Some Remarks on Pictorial Statistics
Klaus Rehkaemper
Bildungsanalysen, State Statistical Institute Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin, Germany

Visualization is one of the most powerful and useful tools in presenting statistical information. Since the days of Florence Nightingale, who used a kind of pie chart to show the correlation between hygiene and lethal diseases in military hospitals, pictorial presentations of statistical data have become ubiquitous.

But why are visualizations by means of pictorial representations so effective? The answer seems obvious: Because they so easy to read! But again, why is that so?

Semioticians differentiate between three kinds of signs: indexical signs, iconic signs, and symbolic signs.

An index is connected to the object it stands for in a non-arbitrary, direct way, i.e. physically or causally: 'Smoke means fire'.

Symbols are arbitrarily connected to the things they signify. Linguistic expressions are usually thought to be symbols, because words like “dog”, “chien” or “Hund” refer to canines just by convention.

Icons in turn resemble the entities they signify by possessing some of their qualities. A portrait is a picture of a certain person, because it is similar in appearance to that person.

Iconicity and resemblance are closely connected. Our visual system is used to perceive resemblances. That is one of the reasons why iconic (or pictorial) signs are so easily understood.

In the late twenties of the last century the Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath tried to take advantage of the straightforwardness of iconic signs by inventing the “Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics” (later called ISOTYPE: International System of TYpographic Picture Education) to be used in adult education. The prime motive of Neurath was to provide information for everybody. Hence one of his main goals was to enable even the uneducated or the illiterate to understand e.g. social interrelations via a pictorial representation of the underlying facts. “To remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate figures” was one of his famous phrases. The central task was therefore to transform complex information into a self-explanatory chart.

The most important means for this task were the standardized pictorial signs, which formed the alphabet of ISOTYPE. Many of these signs are still well known to us, because we see them frequently as pictograms in public places. But Neurath's dream of inventing a nonverbal, pictorial language for presenting statistical information, to be used and understood all over the world, has not been fulfilled.

In the first part of my talk I will say a few words about pictorial signs and their connection to visual perception. In the second part I will show how not only Neurath's ISOTYPE, as one of the most ambitious projects in this field, but pictorial statistics in general use this straightforwardness of iconic signs.


Otto Neurath, From hieroglyphics to Isotype: a visual autobiography. London, Hyphen Press, 2010.

Keywords: Pictorial statistics; Neurath; Iconic sign; ISOTYPE

Biography: Dr. Klaus Rehkaemper has studied philosophy, science of history, science of education and mathematics. He worked several years in the field of cognitive science at the Universities of Hamburg, Oldenburg, Freiburg, Bremen and Hannover. His research interests were language understanding, visual perception and pictorial representations. Since 2003 he is Professor for Philosophy at the University of Oldenburg. Since 2007 he works at the State Statistical Institute Berlin-Brandenburg and is head of the unit “Schule Berlin und Bildungsanalysen”. At the present time he is doing research on the educational systems of the federal states of Berlin and Brandenburg. He is one of the authors of the report “Education in Berlin and Brandenburg” (2008 and 2010).