Atlases have been around for centuries, but up until the 1950s, most were simply collections of maps, pure and simple. From 1947–1953, former Bauhaus teacher Herbert Bayer made a landmark (no pun intended) contribution—not simply as a designer, but an author—to information and data visualization, showing that maps could do more than locate space and place. Maps were, he proffered, a record of time and a method for prognostication. The World Geo-Graphic Atlas, published by Walter Paepcke’s Container Corporation of America, is a monument to Bayer’s singular vision, a precursor to current trends in information design, and an example of how complex data can be made accessible.
Benjamin Benus’ book about the book—Herbert Bayer’s World Geo-Graphic Atlas and Information Design at Midcentury—is an essential text for every graphic designer involved (or not) with UX/UI and information strategy.
At what point did you become aware of this material?
I came to Bayer’s atlas by way of Isotype—the approach to visual education that originated in the 1920s at the Social and Economic Museum in Vienna, under the direction of the social scientist Otto Neurath. I had written a doctoral dissertation about the artists who’d worked with Neurath during this period to develop this approach to information design (known then as the “Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics”). While researching the topic, I became curious about the many designers outside Neurath’s core team who, beginning in the ’30s, adopted aspects of the Isotype method in their own work. The list includes some widely recognized figures: El Lissitzky, Willem Sandberg and Ladislav Sutnar, among others. At some point while gathering examples of their Isotype-inspired publications and exhibition designs, I stumbled upon Bayer’s incredible 1953 atlas and immediately wanted to know more about it.
How did your study of Bayer evolve?
Initially, I had envisioned a study that would be broader in scope—a kind of survey of Isotype-inspired publications produced between the ’30s through the ’60s, with a single chapter devoted to Bayer’s atlas. But once I started researching the atlas, I realized I would need more than a chapter to provide a meaningful account of the work. In part, this had to do with the massive amount of related documentation that’s been preserved in various archival collections, which offers a fascinating and unusually detailed picture of the atlas’s creation and reception. This abundance of historical evidence is largely a result of the creators being so geographically dispersed: Bayer and his team produced the book’s artwork in Aspen, CO; Container Corporation of America (the packaging company that commissioned and privately published the atlas) was based in Chicago, as was Rand McNally, one of the project’s collaborating printers; a second cartographic printer was in Novara, Italy. This long-distance collaboration meant that people couldn’t just speak with each other in person or by phone but had to rely on written correspondence to discuss even the smallest details. The result is that we have a play-by-play record of the atlas’s production, with some really illuminating insights into the thinking and decisions that shaped the finished work.
Although you show a lot of early work, were you truly aware of what Bayer was capable of doing?
For a long time, I’d associated Bayer mainly with his typographic work at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s. I suspect this is typical for people who (like me) were trained as art historians. The Bauhaus was one of the few historical episodes I remember from undergraduate art history courses and survey textbooks where “applied” arts like graphic design were consistently covered alongside developments in the fine arts. But those art-historical accounts typically shifted back to emphasizing painting and sculpture with surrealism in the ’30s, and abstract expressionism in the ’40s and ’50s. So, I knew little about the later careers of avant-garde artists from the interwar years like Bayer, who continued to work across the “fine” and “applied” arts well into the postwar period. It was only later, while researching my dissertation, that I began to appreciate how the “Bauhaus idea” continued to generate new and important developments long after the school’s closure in 1933. I was also surprised to learn that Bayer (at least from the later 1930s) identified principally as a painter—and that he found opportunities in painting to develop many of the ideas and techniques that he later incorporated in his commissioned design work. The distinctive arrows and cloud forms, for example, that figure so prominently in the atlas’ charts and diagrams, appear first in Bayer’s paintings of the 1940s. One of the real discoveries for me was the reciprocal relationship between Bayer’s independent and commissioned work.
What significance does the atlas have for you? Was it the design? The content? The method, learned at the Bauhaus, that information could be managed in such a remarkable manner?
It was the design that initially drew me in—the atlas’ dramatic opening spreads, the dynamic page layouts, the intriguing mix of playfully arranged found images and carefully drafted charts and diagrams. But as I spent more time with the atlas, I was increasingly impressed by the work’s educational concept, and Bayer’s ambitious vision for it. Beyond serving as a conventional reference work, Bayer hoped that the atlas would serve to cultivate critical map-reading skills, empowering readers to reflect on the roles that cartographers and designers play in shaping and mediating geographical knowledge. He often tried to achieve this by presenting the same information in multiple ways on the same page (showing population data, for example, through maps, rows of countable pictograms and area diagrams), highlighting the advantages as well as the limits of different presentation methods.
What was Bayer’s role in the conception and production of the book? Why did he see the need?
