Otto Neurath and the visual education through the use of symbols

post_signs_neurathEven if it is considered a phenomenon of this century based on innovative, technological and relational elements, I am more and more convinced that internet possesses deeper roots. The big inventions often have been inspired by intuitions happened in the past, the thread that connects the new to the past is thin but strong and, often, full of ramifications.
Already some article ago, deepening a piece of writing by Charles Percy Snow, PDF available online and recommended by this blog, we have seen how the impulses pro and cons innovation are far from a recent phenomenon.
Wherever we find the presence of intellectual ferments, we may also find visionary ideas or traces of what it could have happened.
It is the case of Otto Neurath, one of the illustrious members of the Circle of Vienna: Neurath considered science as a tool whose aim was the didactics, the education of the masses and above all, the overcoming of the cultural barriers due to the use of language as well as to the growth of the educational value of the information.
Again, the web comes to aid me by proposing me in PDF one of the Neurath’s piece of writing: “International Picture language the first Rules of ISOTYPE”, dated 1936.
The premise illustrated in this text is very present, and that is to capture the attention of that part of population we call today internet explorers or cybernauts, with a minor cultural and selective ability by using a simple and intuitive language.
The basic idea is to transpose abstract concepts in representations, icons, symbols, signals, graphic, images, accessible to anyone.
In fact this type of images has already had a remarkable diffusion in the twentieth century, probably also thanks to Otto Neurath’s concepts. We know that the first part of the twentieth century has been dominated by totalitarianisms powered by icons and symbols, real iconographies completely absorbed by their belief, so much absorbed that today they still don’t permit a division between the symbol and the catastrophes produced by these totalitarian regimes.
Nowadays we have, before our very eyes, examples much more “light”, our cities are full of signings, billboards and, above all, road signs that we know and we interpret readily. Furthermore our fashion, our style is deeply influenced by brands.
But what Neurath intended was, according to my interpretation, something wider, not an action of diffusion nor an advertising one, but an action aimed for a better propagation of knowledge and that is to succeed in transmitting information to the most careless consumers, less receptive, less competent.
Neurath believed that a language based on symbols could develop an educational role, could capture the consumers’ attention and facilitate the learning. Despite the great frenzy due to the modern life, this is the way considered to reduce the present urban alienation of the big centers, considerations applicable a century ago and still valid today, a century later. Considerations that are also at the root of the phenomenon “social” participatory present now online.
Neurath is referring to the mathematical symbols universally understood regardless of country or language.
But Neurath went beyond his theory’s proposal, he invented a true international visual language: “ISOTYPE International System of Typographic Picture Education “, its pages being rich of visual and tangible examples. Examples so concrete and illuminating to make him become one of the precursors, one of the reference points of the modern infographic, or rather, the whole of techniques and strategies aimed to the information’s spread in graphic – visual form.
Quoting wikipedia: “… In 1936, Otto Neurath introduced a system of pictograms intended to be the international visual language. Isotype, (this is the name of the group of pictograms), includes a series of stylized human figures that will be the base for the modern icons of human figures in the line-engraving manner…. “.
The quotation I consider more meaningful and immediate is precisely the one of Otto Neurath: “ISOTYPE is a helping language.”
Returning to our times, I believe that the cyberspace could represent the ideal field to sow icons and symbols.
My own experience, statistics in hand, permits me to claim that using symbols on the internet, approaches the users, especially the pro-active ones and stimulates the curiosity and the participation.
The pictograms, or better, their progeny, represent only a small part of the symbols’ universe present on internet, their number being in continuous growth. So, Neurath’s language, in its various forms, beat every expectation.
The symbol is equivalent to the service and it inserts the action, that if replied, becomes a visual and at the click habit, a fast process, partly instinctive.
More and more factors determine the increasing process of the icons and symbols’ diffusion and these are: the use of internet on smart phones, where the visual space is considerably reduced as well as the increasing speed of use, especially by the new generations, due to a daily use of chats, social networks, video games, APP, anywhere and anytime,…, the biggest exposure ever, global, of the consumers in relation to network.
Furthermore, I consider, as always, basing my statement on statistic data collected by me, that the new web induces the new generations to approach differently the vision of the web’s page, no more sequential from left to right. The digital native’s eye instinctively looks for the familiar symbol/icon, the links and the images, before reading the correlated contents.
Going beyond numbers and dynamics of use, I wonder if this action designed to simplify the words, could indeed represent a way to spread the knowledge and reach didactic purposes.
This sort of rejoining the ancient languages, the Anatolian hieroglyphics, Maya or Egyptians, as well as the language of signs, will allow us to maintain the same intensity and complexity of contents or a greater diffusion will determine in the long run a simplification of our grammar and thought?
I personally appreciate any attempt aimed to create new assonances, new connections, new stimuli  to the innovative presentation of contents, services, meanings, even more if created for educational purposes(things that unfortunately don’t happen very often on web) and, of course, if characterized by a strong participation.
I began to write this article some days ago, after having read some Neurath’s pieces of writing. Normally, between the first draft copy and the final review of the article, I let a few days pass in order to better metabolize what I read and reflect on my impressions. During this period of time I happen to travel and, in a gas station, absentmindedly I went to the lady’s room, fortunately I was alone! You may say: it’s no big deal, these things happen! Well, while I was leaving the room a lady has kindly rebuked me by pointing her finger at the image on the door…
So once more… the power of symbols!


