Gerd Arntz web archive

The official fan site… here’s a brief description from the colophon:

This informative and educational website is initiated by the Ontwerpwerk design bureau in close cooperation with Peter Arntz, son of Gerd Arntz, and the Municipal Museum of The Hague, administrator of the Gerd Arntz archive.

Ignite2 Portland

I’ll be presenting “a history of the stick figure” at Ignite Portland 2, Tuesday February 5th at the Bagdad Theatre. Doors open at 5:15.

You see him everywhere – hanging around bathrooms, loitering at construction sites, and perpetually crossing the street. The ubiquitous stick figure. That little, iconic, round-headed fellow on signs that makes us think twice before taking the wrong door, or helps us so we don’t really need to think at all. But where did he come from?

We’ll take a look at the origins of the stick figure from post-WWI Vienna to his current status as a cultural icon. It’s a fascinating tale of war, industry, society, and the development of a visual symbol that has evolved to represent all of us.

The stick figure’s tailor

December 11, 2007


Gerd Arntz, Dec 11, 1900 – 1988, was the lead designer of Otto Neurath’s ISOTYPE Institute (the International System of Typographic Picture Education, 1936-1945). The Institute used “speaking signs” to visually convey complex statistical information, and made it accessible to the general public through museum installations and printed publications.

It would be fair to credit Neurath with the invention of the modern “stick figure” as seen in today’s street crossings, rest rooms and construction signs, as he was the first to develop a method of using the human form as a surrogate representation for statistical information. But if Neurath was indeed the father, Arntz was the stick man’s tailor. Under Arntz’s influence, early naturalistic representations gave way to flat, less individual and more abstract designs, eventually becoming the elements of a visual dictionary.

Design features of language

November 27, 2007


Language is a complex skill that allows people to communicate an enormous number of messages using arbitrary symbols. Although some would argue that the use of language is central to defining humanity, the term “language” itself can be somewhat difficult to define.

Linguistic theorist Charles Hockett described sixteen design characteristics which he believed were central to human language. Some of the more important characteristics are displacement, arbitrariness, semanticity, and productivity.

Displacement is the ability to use language to discuss things removed in space and time (for instance, you could talk about events that happened last month in Finland).

Arbitraryness refers to the symbolic nature of language. The sounds, symbols, or signs we use to represent ideas or objects are completely arbitrary (for instance, the word “dog” doesn’t sound like a dog or look like a dog when written, it just represents a dog).

Semanticity is the meaning we then assign to these arbitrary symbols. Words and pictures have shared meaning that communicate ideas between people.

Productivity describes the creativity of language. We can create and understand a vast number of unique sentences because we can combine and recombine words using an agreed upon system of rules. For example, “the dog is melting quietly in the boardroom” is a weird statement, but since it’s structured as a sentence its meaning is clearly understood. If asked, most people would be able to describe exactly what it is the dog is doing.