Isotype and Herbert Bayer's World geo-graphic atlas

Eric Kindel (2017)

Editorial note (EK). This text is a summary of exchanges between Marie Neurath, colleagues, and others relating to the World geo-graphic atlas, edited and designed by Herbert Bayer and privately published by Container Corporation of America in 1953. The exchanges provide testimony of concerns raised by Marie Neurath about pictorial statistics and other illustrative material that appeared in the atlas.

The summary principally draws on documents held in the Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection, University of Reading. For a fuller discussion of this matter and issues of attribution, copyright, and the influence of Isotype on the World geo-graphic atlas, see Benjamin Benus, Herbert Bayer's World geo-graphic atlas and information design at mid-century, Rochester (NY): RIT Press, 2023, especially pp. 77‐91.

This text was drafted in December 2012 and January 2013, with minor revisions made in February 2017. Compilation of the text benefitted from additional notes and documentation supplied by Robin Kinross and Christopher Burke. Several items marked for checking in the draft have been amended or deleted in light of their clarification in Benus (2023).

In June 1954, Marie Neurath first became aware of the World geo-graphic atlas, privately published by Container Corporation of America (CCA). The atlas had appeared the previous year, edited and designed by Herbert Bayer, an Austrian émigré designer who had arrived in the USA in 1938 and in 1946 became a consultant to CCA. [1] In a letter to Waldemar Kaempffert, a longstanding friend and supporter, Marie Neurath wrote:

By chance I noticed on the desk of someone in this building a big and lavishly produced book, of the size and weight of our Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft. It is called World geo-graphic atlas .... In the preface credit is given to many persons, institutions, books etc. but not to us. When you open the book you will notice that this could not have [been] produced without a very detailed knowledge of our work. [2]

Although referring in general to the pictorial statistics, pictograms, and other graphics that appear throughout the atlas, Marie Neurath also identified two instances where she felt that borrowings had occurred: on p. 182, where a chart from Modern man in the making had been adapted (and noted there as 'modified from Otto Neurath "Modern Man in the Making" A. A. Knopf'); and on p. 200, where a cutaway illustration of a windmill had been adapted from an illustration in Marie Neurath's book, If you could see inside (1948, p. 23). [3] 'I think it is not according to the rules of common politeness', she continued, 'to do such a thing without even trying to get our agreement.'

In her letter to Kaempffert, Marie Neurath asked for his advice about what might be done. Several options were mentioned: that she write directly to CCA for an explanation; that Alfred A. Knopf, publisher of Modern man in the making, be asked if they had given their agreement and if not, whether Knopf might write to CCA; or that the atlas be reviewed in The New York Times (where Kaempffert was science editor), where it might be stated that the atlas's 'rather unique methods of presentation' be identified as derived from Isotype, to whom credit should be given. [4] Her remarks end on a conciliatory note: because the atlas was privately published, there was no case for legal action in her view ('which I should hate of course'); and she could also see the value of the atlas, remarking 'for our work for Vienna on world social and economic developments this is quite a good source I think, anyway we shall try to learn something from it, too.' [5]

Immediately after receiving the letter from Marie Neurath, Kaempffert wrote to Knopf putting her concerns to the publisher; he received a reply from Alfred Knopf himself a few days later. [6] From Knopf's reply, it appears that Kaempffert characterized the matter as copyright infringement, something Marie Neurath did not mention originally.

I have your letter of June 22nd. I think it probably best for me to forward a copy of this to my friend Walter P. Paepcke, since I, as a great admirer of his Atlas, am a prejudiced party and can hardly believe my eyes when I read your description of it as consisting of 'charts based upon Otto Neurath's Gessellschaft und Wirtschaft [sic] published in Liepzig in 1930.' That to me is like saying that The New York Times on Sunday consists [only] of Section IV.

I doubt if any representation was asked us in connection with the chart on page 182, as we would never authorize credit to be given to A. A. Knopf, which I regard as something that doesn't exist. However, in any case, it seems to me that there isn't the slightest evidence of a genuine copyright infringement and that Mrs. Neurath has lost her sense of proportion in asking you to write me. [7]

Kaempffert replied to defend Marie Neurath's position:

Your letter of June 28 puzzles me. Marie Neurath is a very intelligent woman who collaborated with her husband, Otto, for years. Surely she ought to know the origin of Paepcke's charts and all the more since Otto Neurath's Isotype method has been in worldwide use ever since it was introduced. Very few of those who appropriated it gave him credit. The result is that very few people know who invented it. This is sad, but something that probably could not be avoided.

I don't see that there is much use in pursuing this matter further. You own the copyright of 'Man in the Making,' [sic] and if in your opinion Paepcke has not infringed it there is nothing more to be done. [8]

In the last letter in the exchange, Knopf is sympathetic but unmoved:

I think you and Mrs. Neurath are quite justified in resenting the fact that the Neuraths have not, generally speaking, been given credit for their work. But in this case I think your inquiry ought to be addressed to Herbert Bayer, in Aspen, who is responsible for the Atlas.

