• Steven Heller

Learning From Symbols, Yesterday and Today

Rudolf Modley was a disciple of Otto Neurath, the man behind the Isotype. Modley was involved with the Social Museum in Vienna and was the curator of social sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. As the executive director of Pictorial Statistics Inc.,

he was responsible for bringing the Isotype language to the United States. He also wrote How To Use Pictorial Statistics and devised A History of the War—and his Handbook of Pictorial Symbols remains an essential resource for designers, illustrator, and data visualizers. For much of his life in America he lived in Kent, Connecticut. When he died, much of his library was dispersed. I was able to acquire a few documents, which at the time were interesting but not exceptional. In recent years, with the explosion of data visualization, information architecture, or whatever you choose to call the mad dash to quantify (as Edward Tufte calls it) visual information, the items have renewed resonance.

Recently, I was reading a document from the Modley collection written in 1959, “The Classification of Graphic Symbols and the Scientific Method.” It was written by Martin Krampen, a German designer, artist,  semiotician, and lecturer at the Ulm School of Design. He was then in the communications department at Michigan State University. And the paper was prepared for “Communication Through Graphic Symbols, The Fund for the Advancement of Education.” Although conceptually dense in spots, Krampen’s analysis of how students (and all of us) learn through symbol psychology and icon cognition is totally fascinating. Indeed, it seems to be either ahead of its time and/or the foundation for our time of information overload.

The pages are reproduced below (click for an enlargement), with the hope that Dr. Krampen will appreciate this celebration of his work. As no copyright notice was visible on the document and this was part of Dr. Modley’s holdings, we believe it is publishable. If, however, this assumption steps over any lines, we will immediately remove.

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