Isotype in Africa

A session at Information Design conference 2009

Thursday 2nd April, 2009

2:00pm to 2:00pm (GMT)

Otto Neurath once remarked that he and his team were ‘creating a method [of picture education, i.e. the “Vienna Method”] not, finally, for the Viennese, but rather for Africans.’

In the mid 1950s, some ten years after Otto’s death, Marie Neurath, his widow and director of the Isotype Institute Ltd. (London), travelled to West Africa to consult on public information initiatives in several countries then making the transition from British colonial rule to full independence. Working for the Western Region of Nigeria, and for Gold Coast (Ghana) and Sierra Leone, Marie Neurath and the Isotype Institute designed news-sheets, magazines, booklets, posters and wall charts dealing with issues of public welfare (food, health, literacy), works (transport, water, sanitation, farming, energy) and governance (political structures, voter registration).

The publications they designed, which were produced and distributed in significant numbers, pictured the scope, advantages and costs of development, and through the information they conveyed, enabled individuals to contribute to the social, economic and political foundations of post-colonial national life.

This presentation will assess Isotype’s work in the African context Otto Neurath saw as its most basic proving ground. The paper will review Marie Neurath’s contact with West African political figures, and briefly summarize her trips to Nigeria, Gold Coast and Sierra Leone in 1954 and 1955. I will consider specific design solutions found in Isotype’s West Africa work, and reflect on how these were informed both by an already established set of (European) principles and by the realities of (African) life encountered ‘on the ground’.

Parallel matters will be touched on, including the logistics of UK-based design and production, and the unrealized plan to train an Isotype ‘artist’ to operate locally. I will attempt to summarise the place and legacy of Isotype in the larger project of West African nation-building.

About the speaker

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Eric Kindel

Designer, writer, editor, Associate Professor bio from Twitter

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Time 2:00pm2:00pm GMT

Date Thu 2nd April 2009

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