the scale below the diagram.\n(Modern Man in the Making, Otto Neurath 1939)\n
  • This chart compares the political organization in the US, Europe and the Soviet Union, and layers on a bit more complexity.\nYou can see that figures with a ballot have the right to vote, but also that the number of people living under authoritarian states is on the rise.\n(Modern Man in the Making, Otto Neurath 1939)\n
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  • Targeted for his political views, Neurath is forced to flee twice across Europe, first leaving Vienna for the Hague, then eventually ending up in England during WWII.\nConstructed universal languages were banned during the war and never fully recover.\n
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  • However, the stick figure emigrates to the US with Rudolph Modley, a former student of Neurath, where he founds the Pictograph Corporation in New York City. Modley commercializes the stick figure into a form that is well-suited for educational materials and advertising, which collectively becomes known as clip art.\n\nHowever the stick figure is now free of his statistical framework and is able to stand alone. He becomes a free agent!\n
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  • This individuality is tested on the world stage during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Otl Aicher designs a set of stick figures that could be easily understood by international visitors without the use of words.\nA new set of figures have been designed for each Olympics ever since.\n
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  • In 1974 the American Institute of Graphic Arts evaluated the work from the Olympics as well as airports and train stations world-wide in order to develop a standard set of symbols to aid people in transit. \nThe bathroom guy as we know him is born.\nHe also got married, had a baby, and adopted a dog that they’re always picking up after.\n
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  • Highway signs need to be understood in mere seconds while driving at high speed. So the stick figure went to work at the Department of Transportation, where he was adopted for crosswalks, construction sites and recreation facilities – all places where meaning is communicated more quickly through visuals than with words.\n
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  • From here the stick figure enters into the realm of popular culture. He’s become a celebrity, with websites, Flickr groups and information design paparazzi all chronicling his activities. He now belongs to all of us.\n
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  • However, the stick figure hasn’t forgotten his roots, and still takes his work very seriously.\nThe New York Times: The first is 30 Days in Iraq, February 4, 2007.\n
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  • The New York Times: One Year After, January 6, 2008 (the full page is cropped below the fold to show detail.)\nThis illustration represents the overall casualties in Iraq in the last year. The scale in this example is 1:1, so even without knowing the numbers you have an immediate sense of scope. \nThe stick figure is being rediscovered as a way to communicate concepts of social and economic facts, and to once again help tell us stories about ourselves.\n
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  • Thanks for you attention. Be careful on the way home – he’s there to help.\n\nFor references from this talk check my blog at:\nwww.wordsarepicturestoo.wordpress.com\n\nQuestions?\neric@schematagroup.com\n

Transcript

  • 1. a history of the stick figure eric lewallen @elew eric@schematagroup.com
  • 2. This talk was first given at Ignite Portland 2 onFebruary 5, 2008.The original slides contained very little writtentext. In this version I’ve added screens containingsnippets from the transcript so you can followalong more easily.I hope you enjoy it.
  • 3. The stick figure.You already know him – that little, iconic,round-headed fellow that helps you cross thestreet, helps you find a bathroom, or warnsyou about construction or danger.
  • 4. But where did he come from?
  • 5. Our stick figure’s past actually beginswith statistics.To learn more, we need to jump back toaround 1920 in postwar Vienna, and the workof social scientist Otto Neurath.
  • 6. At this time, much of Europe is still reelingfrom the aftermath of World War I.
  • 7. There’s a growing interest in constructeduniversal languages.Many people feel that through a commonlanguage, we can better understand each otherand avoid conflict.
  • 8. But Neurath believed words had led to thesemisunderstandings in the first place.
  • 9. His interest in hieroglyphs led him to develop asystem to help people understand social andeconomic facts using a minimum of words.
  • 10. To develop this system he collaborated withGerd Arntz, a Vienna artist well known for hisblack and white woodcuts.
  • 11. Arntz worked in a simple style that could beeasily understood by ordinary people.
  • 12. Neurath molded this style into simple stickfigures that became the building blocks ofpicture statistics.He developed a set of rules for his system –for greater quantities he didn’t show biggerfigures, he simply showed more of them.
  • 13. Images could be combined to communicatedifferent messages.For example, a stick figure becomes a worker bysimply superimposing a symbol on it.Libraries were created so stick figures can beproduced quickly.
  • 14. Isotype Society Archive
  • 15. Neurath named his system ISOTYPE, which isan acronym for International System ofTypographic Picture Education.A stick figure logo was used as a signature onhis diagrams which says “I’m going to tell you astory about you”.
  • 16. The following are a few examples of charts in theISOTYPE style from 1939.What’s important here is that you can perceivethe patterns and relationships at a glance.You immediately know by looking that thesecharts are about people.
  • 17. Neurath is targeted for his political views justprior to World War II, forcing him to flee twiceacross Europe – first leaving Vienna for theHague, then ending up in England for theremainder of the war.
  • 18. Constructed universal languages that werebanned during the war never fully recover.
  • 19. However, the stick figure emigrates to the USwith Rudolph Modley, who founds thePictograph Corporation in New York City.
  • 20. The stick figure is commercialized into a formthat is well-suited for advertising, whichcollectively becomes known as clip art.
  • 21. However the stick figure is now free of hisstatistical framework and is able to stand alone.He becomes a free agent!
  • 22. This individuality is tested on the world stageduring the 1972 Munich Olympics. Otl Aicherdesigns a set of stick figures that could be easilyunderstood by international visitors without theuse of words.
  • 23. A new set of figures have been designed foreach Olympics ever since.
  • 24. In 1974 the AIGA evaluated stick figures from theOlympics to create a standard set of symbols foruse in the US.
  • 25. The bathroom guy as we know him is born.
  • 26. He also gets married, has a baby, and adopts adog that they’re always picking up after.
  • 27. Traffic signs need to be understood in mereseconds while driving at high speed.
  • 28. So the stick figure went to work at theDepartment of Transportation.There he holds various jobs such as park ranger,crossing guard, and also does some lightconstruction work.
  • 29. From here the stick figure enters into the realmof popular culture.
  • 30. He’s become a celebrity, with websites, Flickrgroups and information design paparazzi allchronicling his activities.
  • 31. He now belongs to all of us.
  • 32. However, the stick figure hasn’tforgotten his roots.
  • 33. The New York Times: The first is 30 Days in Iraq, February 4, 2007.
  • 34. The New York TimesCasulties, The first is 30 Days in IraqFebruary 4, 2007
  • 35. The New York TimesCasulties, One Year LaterJanuary 6, 2008
  • 36. The New York Times: One Year After, January 6, 2008
  • 37. The stick figure is being rediscovered as away to communicate concepts of socialeconomics and facts, and to once again helptell us stories about ourselves.
  • 38. thank you.eric lewallen@eleweric@schematagroup.comwordsarepicturestoo.wordpress.com