The History of the Stick Figure

In our overcrowded visual culture, perhaps there’s nothing as basic and uncluttered as a simple stick figure. But don’t let their unfussiness fool you; the saga of the stick figure is rich and diverse.

The first petroglyphs appeared 50,000 years ago in caves found in Europe, Africa, and Australasia. Archeologists now claim these pictographs carried magical and religious meaning. But stick figure drawings have modern significance too.


In the 1920’s, Otto Neurath, part of the Vienna Circle of philosophers, developed a system he called ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education.) Neurath’s idea was to represent quantitative and qualitative information with easily recognized symbols to help grownups and children interpret their world. He described his work as a “helping language” and a “visual education.”


The next big jump in stick figure design was at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics where Masaru Katzumie and Yoshiro Yamashita began the initial steps in creating the first international pictograms. These designs were taken further in the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics when Otl Aicher designed the rounded, geometric stick figures still in use today.


One of Aicher’s stick figure designs from those Olympics, one is seen by millions now each and every day:


Soon afterward, the U.S. Department of Transportation hired the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) to develop signs so people of different languages could understand the rules of the road.


Much like Neurath’s focus on “visual education” the main character Derek in my novels MY LIFE AS A BOOK, MY LIFE AS A STUNTBOY, and MY LIFE AS A CARTOONIST draws stick figures to learn his vocabulary words. My son Jake learned his vocabulary words this way and illustrates the series. His stick figure cartoons may look rudimentary but like Neurath’s work, they communicate vast amounts of information in just a few lines. I’d even argue that Jake’s illustrations convey more than information but emotion too. Here, a stick figure illustration for the word OVERWHELMED:


I remember the pang of recognition when Jake first showed me this drawing, recalling how many situations I’d felt as overwhelmed and inundated as this stick figure is. Not a simple feeling at all.

I’m happy we’ve created a series that uses a visual language to reach children, employing a system of communication going back tens of thousands of years.

And words? We like those too.

Posted on July 14, 2013
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Janet Tashjian
c/o Christy Ottaviano Books
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