The design language used by the New Mediators is an obvious extension of ISOTYPE (International System Of TYpographic Picture Education), developed by Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz in the 1930s. Designed amidst the rise of socialism and what Neurath saw as a “recently emancipated proletariate” in need of worldly knowledge, ISOTYPE had the ambitious goal to become a system that functioned across dialects, cultures, and literacy levels. ISOTYPE was used as a method for communicating visual statistics to the often illiterate proletariate, and was widely deployed across state publications.
ISOTYPE is highly standardized, allowing slight alterations to distinguish points of data while they remain categorically comparable to each other. The addition of an gear symbol to a symbol representing man can specify mechanic. Similarly, a tie and briefcase can be added to connote business man. Additions of a top hat, mustache, cane and fat connote rich banker.
This is powerful visual shorthand that communicates quickly. Much of this efficiency comes from the symbol’s reliance on stereotypes that exist in the audience’s consciousness. While benign in the majority of situations, such a reliance can serve to perpetuate societal prejudices in some cases. This has become apparent to me in the response to the Crisis of Credit Visualized. Approximately 7:20 into the video, a representative “nuclear family” is depicted as responsible borrowers, then contrasted with a family of “irresponsible borrowers.” This depiction of irresponsible borrowers has been a high point of contention in evaluations of the video. The most discerning comment I have received on this subject acknowledged the effectiveness of the irresponsible borrowers as a communication tool, but reminded me that as a maker of media, I play a role in the adoption and perpetuation of media stereotypes. This is an important point to consider for content producers using a graphic language such as this. While the potency of the language relies on the existence of stereotypes, at what point is such a reference for utility, and at what point is it propagation? Or are the two inseparable?
Interestingly, I have received no complaints over the depiction of bankers as “fat cats,” which could be interpreted as being equally derogatory.
Other rules for the graphical communication of information have been established. The work of Edward Tufte has become standard reference for any information designer. His notions of less ink, the elimination of “chart-junk,” and his criticism of Microsoft PowerPoint have all be assimilated into foundational principal of information design.
What about new types of data, ones that are less tangible?
Common to ISOTYPE and the techniques highlighted by Tufte is their application to established, quantitative data sets. But what happens when information sets can’t be so easily plugged into the established rules. What happens when data starts to resemble the increasingly intangible values that we can see our products shifting towards?
Responding to this question is where the design language used by the New Mediators begins to differ. The projects of the New Mediators explicitly avoid quantitative information, and instead seek to give form the the intangible and relational aspects of complicated situations. Scaling graphics to contrast two sets of information has dominated information design for some time. But today, when a new government fiscal initiative in the hundreds of millions of dollars is being announced every month, simply contrasting numbers proves quite ineffective. What does it mean the the U.S. national debt exceeds $11 trillion? What does it meant that if it were divided up into equal shares, each citizen would owe over $180,000? As a society we are rapidly becoming numb to these large numbers. What is important to understand is how the national debt affects you. What is the chain of events that connects you to the national debt? How many of theses chains are there?
Building these links is the objective of the New Mediators, and it is working towards this goal alongside several other related projects.