I am only saying that page 182 of the Atlas does not, in my opinion, violate our copyright. [9]

Kaempffert forwarded the exchange of letters to Marie Neurath in London in early July, and in a brief note stated: 'As you will see from the enclosed letter Knopf sees no infringement of his copyright in the case that you asked me to call to his attention. I don't suppose that anything more can be done. Knopf is the only person who can take any legal action.' Ten days later he wrote to again express his doubts that protesting would do any good, given Knopf's indifference and his friendship with Paepcke. [10]

By this time, Marie Neurath had left London on the first of her working visits to the Western Region of Nigeria where she would remain until the following September. While in Nigeria, Marie Neurath also corresponded about the matter with her friend Philipp Rieger. She had already instructed him to write a letter to CCA asking for an explanation, which he did. [11] A reply was received from CCA that seems to have acknowledged that more credit might be due Otto Neurath than was stated in the atlas. Marie Neurath replied in turn, setting out her complaints; these again focused on the lack of credit given to Isotype, CCA's problematic copyright notice on numerous pages in the atlas that contained pictorial statistics, and the lack of credit for the windmill drawing; she concluded by asking that some redress be suggested by CCA. [12]

A review of the World geo-graphic atlas leaves little doubt that in its pictorial statistics, pictograms, and in some graphics, Bayer's work owed a debt to Isotype in general, and in particular to Modern man in the making and probably one or several other Isotype publications. [13] Apart from the two specific graphics Marie Neurath identified as borrowed, the style of Bayer's pictograms derives from Isotype originals: in design they are similar and in places their content is nearly or wholly identical (mining, petroleum, steel, cotton, corn, grain, and so on). [14] It is equally clear that Bayer lacked a full understanding of Isotype methods. This is apparent, for example, in the inconsistent use of colour categories for pictograms [15], in the redundant labelling of pictograms with identifying words, and in one use of a modified Mercator projection (i.e., not equal area, as preferred by Isotype) in combination with pictorial statistics. Overall, Bayer's pictorial statistics suffer from that which Otto Neurath had warned against: boring rows of numbers becoming boring rows of pictograms. [16]

In pointing to only two specific instances where borrowing was thought to have occurred, but which others questioned, Marie Neurath perhaps indirectly demonstrated the even greater difficulty in establishing any precise attribution of credit in regard to Isotype method and graphic style in general. Versions of pictorial statistics like Bayer's would always be more or less legitimate as interpretations, even if - like so many others - his too lacked the rigour, coherence, variety, and refinement of Isotype and did not [with one exception] carry any acknowledgment of source or inspiration.


On 26 November 1957, Marie Neurath wrote again to Container Corporation of America, this time about a German language edition of its atlas, which had appeared in 1955. [17]

In 1954 I had a correspondence with your Mr. Wagonseller in connection with your World geographic atlas. In his letter of July 26, 1954 ... Mr. Wagonseller wrote: 'We appreciate having the benefit of your comments and if future editions of our Atlas are printed, we will give careful thought to the matter of giving general credit to outstanding contributors in this field, including your late husband.'

After this correspondence, an atlas has appeared in Germany: Goldmanns Grosser Weltatlas. In it a wide use has been made of the 'Herbert Bayer pages', and again the credit for the 'creation' of symbols and method has been given to Herbert Bayer in the general introduction. [18]

After raising the possibility that some breach of copyright may have occurred, Marie Neurath continued:

Nevertheless, I have not asked for more than a fair acknowledgment of the indebtedness to our work of which you are obviously aware. To give the credit which is due to my husband's work would remove all ill feeling without costing anyone a penny; it would not damage Herbert Bayer's reputation but improve it.

Now that same neglect has been repeated ....

I trust you will advise Messrs. Wilhelm Goldmann to incorporate a suitable paragraph in the present and any future editions in any language and any country, which will satisfy us all.

Two weeks later, Joseph B. Higgs of CCA sent a reply to Marie Neurath. [19] Higgs informed her that Herbert Bayer had since written to Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag about the matter; he also appended a copy of Bayer's letter. In it, Bayer informed the publisher that 'Dr Hans Neurath' [sic] had worked at the 'Wirtschaftsmuseum' [sic] in Vienna, and that Marie Neurath felt that credit should have been given to him. Bayer then requested that the publisher include a credit in any further edition, to the effect that [Otto] Neurath 'pioneered in the creation and use of pictorial symbolism for statistics and charts.'


