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Visual Education

Otto Neurath

January 1937

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WHEN WILL THE MIDDLE AGES BE AT AN END? As soon as all men can participate in a common culture and the canyon between educated and uneducated people has disappeared. Life in that future day will be more fully lived and understood. Perhaps everyone will work as a specialist in his special field, but at the same time he will„he must—vividly take part in the common life, sharing understanding of and responsibility for the main problems of his world.

Our generation is opening the way for this new life of tomorrow through many activities in many directions. Part of this preparation is the improvement in our cultural communication, which is already beginning to re-shape our whole scheme of education. Education is a broad area, with many fields, forests, deserts and swamps. If we are going to increase its harvests, we must deal with its waste places, clear away the confusion, boredom, narrowness, prejudice, useless tradition which hinder the process of humanizing human beings.

We cannot hope to democratize our cultural life without many new avenues of communication and education. Our present limitations are barriers to free discussion of common problems, and to the dissemination of simple but important facts. Intelligent people of limited schooling frequently are discouraged and defeated by their own handicaps in trying to reach a higher level of knowledge and understanding and in seeking a common ground with those who handle easily the tools of higher education. As a result, we have, in general, two groups of people in all countries: the one, very small, in close contact with the knowledge of modern times; and another and very large group which is scarcely touched by the great currents of our present civilization. Such a genius as Faraday could explain scientific matters even to children, as he did in the famous Lectures on the Chemical History of a Candle. But very few teachers and experts are able in everyday language to open up the realm of modern science in relation to modern life. We need a new way to convey information, a method which is simple to teach and to learn, and at the same time comprehensive and exact.

What I might call "consistent visualization" is such a way. Visual impressions have become more and more important in our "visual era," and especially to unschooled adults and to children. The usual visual methods—even the most careful charts and the most elaborate exhibits—are frequently confusing rather than enlightening, because their elements are unfamiliar. It is almost as though people had to learn a new language for each new communication. One solution is Isotype, a method with a special visual dictionary and a special visual grammar; that is, a new visual world, comparable to our book and word world. [See Survey Graphic, November 1936, page 618.] Charts, pictures, models, movies, games, illustrations can, with a little related text, show in this symbol language the main facts and explain the important problems in any field of knowledge.

The first step in Isotype is the development of easily understood and easily remembered symbols. The next step is to combine these symbolic elements. For example, there is a symbol for shoe and another for factory. By joining these two symbols to make a new one, we can talk about a factory in which shoes are made. By another combination of symbols, we can discuss shoes made by machinery and shoes made by hand. Similarly we can add the symbol for coal to the symbol for worker; and we can make an Isotype for mechanized mining and for pick mining. We can place symbols on a map, to show geographical distribution, or range them in rows to express statistical relationships.

A man coming into a strange country without a knowledge of the language is uncertain where to get his boat or railroad ticket, where to check his baggage, how to use a telephone, or find a telegraph office, a post office, a comfort station, a taxi, a hotel. An international symbol-language would be a boon to the traveler in a foreign land. Even in his own country, symbols are better guides than words alone in giving tratfic directions, and as signs in public office buildings, museums and parks.

This method can also be used as an introduction to complex historical or social statements. Many people who are confused by books and lectures can grasp facts and their relationships through a visual expression, supplemented only by a brief verbal explanation. The basic aim of this visual method is to humanize and democratize the world of knowledge and of intellectual activity.

The best foundation for a comprehensive visual education would be to let all children learn their own language and also foreign languages by this method. If a German, for example, wants to learn English it will help him to perceive that the English language, far more than German, is based on opposites, or antonyms. It is more instructive to show the fact of opposition than to try to explain it in words. Any child can understand a picture showing a coming and a going dog. By such symbols we can help children learn to use words readily.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003