In his role as editor and designer, Bayer participated in nearly every aspect of the volume’s production; but it was also the outcome of a collaborative effort and a complex division of labor. In the project’s first phase, from 1947–1949, Bayer worked closely with CCA art director Egbert Jacobson to develop the atlas’ outline. From 1949, Bayer had assistance from graphic designers Henry Gardiner, Masato Nakagawa and Martin Rosenzweig. Together they drafted all the illustrations, diagrams and supplemental maps, while two cartographic publishers (Rand McNally and the Istituto Geografico De Agostini) provided the atlas’ larger topographic maps. For the atlas’ scientific content, Bayer consulted with a long list of experts, who directed him to the latest scholarship and reference works. He also adapted and redesigned illustrations from existing works of popular science (which are inconsistently credited). But decisions about what to include, how to combine material and how to structure the atlas’ narrative sequence—these all reflect Bayer’s vision.
Your second question—about why Bayer saw the need for the atlas—is an interesting one. Because, to some extent, it seems like Bayer was unnecessarily reinventing the wheel with this project. For CCA, the atlas’ publisher, the work was initially conceived as an update to an earlier atlas—also beautifully designed, but more conventional in its concept—which the company had distributed as a gift to its customers in 1936. It was Bayer’s idea to expand the publication’s scope to address a wider range of subjects (astronomy, meteorology, climate, demographics, etc.). And the work’s emphasis on informing and educating also comes from Bayer.
I can’t help but think that this educational impulse derives in part from a growing unease and discomfort with some of the work he’d produced earlier in his career. I’m referring not only to the propaganda work he produced for the National Socialists after they seized power in Germany in 1933, but also some of the work he undertook as an art director for advertising agencies after his immigration to the U.S. in 1938. In his later statements of the 1950s and ’60s, in which he frequently referenced the social roles and responsibilities of graphic designers, he drew clear distinctions between what he saw as communication that serves to inform, and that which manipulates. He conceived of the atlas as serving the former function.
How much of Bayer can be found in this project?
This is another fascinating question—and one that I spent a lot of time trying to answer in my book—because so much of the atlas’ content appears to derive from elsewhere. The full-page maps came from cartographic printers; many of the charts and diagrams are based on material in existing scientific reference works; most of the pictorial illustrations have the character of found images (state seals, postage stamps, etc.). Bayer’s personal voice comes through in certain passages—particularly in the atlas’ meteorological illustrations, where his distinctive hand is evident in the drawing of cloud forms and directional arrows. But his voice is also arguably present in the collage-type method by which he fused together and arranged all the disparate material into a visual unity. Moreover, the atlas’ emphasis on environmental challenges—ecological crises, for example, created by overpopulation and the depletion of natural resources—were issues about which Bayer had become increasingly concerned and thought important to include.
I am impressed by your organization principles—introducing Bayer’s entire oeuvre, while continuing to focus on the atlas. Were there other iterations of organization that you tried or considered?
I’m glad to hear that you think this organization works. This aspect of the project was exceptionally challenging because I feel like the atlas occupies a place at the confluence of several related stories—Bayer’s own artistic career and his longstanding interest in geographic themes; Container Corporation’s promotion of modernist art and design; earlier and contemporaneous developments in visual education that shaped Bayer’s approach to information design; and the broader history of atlas design, on which Bayer drew and reacted against. It was hard to know which story to try to tell first. I began one of the earlier drafts by discussing Container Corporation’s commission of the atlas and the various functions it served for the company, and only addressed Bayer’s broader career after that. It was only after several attempts that I arrived at the current iteration, which follows a narrative arc from Bayer’s artistic investment in geography and related fields, to the larger history of ideas that shaped Bayer’s approach to the subject matter, to the story of its reception and what it meant to readers at the time of its publication.
In your prologue, you discuss the publication’s relevance today—and you’re right—but can you point to a few ways that the volume continues to serve functional purposes?
For certain types of information that were already well-established before midcentury and perhaps haven’t been too dramatically revised since then—the succession of geological periods, for example—the atlas’ visualizations can still effectively instruct. But like most historical scientific publications, its relevance as a reference work has diminished as the science has changed and the data has become outdated. Still, I see its educational concept—and the ambitious vision it advanced—as continuing to serve functional purposes in a couple ways: I think the atlas suggests a model for cultivating certain forms of information literacy by presenting data (land elevations and ocean depths, for example) in multiple formats at once. This approach not only provides readers with a richer and multidimensional picture of the information but also encourages readers to consider the graphic means used in the presentations—and to reflect on those presentations’ strengths and limits. I also think the atlas suggests a vision for collaboration between designers and experts in other fields, in which designers—to the extent possible and reasonable—might acquire a relatively sophisticated understanding of the material they are tasked with communicating. By the same token, its example invites experts to consider additional ways that designers can assist them in reaching wider audiences. This is an ideal, perhaps, with all kinds of logistical obstacles, but I think Bayer’s pursuit of this vision—even if he didn’t quite achieve it—should be inspirational.