Monday, February 14, 2011


During November of last year I attended an exhibition of the work of Gerd Arntz (writes Martin). Coming from a sign making background, I have a fascination with pictograms and how to condense information down to a quickly understandable visual.

During my time at university I looked into a system of pictograms created in the 1920s by social scientist Otto Neurath and graphic designer Gerd Arntz, called the Isotype system.

Neurath and Arntz set out to create a universally understandable visual language that could convey the information of an unwieldy amount of text, to accompany (less) written text.

4,000 signs were created, and were used for symbolising data from industry, demographics, politics and economy, either on charts or as info graphics. All of the icons sit together visually as they follow guidelines to keep the collection standardised. This means they can be altered to symbolise more specific subjects - for example the symbol for man can easily be customised to show that he works as a baker by overlaying the symbol for a loaf of bread.

Today the legacy of such ventures is evident in everyday life. From road signs to the little boys’ room symbol, such things are universal and we all have no doubt as to what they are. Although this makes sense, from a design point of view it is more interesting to see established pictogram norms broken. Something that has always stuck with me is the - now defunct - identity for the Royal Armouries Museum, which included figures from history pointing the way.

These pictograms not only did the job of standard pictograms but also took influence from the museum itself and helped to define a recognisable identity.

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