How graphic design can democratize knowledge
How can graphic design participate in the work of democracy?
By making complex concepts accessible to non-specialists, good design can empower citizens to make the best decisions for their society. This was the belief of Otto Neurath, who invented the Vienna Method of Illustrated Statistics – later known as the International System of Typographic Picture Education, or Isotype – in the early 20th century. century.
The Austrian sociologist and political economist was the subject of a March 30 lecture by University of Vienna research associate Gernot Waldner on “Designing Democracy: Possible Lessons from Otto Neurath’s Museum of the Future (1925-1934 )”. Waldner also edited a recent volume on Neurath which includes contributions from Binghamton faculty; two of them, Associate Professor of Art and Design Gökhan Ersan and Associate Professor of Art History Pamela Smart, joined Waldner to discuss their own design and pedagogy work with the Materials Initiative Matter.
Neurath was the founding director of the Social and Economic Museum in Vienna. The Social Democratic Municipality of Vienna financed the museum, which was open from 1925 to 1934; the institution sought to educate citizens by bringing statistics to life. It featured detailed paintings as permanent and traveling exhibits, in addition to other informational exhibits, such as an exact model of a gynecologist’s office.
Neurath believed that scientific expertise should be separated from political decision-making; According to him, experts should not anticipate political decisions, but rather convey precise information to the decision-makers – the citizens – who can then decide on the best possible outcome.
“He thought democracy should mean more than voting once every two years. He called for the active involvement of various groups in society, chosen by profession or age; carpenters, teachers, housewives, youth, the elderly and other groups should form councils and be informed by scientific experts about current policy issues,” Waldner said.
Many of his ideas, such as the councils, never materialized. However, the ruling party in Vienna was committed to education and built many libraries, tested experimental forms of education, offered psychological counseling to parents and children and supported Neurath in its democratic education projects, said Waldner.
For seven years, visitors have been able to see an exhibition on society and the economy; unlike many daytime exhibitions, the exhibition and guided tours were free and there was no dress code. The exhibition covered the history of mankind in broad strokes, from hunter-gatherers to agriculture, urbanization and finally industrial production. The intention was not to praise the virtue of progress, but to highlight current problems, such as the disappearance of democratic governments in Europe, the deliberate destruction of food to raise prices or the link between life expectancy and social class, Waldner explained. .
“The museum saw itself as an intermediary between academic expertise and the democratic public,” he said.
The isotype system
The museum was a busy place, with 36 exhibitions that took place in seven countries during its run. During breaks between commissions, his team of scientists and designers worked to refine the systematic language behind the Vienna Method.
The isotype system had several requirements: the symbols must be clear and unambiguous, and mathematically readable so that viewers could calculate with them. Asking the reader to calculate the calculations displayed in the pictures — like the percentage of soldiers who remained disabled after World War I — was meant to encourage learning, Waldner explained.
“The point is to raise questions and make the viewer curious about other data,” he said. “Public knowledge should be freed from its state patronage and made available to the public.”
To ensure the displays were easy to understand, the museum solicited feedback through questionnaires and made changes accordingly. Up to 20 versions of many graphics have survived, Waldner said. The demands on the tourist guides were also high: they had to be able to explain the social and economic context of the exhibitions. Ultimately, Neurath’s goal was to create a calm, contemplative atmosphere in which reflection and inquiry were possible.
During his talk, conducted over Zoom, Waldner shared some of the museum’s maps, which looked surprisingly contemporary. Images of slumped individuals show unemployment in different countries. A stretch of green shows the extent of Eurasian forests and colored blocks show the location of highly developed ancient cultures in Mexico. Another graph showed the continuing impact of slavery in South Carolina, 60 years after its official end; another featured common breakfast foods and their international origins, as a demonstration of the global supply chain.
“My conclusion for this chart is that there are no continental breakfasts, only intercontinental breakfasts,” Waldner joked.
Binghamton University’s Materials Matter initiative also makes complex topics more accessible to a wider audience. Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the interdisciplinary initiative combines science and the humanities for an in-depth look at pigments, the classroom, and ceramics that range from science and laboratory physics to history and aesthetics, Smart explained.
Professors from 16 different departments participated; partners also include the university’s undergraduate research center and the Corning Museum of Glass. As a general education course, students also come from a variety of backgrounds, from scientific fields to the humanities and the arts.
“The mix of students this achieves has been central to the cross-pollination the course seeks to promote,” Smart said. “The program was designed to bring the humanities and the sciences into dialogue with each other.”
In the classroom, students learn about STEM and humanities analytics methodologies, engage in hands-on learning experiences from pigment making to mural creation, and go on field trips to places such as the Corning Museum of Glass. Above all, they learn to answer complex questions: How do you know if a painting is authentic or fake? Why does this pigment look green to the human eye?
Questions like these are deceptively simple, but call for a wide range of knowledge, Ersan pointed out. To “unleash the knowledge” of specific scientific specialties, graphic designers like Ersan sit down with materials scientists to determine the best way to represent these concepts and relationships.
Much like the Neurath isotype system, scientists and designers develop a visual language to convey information: in the case of the question of color, they started from the structure of an atom. Working on this project for a few months, they began to realize that the periodic table of elements and the atomic structure echo each other, which deepened the understanding that went into the graphic design.
A graph or animation can communicate ideas without specialized language or mathematical equations, effectively condensing chapters from a physics textbook into a single image. It’s a kind of storytelling that demystifies science and makes it more accessible to a wider audience, much like Neurath graphics.
“We had these big physics textbooks that explain the basics, but those books can’t really explain the whole story, like why an emerald is green, because that’s the whole textbook (explaining it) “, said Ersan.