Be patient with me: I have the feeling the next week or so is going to be filled with a lot of posts about my newfound obsession with Otto Neurath and his ISOTYPE system of pictograms.
Poking around Google scholar and JSTOR, I came across an article on ISOTYPE by graphic designer Ellen Lupton called “Reading Isotype.” (There are no coincidences: I just happen to be reading her book on typography.)
In “Reading Isotype,” Lupton points out that Neurath suggested “two central rules for generating the vocabulary of international pictures: reduction, for determining the style of individual signs; and consistency, for giving a group of signs the appearance of a coherent system. These rules…reinforce the “language quality” of picture signs, making individual signs look more like letters, and groups of signs look more like complete, self-sufficient languages.”
The rules could just as easily be adapted to comics! Tonight, we’ll focus on reduction:
Reduction means finding the simplest expression of an object….
The silouette is a central technique of reduction (figure 7). Silhouette drawing is a kind of pre-chemical photography that emulates the shadow, which is an indexical image made without human intervention, a natural cast rather than a cultural interpretation. International pictures suggest a rationalized theater of shadows, in which signs are necessary geometric formulae cast by material things—Plato’s cave renovated into an empiricist laboratory….The sign as geometric shadow of reality is both a rhetorical connotation and a practical technique for many symbol designers. Martin Krampen suggested “simplified realism;” he urged designers to “start from silhouette photographs of objects…and then by subtraction…obtain silouette pictographs.”
This reminded me of Matt Groening’s claim that the secret of designing cartoon characters is to make a character immediately recognizable in silhouette.
And Saul Steinberg’s obsession with the profile view:
The designer Nigel Holmes points out in his book, Designing Pictorial Symbols, that this graphical reduction does not equal emotional reduction:
[Let] no one think that the stylized figures that appear in pictographs are cold and devoid of human characteristics and emotion. Look at this figure of a worker. He is unemployed. Not only is there no doubt about that, but the man’s very sadness comes through the simple drawing. He is shivering. He is looking back, rather than to the future. So much can be conveyed by so few shapes.
Figures such as this can too easily be dismissed as “stick-men,” “pin-men,” or “robot people,” but in fact, they evoke a whole host of emotions that belie their simple execution. And that perhaps is the point: to evoke rather than describe. The mere slop of the shoulders (as in this example) or the thrust of a pair of jauntily marching legs can convey a range of feelings…one doesn’t need a photograph…to bring them out.”
Back to Lupton: she switches gears and begins to talk about perspective:
Flatness suggests a factual honesty, as opposed to the illusionism of perspective drawing. Isotype characters pull the shape of an object onto the ideal flat plane of a draftsman’s drawing: They are blueprints of language (figure 8)….
When depth is expressed in Isotype graphics, isometry is used instead of linear perspective. In isometric drawing, parellel lines do not converge; dimension is fixed from foreground to background (figure 9). Isotype rationalizes the retinal by translating distorted sense material into a logical scheme. An isometric drawing describes what we “know” to be true, based on observation. Neurath was impressed by children’s drawings, believing them to express naive, natural, and thus universal perception. Children, he wrote, do not use perspective. They are able to draw an object from all sides at once, and represent an entire forest with a single tree: “Isotype is an elaborate application of the main features of these drawings.”
The isometric drawing that we’re probably the most familiar with is the artwork for the Sim City games:
But it’s the child-like lack of perspective Neurath refers to that captures my imagination. One can imagine adapting an Isotype drawing like this to a comic world:
Does anyone else find this stuff fascinating?