Marie Neurath (1898–1986) was a ground-breaking graphic designer. She analysed complex information and transformed it into concise explanations that combined words and pictures.
Her work as a transformer started in Vienna in the 1920s when she began collaborating with Otto Neurath. The method of visual explanation they and others developed became known as ‘Isotype’ (International System of Typographic Picture Education). Otto and Marie Neurath established the Isotype Institute in 1942 after they escaped to England from Nazi-occupied Europe.
In Oxford, the Neuraths developed ideas for children’s books about science, technology and other non-fiction topics. After Otto Neurath’s death in 1945, Marie Neurath continued their work in London until the late 1960s. She directed a team of writers and illustrators who produced more than eighty children’s books.
Originally an exhibition at the House of Illustration, this exhibition explores Marie Neurath’s pioneering methods for explaining science to children.
Otto and Marie Neurath began working on books for children in the 1940s. Many of their ideas were drawn from Otto Neurath’s childhood memories, and from his views on visual education. He believed that children learned best from pictures that encouraged them to make comparisons and work things out for themselves.
Otto Neurath explained his theories about visual education in correspondence sent to the book packaging company, Adprint. To show his ideas he also sent drawings and book mock-ups, such as ‘Just boxes’. ‘Just boxes’ was later developed into the published book, If you could see inside (1948).
Explaining the Natural World
‘The Wonder World of Nature’
This series, for children aged 7–10, was described by the publisher as providing ‘simple explanations of the strange things that happen in nature’. Seventeen titles were published between 1952 and 1962. Children were introduced to deserts, jungles and life under the sea, as well as familiar and less familiar animals, birds and insects.
Full colour is used to add meaning, to add to the clarity of the visual statement, rather than as decoration, and the clean refreshing brilliance of the drawings never fails to appeal to children and to capture their enthusiasm. Parrish publicity leaflet, 1961
Interpreting Technology and Physics
‘Wonders of the Modern World’
This series comprised simple ‘how and why’ books for younger readers and ‘books for older children on modern scientific and engineering topics’. Sixteen titles published between 1948 and 1961 covered a diverse range of topics including atomic energy, aeronautics, telegraphy and engineering.
I had to ask myself: what are the essential things we want to show, how can we use comparison, direct the attention, through the arrangement and use of colour, to bring out the most important things at first glance, and additional features on closer scrutiny. Details had to be meaningful, everything in the picture had to be useful for comparison. Marie Neurath, 1971
Making the Books
The wonder world of land and water, 1957
Isotype books for children were made by a team of researchers, writers and illustrators under the direction of Marie Neurath. She gathered feedback from experts at all stages in the process to ensure that text and illustrations were scientifically accurate.
We got the information from many books and periodicals, one of our institute went to the library and read the latest material. Then we talked and she explained everything to me, and I sat down and made new sketches, and talked them over with other people, and showed them to a man who knows everything about the subject, and then the final drawings were made by the designers in our institute. You see, this is like a little factory making picture books, we make one after the other, it is great fun. Marie Neurath
‘Visual Science’ (1950–1952) was a series of six books intended for use in schools. Marie Neurath and her co-author, Joseph Lauwerys, aimed to introduce science in a way that was creative and stimulating for pupils and teachers. Many of the spreads include questions that could only be answered by looking carefully at the pictures. They were accompanied by Notes for the teacher, which suggested activities that related scientific processes to every-day experiences such as baking bread or lighting a match.
As you turn the pages of this book, you will notice that it uses more pictures and fewer words than most schoolbooks you have seen. These pictures, called Isotype charts, are not meant to show you exactly how things look but to give you information about them, like a map or an engineer’s blue-print. Because they have an unusual job to do they are made in an unusual way. Everything which would not help you understand the meaning, or which would confuse you, is left out. Colours are used only to help make the meaning clearer, never simply as decorations. This means that every line and every colour in these pictures has something to tell you. Preface to ‘Visual Science’ Teachers’ notes