1. World geo-graphic atlas: a composite of man's environment, edited and designed by Herbert Bayer, foreword by Walter P. Paepcke, Chicago: privately printed for Container Corporation of America, 1953. For its contemporary reception, see reviews by (e.g.) Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, College Art Journal, vol. 14, no. 2 (Winter, 1955), pp. 177-8; Edward L. Ullman, Geographical Review, vol. 45, no. 1 (January, 1955), pp. 147-9. For recent discussion, see (e.g.) Peder Anker, 'Graphic Language: Herbert Bayer's Environmental Design', Environmental History, vol. 12, no. 2 (April, 2007), pp. 254-79.
2. Letter from Marie Neurath to Waldemar Kaempffert, 18 June 1954 (Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection, University of Reading, 1/47; hereinafter referenced as 'IC'). Quotations from Marie Neurath in the following two paragraphs are also from this source.
3. This image had also appeared in the British magazine, Future (vol. 4, no. 3, June 1949, p. 43) in a feature on children's books; Future was distributed in the USA.
4. The quoted remark is Walter Paepcke's, chairman of CCA, in his foreword to the atlas. 'Design has been a vital part of the activities of Container Corporation of America. The rather unique methods of presentation used in this atlas are in character with the principles of design and visualization employed by this company in its products, offices, factories, and advertising.' World geo-graphic atlas, p. 5.
5. The 'Vienna work' was apparently in reference to consultation Marie Neurath was providing to the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum that had re-formed in Vienna after the Second World War.
6. Kaempffert's first letter to Knopf, dated 22 June 1954, is not extant. Knopf replied six days later. A copy of Knopf's reply, together with copies of a second exchange between Kaempffert and Knopf (quoted below), were sent by Kaempffert to Marie Neurath on 6 July 1954 (IC 1/47).
7. Letter from Alfred Knopf to Waldemar Kaempffert, 28 June 1954 (IC 1/47). The reference to 'A. A. Knopf' was simply noting the incorrect rendering of the publisher's name in the atlas, which should have been 'Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.'
8. Letter from Waldemar Kaempffert to Alfred Knopf, 30 June 1954 (IC 1/47). Kaempffert ended his letter on a light note: 'You say that you regard A. A. Knopf "as something that doesn't exist." Is it possible that the publisher with whom I lunched at the Stork Club not so long ago and who looked and talked like you was an imposter?'
9. Letter from Alfred Knopf to Waldemar Kaempffert, 2 July 1954 (IC 1/47).
10. Letters from Waldemar Kaempffert to Marie Neurath, 2 July 1954 (quotation) and 17 July 1954 (IC 1/47).
11. Letter from Marie Neurath to Philipp Rieger, 4 July 1954; Letter from Philipp Rieger to Marie Neurath 12 July 1954. Although Marie Neurath restated that she did not plan any legal action, she nevertheless expressed concern that Isotype rights to its pre-war work published outside Britain might have been confiscated by the Alien Property Custodian. See also letter from Marie Neurath to Philipp Rieger, 24 July 1954, which indicates that she had by this time received Knopf's letters sent by Kaempffert (IC 3.2/169).
12. Marie Neurath's reply to CCA is in a letter to Philipp Rieger, 6 August 1954; Marie Neurath addressed herself to 'Mr [E. A.] Wagonseller', who was a CCA secretary. In a reply to Marie Neurath (11 August 1954), Rieger sent redrafted versions of this letter for her approval, but also expressed reservations that the windmill drawing in the atlas could be proven to have been copied from an Isotype publication (IC 3.2/169).
13. While possible, it seems less immediately obvious that Bayer referred directly to Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (Leipzig, 1930), despite Marie Neurath implying this and Kaempffert apparently stating so explicitly. Easy access to the publication in Aspen, Colorado, where much of the work on the atlas was carried out, seems unlikely unless Bayer owned a copy. [Editorial note: Benus (2023, p. 91) confirms that Bayer had a copy of Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft available to him during the preparation of the atlas.] It is worth noting that Bayer's pictograms are clearly not related to the work of Rudolf Modley and Pictorial Statistics, Inc., through it would have been more prevalent and visible in the US than Isotype.
14. Bayer, after Neurath, also used a simple disk as a graphic unit of value. Bayer additionally employed dollar signs in some charts; Isotype generally avoided such explicit depictions of currency.
15. Cf. Otto Neurath, International picture language, pp. 42-50 and especially p. 48, for details about how colours were assigned in Isotype work. Graphic matter in the atlas was printed in 6 spot colours: light blue, red, yellow, green, brown and black. Pictograms for industry, agriculture and so on appear variously in several of the colours. Bayer does, however, exactly follow Isotype in assigning colours to human groups (which Bayer termed 'racial groups', a description Isotype avoided).
16. Yet it is also fair to observe that the plain and repetitive configurations of pictorial statistics are deployed to advantage within the otherwise visually complex pages of the atlas.
17. Luigi Visintin, Herbert Bayer, Wilhelm Goldmann (eds), Goldmanns Grosser Weltatlas: die Umwelt des Menschen: Astronomie, Geologie, Geographie, Klimakunde, Wirtschaft, Bevōlkerungskunde, Munich: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, 1955.
18. Letter from Marie Neurath to Container Corporation of America, November 26, 1957, Ōsterreichische Nationalbibliothek (ŌNB), 1232/14. Following quote is also from this letter. My thanks to Christopher Burke for supplying a summary of correspondence in the ŌNB that relates to the atlas.
19. Letter from Joseph B. Higgs (Container Corporation of America) to Marie Neurath, December 10, 1957, Ōsterreichische Nationalbibliothek (ŌNB), 1232/14.


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