Archive Fever: From Pie to Propaganda

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday July 12, 2018

When the first pie chart appeared, in England, in the 1780s, it opened the floodgates to oceans of data, information and visual graphics central to global developments in trade and economics. By the time of Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812, the most influential data graphic so far presented the six changing variables that lead to his downfall in single diagram created by Charles Joseph Minard. We would call this a graph, but that term didn’t exist for another 17 years, when the scientific journal Nature introduced the Graph Theory devised by James Joseph Sylvester. 


Otto Neurath and team: page from “Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft. Bildstatistisches Elementarwerk.” (Leipzig, 1930) © German National Library/Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum Vienna

Fast forward to the beginning of the 20th century, an unprecedented volume of information began circulating in the mass media, calling for the development of new visualization tactics to organize it all. The abundance of propaganda published by the rising Nazi Party required new forms of representation that would offer readers an understanding of complex circumstances in a blink. Pioneered by Austrian physician and illustrator, Fritz Kahn (1888–1968) and German economist Otto Neurath (1882–1945), the infographic was born.  

The interwar period in Europe was marked by a whirlwind of contradicting social influences and political turmoil. Revolutionary and socialist policies faced early fascist raids, modern mass media was disseminated with unprecedented speed, and a general atmosphere of confusion and disbelief was accompanied by a rabid enthusiasm for new technologies.

Within the growing influence of the Third Reich over all aspects of life, Kahn and Neurath began their great oeuvre by assembling an interdisciplinary team of designers and illustrators drawn from the Cologne Progressives, who were active between 1926 and 1934. With the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany, the team migrated to Amsterdam in 1938, where they continued to develop their international system of typographic picture education, which was branded “ISOTYPES.”  

Left: Fritz Kahn, Fritz Schüler: “Man as industrial palace”, 1926 © Kosmos/von Debschitz

While many of their infographic masterpieces have been widely published, a huge body of work, including sketches, models and story boards—much of it created on the run and in hiding—has only recently been ferreted out of British, American and Dutch archives.

Image Factories: Infographics 1920-1945 (Spector Books 2018) presents the extraordinary output of the duo, whose approach and aesthetics couldn’t be more different. While Neurath searched for an abstract, emotionally neutral graphic language, and his ISOTYPES (below, as realized by Gerd Arntz) would later influence the international ISO Graphic Symbols system, Kahn did much the opposite. He sought to create strong, emotional visuals, derived from images of the human body, which often explained physiological details by comparing them to mechanical devices. 

The book presents the work of Kahn and Neurath created between 1920 and 1945 alongside contemporary infographics, together with a series of essays by Helena Doudova, Stephanie Jacobs, Patrick Rössler, Bernd Stiegler, Vilém Flusser and Otto Neurath, offering a fascinating account of the early development of the infographic.

Ed. note: My only quibble with this engaging book (available btw at MoMA Bookstore) is that while graphics designed by Neurath are printed in their original multi-color form, those by Kahn, most of which were originally rendered in black and white, are reproduced here in a bright blue color. Having looked at archives of the work, I understand that while the print quality might have been sub-standard, calling for some sort of production intervention, it would have been preferable to do a bit of pre-press magic than to simply assign a bright color to bad scans to disguise the problem.




  1. Scott d.s. Young commented on: July 12, 2018 at 5:42 p.m.
    Peggy, Great history about how 'infographics' came about. I have been freelancing full time and 90% of my work are inforgraphics for web, presentation and print. I would be interested in being interviewed if you wanted to go further on artist who work in this field? Scott

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