Beyond Rows of Little Men: Resuming Isotype Transformation with the Case of the Bilston Venture Exhibition, 1946

Publications: Book / Anthology / Thesis / ReportPh.D. thesis


Information design represents a cross-disciplinary and integrative approach to
making information more accessible to people. Unfortunately this does not always
echo in the creation of infographics, where the integration of content and form
becomes superficial or coloured by contrasting objectives between statistics and
design. Conversely, in the 1920s, the graphic approach Isotype was successful in
integrating precisely these two worlds by developing the role of the transformer. The
transformer, principally Marie Neurath, mediated between expert and artist and
intelligibly translated factual information into visual arguments based on pictograms.
While the philosophical aspects of the role of the transformer have successfully
inspired the model of the modern information designer, many aspects of the
transformation process remain elusive for today’s designers, misunderstood and
imitated as ‘rows of little men’.

This thesis suggests that it is possible to create a more transparent and usable notion of Isotype transformation by using research through design as a complementary research method to investigate archived Isotype material. Accordingly, an in-depth case study of a post-war exhibition in Bilston, UK, featuring 12 Isotype charts on a rehousing project, constitutes the source for investigating transformation at the intersection between yesterday and tomorrow with the following research questions:

How can the transformation procedures and patterns be described and passed on?

What are the basic components of Marie Neurath’s process of transformation, and how do these influence the statistical chart?

The questions point to a threefold contribution and are answered through a theoretical
examination of various transformation perspectives complemented with a design historical and experimental analysis of Marie Neurath’s collaboration/sketching process. First, in a design historical context, the thesis chronologically analyses the process of transformation and thus forms a novel piece of graphic design history providing a more varied and practical understanding of Isotype transformation. Secondly, in a research methodological context, the thesis discusses how two different research approaches research into design and research through design can inform each other through three contiguous experiments criss-crossing between historical analysis and information visualization methods. This aspect contributes with research methods that can be projected on to other cases and areas. Thirdly, in a design practical context, the experimental outcome – a collection of symbols and diagrams – clarifies a contrasting combination of consistency and distinctiveness in Marie Neurath’s work. Finally, the symbols also form the first step towards a modern visual framework of how to co-construct statistics and pictures through the combination of different categories of actions.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationKolding
PublisherDesignskolen Kolding
Number of pages442
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016


  • Infographics
  • Isotype
  • Transformation
  • Marie Neurath
  • Bilston
  • Graphic design history
  • Information design
  • Research through Design
  • Research into Design

Artistic research

  • No

Cite this