Somewhere around 2010, infographics became a critical component of many SEO strategies. Highly visual and shareable, digital marketers crop dusted the Web with infographics on everything from college football, to prison statistics to, well, infographics, in hopes of harvesting some links. Unfortunately, as infographics began to rise in popularity across the web, their accuracy and quality declined, leading Google to devalue their worth.
The Big 10 wasn’t properly represented with their 12 (and growing) teams; prison statistics were based on biases instead of research; and, though technically not misinformation, but what I consider the biggest affront to the field of data visualization, infographics on the history infographics left off some important information; namely the contributions of one Otto Neurath.
Way before Edward Tufte mortgaged his home to finance his book on infographics, the Austrian polymath, Neurath, was formulating pictograms and infographics to help educate his fellow man. He had a vision of creating a universal language, using imagery and symbols as a teaching method, and changing the way we look at pretty pictures forever.
Work & Influence
What separates Otto Neurath from most contributors to the world of graphical information is that he wasn’t a designer. His contribution was born out of his desire to better the lives of the people of Austria following the fall of the Habsburg Dynasty at the end of World War I. Austria was a democracy for the first time in its history and faced many hardships.
However, a few stalwart philosophers and politicians felt the country could rise up as a shining example of democracy. Chief among them was Neurath, who was put in charge of housing and adult education. As part of his duties he founded the Social and Economic Museum of Austria, a teaching museum that would show the people of Austria what their government was doing to improve their lives.
Understanding that his audience was not that well educated, Neurath employed a variety of devices to teach them, including the ISOTYPE, a precursor to the modern infographic. Using some of the first pictograms, which bear a striking resemblance to many of the pictograms seen on modern bathroom doors and at airports, Neurath explained the complex socioeconomic issues of his day in a clear and simple way. Far from anyone’s draftsman, he employed a team of 25 people to make his ISOTYPES come to life, creating a model for the modern day agency.
Neurath’s pictorial language caught on very quickly. Newspapers across the world were soon creating their own ISOTYPES to share quantitative information. Branches of his design studio were forming in Berlin, The Hague, London and New York. Members of the Vienna team traveled periodically to the Soviet Union to produce statistical graphics. Neurath began writing and publishing books on the ISOTYPES and creating best practices. His book, the International Picture Language, influence New Deal thinkers and designers in the United States.
After Neurath’s death, his wife, Marie, carried on his work, traveling around the world sharing the benefits of ISOTYPES, and creating a educational books for children across the world.
A Man of the People
Today, we can see the influence of Otto Neurath in everything from textbooks to newspapers, from websites to restroom signs – everywhere from here to Dubai. He established many of the best practices for infographics and pictograms. What makes Neurath’s work so impactful, however, is that it was based around serving the needs of the people, which ironically, is the one thing that many of today’s SEO practitioners churning out infographics have forgotten.
The greatest lesson we can take from Otto Neurath’s work for the people, or as he would put it, for the proletariat, is that the needs of the people we are serving should be the guidepost for our efforts. The needs of the people aren’t served by flawed or redundant information (and Google has caught on to this in recent years). Neurath has shown us that, when we focus on solving the problems of our audience and providing accurate, valuable information, we can do more than achieve our own goals – SEO or otherwise. We can change the world.