Knowledge for young people

Otto Neurath began working on books for children in the 1940s for the London-based book packaging company Adprint. Many of his ideas were drawn from his childhood experience and memories, and from his views on visual education. He believed that children benefited from pictures that encouraged them to look, compare and reach their own conclusions.

After Otto Neurath's death in 1945, Marie Neurath continued this work, and under her direction the Isotype Institute produced many series of books for children. These show Marie Neurath's ability to identify unusual relationships between things and ideas, and to analyse and then synthesise complex information into manageable chunks.

Her approach to making child-friendly visual explanations relied on teamwork, consultation with readers and dialogue with subject experts.

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Covers from children's books

The Isotype Institute produced well over one hundred children's books in series such as 'Wonders of the Modern World', 'The Wonder World of Nature' and 'They Lived like This'. Each series was also produced in foreign language editions. These brightly coloured covers show the imaginative use of type and image to attract the interest of children.

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Spreads from children's books: graphic explanation of everyday things

Colour, texture and shape show how flies stick to and get unstuck from ceilings.
Marie Neurath, Too Small to See, London: Max Parrish, 1956

Is it the sun or the earth that moves? The explanation begins to work when you notice what happens to the little house.
Marie Neurath, I'll show you how it happens, London: Adprint, 1948

What happens when you heat water? The careful use of texture, colour and shape helps describe the three states of matter - solid, liquid and gas.
Marie Neurath, Heat and Power, London: Max Parrish, 1964

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Railways under London

In making Railways under London, Marie Neurath and her team worked closely with London Transport. The company provided technical information and checked the accuracy of the Isotype Institute's sketches. The resulting charts, aimed at children between the ages of 9 and 12, provided answers to various questions. What makes the signal lights flash? How does the ticket-machine give the right change? How do the train doors open when nobody touches them? Words on the dust jacket explained the Isotype approach: 'Try to answer these questions by words alone: the mystery remains. Try to explain by showing photographs: it is a little easier. But show the young people the drawings in this book and understanding is possible at once.'

Marie Neurath
London: Adprint

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Explaining history: 'Visual History of Mankind' series of books

The Isotype Institute developed an innovative way of explaining history to children. It used questions to encourage them to look closely at the charts and work out the answers. The charts show purposeful use of colour and encourage comparison. They ensure that important things are seen at first glance and supporting details on closer scrutiny.

Otto and Marie Neurath, with Joseph Lauwerys, Living in Early Times and Living in the World, London: Adprint, 1947 and 1948

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Explaining science: 'Visual Science' series of books

The charts in the 'Visual Science' book series were intended to encourage questioning and comparison, and to relate to everyday activities. Marie Neurath wrote about her intentions in designing these double-page spreads.

Visual Science 1: 'Ice, water, vapour'
'We have to show anything about which we want to make visual statements. There is for instance the story of water: ice -- water -- steam. We have designed symbols for these. We can even make the statement: steam is invisible. We made two pictures side by side, one symbolic, the other naturalistic: -- we show in our symbolism stipples for steam, droplets for condensing part -- which in fact looks like this: -- a kettle with a cloud some distance from the spout.'

Marie Neurath and Joseph Lauwerys
London: Max Parrish, 1950
Quote from Synthese, vol. 8

Visual Science 2: 'Levers as labour-savers'
'The science charts also start from the familiar. The law of gravity is only a mystery on a theoretical level. The children have become used to things falling, and we can use this experience to make some general statements about falling things, and induce them to make more detailed observations without mentioning the word gravity. They know see-saws well, and if we show boys on see-saws in various arrangements it puts their former and perhaps future experience into order. And if we show certain kinds of tools at the side of it, something which is similar in them, and some rules about levers may become obvious without being fully explained in the orthodox way.'

Marie Neurath and Joseph Lauwerys
London: Max Parrish, 1950
Quote from Synthese, vol. 8

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Explaining nature: 'The Wonder World of Nature' series of books

'Simple explanations of the strange things that happen in nature' was how 'The Wonder World of Nature' book series was described in publicity material issued by publisher Max Parrish. Aimed at children between the ages of 7 and 10, the books used clearly drawn and brightly coloured pictures, and words that were easy to understand.

Marie Neurath
The Wonder World of the Seashore and The Wonder World of Land and Water, London: Max Parrish, 1954 and 1957

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Book and working material: If You Could See Inside

One of Otto Neurath's book ideas was based on children thinking about what went on inside different 'boxes' such as a greenhouse or a diving bell. His early ideas were presented in a carefully made mock-up titled 'Just boxes'. Marie Neurath worked on these ideas to produce If You Could See Inside, where language and presentation are closely linked.

Marie Neurath
London: Adprint

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Transforming complexity: Rockets and Jets

The books for children show how Marie Neurath and her team transformed complex ideas and concepts into easy-to-understand and often ingenious visual form. Work began with the assembly of background material. For Rockets and Jets this included newspaper clippings about jet technology, air travel, planes and speed, and information gathered through correspondence with experts. Then charts were prepared. These often began as rough workings-out of an idea, or attempts to determine a chart's placement within a double-page spread.

Marie Neurath
London: Max Parrish


Recent research projects

October 2019 |

Remarks to Bildfabriken exhibition opening

January 2018 |

Recent publishing

January 2017 |

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Information in time and place

Eric Kindel |

From hieroglyphics to Isotype, book launch remarks

Burke, Kindel, Kinross |

'Isotype revisited'

Isotype revisited |

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