Visual expression of complex ideas is one of the most important challenges facing the many graphic designers working in the world today. But where lie the roots of this craft? Looking back in time at the work of forgotten genius Fritz Kahn provides fascinating insight into the birth of information graphics.
How often have you imagined that little humanoids control our every move in the multilevel factory that comprises the human body? For those, like me, who are confused by the language of science, simplification through metaphor and analogy are common in order to comprehend the complex mechanics of everyday human existence. This is how the rediscovered visionary, Dr. Fritz Kahn (1888–1968), a German scientist, gynecologist, and author, tapped directly into our collective conscious and subconscious. While the notion he adopted was admittedly absurd, even na.ve, his work developed it into an effective learning tool— and an iconic copyrighted graphic system that brought this metaphor to virtual life.
If Kahn is remembered for any single accomplishment during his formidable and storied career, it will be as author of the subversively comical yet decidedly resolute diagrammatic wall poster titled “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” or “Man as Industrial Palace” (1926), where he graphically transformed a human body into the mechanized factory we often imagine it should be.
As precise as Dalí, as ironic as Duchamp
A surreal rendering (as precise as any Dal. and as ironic as any Duchamp) of a schematic cutaway human head and armless torso, Kahn’s design exposed mazes of intersecting apparatus housed in compartments and bound to one another by the efforts of specialized homunculi, each a patently skilled laborer wearing a lab coat, work clothes, or business suit, depending on their respective hierarchical or class status within the body. These little humanoids, ensuring the smooth progression of all the bodily functions as though they were working a normal shift with any industrial manufacturer, are, in fact, the body’s organs, muscles, and nerves, better understood in their anthropomorphic forms.
Every part of the body had its own avatar (before such a thing was coined)—the eye is a bellows camera, the lung is made of copper tubes, the stomach and intestines are fast-moving conveyor belts doused with pressurized hydraulics. The poster further reveals the left and right parts of the top of the brain where studious homunculi are seen busily reading, drawing, and conversing. Lower down, once food is consumed it slides directly towards the bowels, where workers physically break it down into sugars and starches and other components to be conveyed along the disassembly line into nearby digesting rooms.
This and other diagrams were so profoundly and widely appealing that Kahn’s influence spread throughout the world during his lifetime and is clearly manifest in various media today, long after he died, even if his name has been forgotten.
A once ubiquitous television commercial in the ’50s and ’60s advertising Bufferin showed the painful image of a sledgehammer torturously pounding away inside an X-rayed head to approximate the feeling of a headache. It was a Kahn rip-off. Yet in Kahn’s universe the intricacies and subtleties of human bodily functions were more fascinating than the facile attempts of Bufferin’s ad agency to reduce a complex medical problem to the mere pounding of a cudgel. His primary mission was to remove the mystery from biology and pathology by presenting it through words and pictures that most people could comprehend—and even enjoy. Paradoxically, his own words were a bit more obtuse: “The cell state is a republic under the hereditary hegemony of the mind’s aristocracy,” Kahn wrote using the arcane terminology of sociopolitical language, “its economic system is a strict communism.”
Kahn and the visual linguist Otto Neurath, founder of ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education), were two halves of the same pie chart. Although it is probable the two never met, each passionately sought to devise a distinct graphic design language to replace jargon and lay waste to an ever-growing Tower of Babel.
Neurath, a philosopher, scientist, sociologist, and political economist, could not actually make the signs and symbols he was known for. Likewise, Kahn was not an artist but he compensated nicely through his powers of logic. He also hired professionals to follow his dictates and expand his tastes.
Man of modernity
His graphic design preferences were eclectic and included such methods as photo-collage, painting, and drawing and styles like comic, surrealist, dada, and more. Kahn also embraced modernism and those responsible for it, and his own followers included the Bauhauslers Herbert Bayer and Walter Gropius. He avidly employed new technologies as visualization tools for explaining the invisible physical world, such as the senses of smell and sight.
One of his most illuminating diagrams, among the many, was “What Goes on in Our Heads When We See a Car and Say ‘Car’”—a complex orchestration of functions starting with the eye, imprinting a message on a filmstrip that leads to a projection booth, inhabited by a homunculus projecting a photo of the car onto a screen that relays this image to a second screen that displays the word ‘car.’ The message subsequently is broadcast to a pipe organ which then toots out the word. If only it really worked this way… Nonetheless, Kahn saw the process operating in this way and made his viewers see it the same.
The “Industriepalast” poster may be Kahn’s most emblematic work—it has certainly up until now been the most visible—but it is not the only noteworthy piece in an extensive oeuvre. Some of his work was more cartoon than diagram and more narrative than didactic. The incredible and fantastical tableau of the lone female homunculus riding on the cell while surfing the glandular cavity, for example, is reminiscent of Max Ernst’s later works, while there are also cellular landscapes that rival any science-fiction illustration where biological patterning is a leitmotif for visual storytelling.
The legacy of Kahn’s work has resonance now and this will continue into the future. The assembly of his little-known and lesserknown images in this book is nothing less than a treasure of conceptual thinking. After seeing the connections Kahn had made, it may be impossible to look at the human body or any similar composite structure in quite the same way again.