The power of icons and symbols

Sometimes to describe innovation needs to take some back steps in order to analyse consolidated habits, to assert the importance of our instincts, to set the correct attention toward our past.
So a premise is needed; a premise whose double misfortune is to be born in a blog, and therefore to be extremely synthetic and to have the undersigned as author.
For thousands of years, man was exposed to the elements, dangers, all sorts of traps and enemies of any kind, including himself, but he always managed to get off. This has been possible thanks to a mixture of intelligence, common sense and attention toward everything that surrounds us . He tried all along, and often succeeded in taking advantage from events, in transforming the environment and the resources at his disposal on his purposes, albeit not always praiseworthy.
The use of senses, the animal perception of danger applied to the ability to find new solutions, has opened us uncountable ways, it allowed us to reach the level of life we live today.
The progressive increase of social complexity has only partially calmed our instincts, our need to attentively observe all that surrounds us, to seize the signs, to perceive new stimulus, to shape our present and future. Such abilities made us first shamans then popes, physicians, explorers, scientists. Such abilities taught us how to dress, in other words changed us.
We became conscious of us as Homo Sapiens with a history behind, our own history, rich of totem, of altars, of fashions, of new geometries, of imposing architectures, of innovative status, but also of symbols and icons.
Progress has never obstructed the value of symbols, whose significance went hand in hand with culture, democracy, innovation although sometimes anachronistically and even dramatically.
Web we are living today, the new virtual dimension, follows this indelible trace placing icons and symbols on a par, at least on a par with services and contents.
The simplest way to recognize an expert internet user is to verify his knowledge and skills in using symbols. The expert internet user knows that “that” symbol implies “that” service.
The icon, the symbol correlated to the service becomes the service itself, whose success passes also for the liking process, the fondness and the empathy that internet audience succeed in showing towards what it believes to represent its own image.
The first example is that of feed RSS, the subscription service, practically always free where news and contents on line come to be available directly on your own browser (or on a feed reader). The orange icon, symbol of the feed rss service, draws immediately my attention, it pushes me to click, to select the feed, to evaluate my true interest for that type of information.
Another example of a widely diffused symbol on web is the “I like“, true social brand, synonymous of “easy”, “immediate”, “sharable”, “attractive”, an outright global-popular phenomenon. It is not a coincidence if one of the most web popular symbols evokes a symbol and an ancient use, that of the gladiatorial judgment in the ancient Rome, this testifies how the use of icons and symbols is strongly deep-rooted in our history.
A small note taken from Wikipedia: the upward thumb (or horizontal), suggested the gladiator’s death and not his survival, over time we transformed an extremely negative symbol in a positive one, so symbols evolve and adapt themselves to the times.
Crossing a forest of symbols in which the birdie of Twitter chippers, we find useful the arrows that allow us to continue (our navigation), a lens that allows us to search better, an “X”  to get away from there, an envelope to write to a friend, a small printer to get an useless copy on paper, a gear to refine our research, a Shopping cart to buy what we like and so on….
Allow me to set two other important examples: the Apps, applications for mobile smartphone and tablet, are symbols themselves, you can use them by selecting the frame with their symbol; the application of a social contribution toward the network of friends or colleagues takes place by selecting the symbol corresponding to social network, a true global logo. In all these cases, it is a matter of symbols turned to be habitual for the internet user, easy to select, fast to use, coherent in behaviors, often similar to other symbols or real objects used in the past.
There is nothing new to be learned, just keep counting on our senses, our sensibility and intelligence so as to recognize and use the new services. Once more we find ourselves into the jungle, into a virtual one, and all we have to do is consign ourselves to our observation capacity to come out at our best.
I conclude this brief article with two suggestions. The first one is for users: let yourselves capture by symbols, colors, images and forms, just click and experience. The second one is for the web designers: do not underestimate the power and primordial charm of symbols. I have personally managed portals where the substitution of textual contents with symbols has determined unthinkable increases in terms of access and use of services.  I also invite you to not underestimate the application of simple solutions, do not hesitate to use colors on your blog or site or portal, leave the right space to images, do not use only the description, furthermore if it is a large one, this cannot be enough for a new web.
In the “virtual world”, the icon represents the most efficient way of a service presentation, the great web audience doesn’t see or expect something else.
A good content and a good service, must be sustained by a symbol, a clear connotative expression of the service itself.
Collaborate and participate, but do not forget to do it using icons and symbols.