Data Viz Pioneer’s Symbol Speak

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Irving Geis (1908-1997) made maps and charts during the 1930s and 40s for Fortune. His career as “a scientific visualizer” began with a painting of the circulatory system for Fortune in 1937. For much of his career, however, he contributed illustrations to Scientific American, creating scientific data visualizations about astronomy, astrophysics, geophysics and biochemistry. You might say he was an unsung pioneer of the infographic genre.


Geis illustrated numerous scientific textbooks, was a guest lecturer at universities and medical schools and exhibited his work at scientific institutions throughout the United States.

The Geis Archives, consisting of paintings, drawings, sketches, studies and historical papers, were purchased by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland in the fall of 2000.

Years ago, I acquired the letter shown here (five of six pages), which simply explained the process of making sign-symbols to illustrate in quotidian charts and graphs. In addition to his complex scientific work, this primer is illustrative of his art. It is based on Otto Neurath’s ISOTYPES, taking the concept further. Written in 1940, note how Geis deals with the racial concerns of the day.

Surprisingly, Geis also worked as an illustrator with Harvey Kurtzman for MAD magazine.

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For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, one of the many Heller titles available at