a briliant outcast
He was a German doctor, educator, popular science writer, and information graphics pioneer whose brilliant work has all but fallen into oblivion. In 2013, the TED Book Club jury has chosen the Fritz Kahn monograph as one of their top bi-monthly recommendations, meaning that the world’s most inspired thinkers as well as attendees of the two global annual TED conferences will receive the Kahn publication in February 2014. Through its decision, the jury acknowledges Fritz Kahn’s inspirational mind and his work as a pioneer of information design.
I came across his work when I spotted a poster on a Berlin wall (not The Wall!). The title Der Mensch als Industriepalast said it all. The drawing on the poster was a torso depicted as a machine-like mechanism explaining in a childlike fashion all the functions from breathing to eating and digesting. It would be perfect on every pre-school biology class wall.
Chased out of Germany by the Nazis, who banned and burned his books, Kahn emigrated to Palestine, then France, and finally the United States to continue his life's work. Though his achievements were numerous, the most notable was the development of creative visualizations to explain complex scientific ideas. His magnum opus “Das Leben des Menschen” (The Life of Man, 1922–1931) fascinated laymen as well as scientists with its visual analogies and metaphors and their unusually expressive and contemporary design.
Although he was tossed around from nation to nation after he had to leave Germany, he did come back. Together with his new life companion Fritz Kahn returned to Europe in 1956. He settled down in Switzerland, where he wrote the marriage guidebook “Muss Liebe blind sein?” (Must love be blind?) and a number of popular science booklets. After Kahn survived a dramatic earthquake in Morocco in 1960, he lived and worked in Denmark. He constantly developed new projects, but he published just one more book: “The Human Body”, a modern coffee-table book released in the USA in 1965. At the age of 79 the severely ill writer traveled to Ticino for hibernation. On January 14, 1968, Kahn died in a spa clinic in Locarno. His ashes were spread over Lake Maggiore.