The Icon of Icons

by edward tenner

edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.

Photo of Otto Neurath courtesy of the Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection, University of Reading.

Published October 13, 2023


There is a paradox in great design: once a classic is established, it is often difficult to design something better looking as well as more functional. For example, once there was a brick-like, rectangular cellphone design, the marketing battle devolved to second-order issues like button location and camera software. Of course, there will be frontiers where there is still room for genius, but the focus has shifted from product design to design thinking.

Hold Up a Second …

While that sinks in, let us celebrate the century when design titans roamed the earth, transforming mundane objects with the magical wands of mid-century modernism, soothing Depression-era anxieties with a vision of a streamlined ultra-functional future.

Of all the magnificent designosaurs, none left a more striking legacy than Henry Dreyfuss. It wasn’t because of how his restyled locomotive and car interiors of the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited in 1938 redefined luxury and promised a post-scarcity high-tech utopia. Rather, as the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, which owns Dreyfuss’ papers and organized a landmark exhibition of his career in 1997, spotlighted, Dreyfuss’s public-spirited decades of tinkering with the thousands of icons initiatives are reverberating well beyond the 288 large-format pages of his Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols, first published in 1972 and still in-print.

To our icon-satiated sensibilities, much of the exhibition was familiar, but the curators included several intriguing insights into the complexities of the glypthsmith’s craft. Consider the wheelchair icon representing disability access. It looks perfectly neutral, but the original design did not reflect aspirations of self-reliance of people with disabilities. The current revised symbol, by contrast, is confidently self-propelled. 

Other cultural issues are more challenging to resolve. Before the scheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the symbol for an onsen (hot spring) was three wavy lines emerging from an oval — a symbol familiar to all Japanese, but confusing to international visitors who sometimes mistook it for hot soup. After designers added three human figures (two adults and a child), some Japanese were offended that a purely symbolic icon had been degraded for foreigners’ sake. Others suggested that it seemed to depict boiling in a cartoon cannibal pot. (PS: the conflict-averse curators did not, as far as I could see, approach the fraught signage of all-gender restrooms.)

Original drawings of symbols that indicate a door should be opened with a “push” or a “pull” by UCLA graduate students illustrate another sort of problem that continues to confound designers after a half century of head-scratching: finding a purely graphic, minimalist representation of these most basic interactions with the built environment. One symbol looks like a balloon or beachball being compressed, the other like a piece of taffy being stretched. Designers seem to have given up on pure glyphs, opting instead for including the words, thereby dashing the dream of language-free communication. I have never seen a wordless push or pull symbol on a door, anywhere. On the other hand, I have seen many people push on the door labeled “pull.”

Symbols and Ideology

It is too bad that the limited space of the exhibition galleries — what was once the wood-paneled rooms of Andrew Carnegie’s Fifth Avenue mansion — gave short shrift to the weirdest part of international symbol history, the left-wing origins of trans-national picture languages. Dreyfuss acknowledged his debt to the leading interwar symbolic school, the Isotype movement (among others) and included an essay called “Education through the Eye,” by artist and author Marie Neurath, the widow and collaborator of Isotype’s founder.

Marie Neurath’s husband Otto, the genius behind the system of Isotype glyphs, was one of the most brilliant and certainly the most eccentric of the interwar Austrian economists. A deeply learned but heterodox Marxist, he was an outlier who irritated his more conventional colleagues. “Especially disruptive was the nonsense that Otto Neurath asserted with fanatical force,” Ludwig von Mises later recalled of the group’s meetings.

Otto Neurath, the genius behind the system of Isotype glyphs, was one of the most brilliant and certainly the most eccentric of the interwar Austrian economists.

As a boy in the late 19th century, Otto Neurath had been fascinated by the hieroglyphics in the Egyptian department of the recently opened Museum of Art History in Vienna, and the expressive power of silhouettes. His admiration didn’t stop there. The pharaohs had built a magnificent, long-lived society with a command economy run by noble administrators who managed purely with payments-in-kind (that is, without money). This was just the system, he believed, for organizing the socialist society of the future. No wonder another exasperated colleague called him “an ancient-Egyptian romantic economist.”

Otto Neurath dedicated himself to enlightening the working class to economic realities by creating graphic displays for an institution he founded in his native city, the Museum of Economic and Social History. (Vienna in the 1920s was hotbed of socialist experimentation, including ambitious public housing still in use almost a century later.) Neurath’s idea was to use hieroglyphic-like symbols to represent quantities like, say, a thousand of tons of steel.

His design partner was an equally enthusiastic leftist artist from Germany, Gerd Arntz, who had a genius for translating concepts into linoleum cuts. An unemployed worker (or multiples of them) was represented by the outline of a slouching man with a cloth cap. A string of such glyphs could have an impact surpassing that of a dull old bar chart.

Through the 1930s into the postwar era, Isotype was an international success. The project’s masterpiece, published by in 1939 and now available free online, was Modern Man in the Making — Big History at its best, in striking but functional color, and now a highly collectible rarity.

After Neurath’s death, the project worked with a former Bauhaus design teacher Herbert Bayer in 1953. The effort was funded and published by Walter Paepcke, the Container Corporation of America CEO, today best known as founder of the Aspen Institute. Meanwhile the anthropologist Margaret Mead cooperated with an Austrian-born entrepreneur and Neurath disciple, Rudolf Modley, who brought Isotype methods to America as a supplier of graphic charts to publishers (including the World Book Encyclopedia I used in elementary school).

Isotype and the Mead-Modley project for promoting international understanding through symbols were the main source, though not the only source, of Dreyfuss’s reference book. Otto Neurath would have been delighted by the exhibition and its attention to the progressive side of his movement — there is an entire wall of strike-fist images! He would also be pleased to learn that the Austrian government has revived his museum. Yet given his hopes for a planned economy with no place for money, he surely would be disappointed that the Isotype system had evolved into the lingua franca of global capitalism in its transportation facilities, factories and offices.

Plus Ça Change …

The ultimate irony may be that the heirs of the devoted communist Gerd Arntz — who is not mentioned in the exhibition labels — have licensed doormats in the forms of Arntz’s hare and hippo symbols. And they’ve asserted family copyright in the work that Arntz created while working with Otto Neurath, including the aforementioned much-celebrated strike fist. (The version of the fist you probably know was adapted for the Harvard 1969 student protest strike by a member of the Class of 1963 named Harvey Hacker.)

This intergenerational triumph of capitalist property rights reminds me of the retort of the sociologist Erving Goffman to his Marxist colleague Alvin Gouldner, who complained that their publishers were commodifying their work. “Al,” Goffman replied, “I don’t mind commodification if I can be an expensive commodity.”

main topic: Culture