Stick Figure

Here’s another thread in my ever-growing collection of connections between comics and information design: the ubiquitous stick figure used for modern infographics actually has his origins in the early 20th century woodcut. Here is the beginning of Eric Lewallen‘s wonderful talk, “A History of the Stick Figure“:

Our stick figure’s past actually begins with statistics, and for that we jump back to around 1920 in post-war Vienna and the work of social scientist Otto Neurath. Now, at this time, much of Europe is still reeling from the aftermath of World War I. There’s a growing interest in constructed universal languages: many people feel that through a common language we could better understand each other and avoid conflict. Neurath believed it was words that led to these misunderstandings in the first place. His interest in hieroglyphics led him to develop a system to help people understand social and economic facts with a minimum of words. To help him develop his system he collaborated with Gerd Arntz, a Vienna artist well known for his black and white woodcuts. Arntz worked in a simple style that could be easily understood by ordinary people, so Neurath molded this style into stick figures that became the building blocks of his pictured statistics.

Further proof that there are no coincidences, Gerd Arntz (1900-1988) was part of the Weimar Era, with contemporaries such as George Grosz (previously blogged) and John Heartfield.

[Arntz] wanted to strip art of bourgeois preciousness. In order to efface all evidence of his individual hand, he invented a stylized vocabulary of symbolic forms. His predilection for the flat, black and white tonalities of woodblock further served to obliterate the artist’s personal touch. Nevertheless, his incisive visual analyses of German society, corruption and political factionalism can hardly be considered impersonal; even in stark black and white, Arntz’s work reveals the artist’s political predilections and idiosyncratic viewpoint….[He] decided to concentrate on woodcut and linoleum cut because he was attracted to stark contrasts of black and white and because these mediums reminded him of certain family photographs that he had repeatedly perused during the war.”

Here I’ve cut and pasted the best images of Arntz’s work that I could find on the cybertubes (not a whole lot to be found, a Google search is your best bet):

Gerd Arntz

And some of his infographic work (done with Neurath):

Gerd Arntz Infographics

If anyone knows more about Arntz’s work or where one get get a decent book on him, please leave the info in the comments!

Big thank you to Eric Lewallen for bringing this to our attention! Here’s his presentation in its entirety (be sure to visit his blog, Words Are Pictures Too).

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  1. says

    a couple of sweet articles for further research:

    • Ellen Lupton, “Reading Isotype,” in Victor Margolin, ed., Design Discourse: History, Theory, Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

      you can get it through JSTOR if someone wants the pdf, I can e-mail it to them

    • Nigel Holmes, “Pictograms: A view from the drawing board or, what I have learned from Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz (and jazz),” Information Design Journal, Volume 10, Number 2, 2001 , pp. 133-144(12)

      This article sets out to discuss the practical development of pictograms and the thoughts that lead to their final visual shape. It explains the personal considerations that combine all issues that are related to making graphics, such as drawing, technique, conventions, and commercial aspects. The article explains how ISOTYPE and its designer Gerd Arntz influences current day-to-day work. By drawing parallels with jazz, different approaches to drawing graphics are shown and explained.

    I’m still trying to get a copy of the Holmes article…we’ll see if interlibrary loan comes through. If anyone has a copy…I’d be grateful!

  2. says

    I was just researching the rules of drawing stick figures for signage and came across your fascinating post. Thanks so much for this and I’m going to see if I know a 90 year old man who was a graphic designer and is from Germany / Switzerland to see if he happens to know more.

    Austin…I loved Eye Beam!


  3. jeanne says

    i remember in the 1970s when the push for word-free traffic signage was beginning in the U.S. – for several years there continued to be a caption to the arrows etc. defining the sign.
    then that was phased out and they became pure symbols, as they are today most of the time.

    i love arrows!

    i think the discoveries of primitive art works [see austrian and german expressionism early 20th c] also had an effect on efforts for simplicity in signage + art …

    eyebeam therefore i am!


    p.s. i was just contemplating the fantastic line from an eyebeam yesterday re: a dull professor’s lecture: ‘like taking notes to the hum of a refrigerator.’


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