by Emily Orr, Associate Curator and Acting Head of Product Design and Decorative Arts at Cooper Hewitt

Please join us for a members’ preview of the upcoming exhibition Give Me a Sign: The Language of Symbols on Friday May 12th, no RSVP required!

As you move through Cooper Hewitt’s first floor galleries, you will explore how symbols inspire activism and community, keep us safe, and represent who we are and what we believe in. You will even have the chance to design your own symbol for a place you love or a cause you care about.

Henry Dreyfuss Drawing a Symbol for the Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols, ca. 1971; Henry Dreyfuss Archive, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Image © Smithsonian Institution

This exhibition pulls inspiration from visionary designer Henry Deyfuss’s (American, 1904–1972) Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols. Published in 1972, this book contains symbols for 26 disciplines from astronomy and mathematics to music and photography. It compiled and categorized thousands of symbols in use internationally. Although it was developed over 50 years ago, this resource is still used by designers today!  The publication was celebrated as an “event with worldwide ramifications, very much in keeping with the man who created it—a man who not only sees change coming, but helps to usher it in.” Dreyfuss understood how symbols needed to function for people. He and his industrial design team placed symbols on products and services where we now take them for granted—on airplanes, cameras, telephones, tractors, and more. 


In Give Me a Sign the Symbol Sourcebook’s origin story is told for the first time through primary materials from Cooper Hewitt’s Henry Dreyfuss Archive. The book’s development is an engaging example of collaborative design. Dreyfuss worked closely with his staff and the public to collect thousands of symbols. These included designs for traffic signs, farm equipment, the Olympics, and more. Then hundreds were carefully selected to be re-drawn and featured in the book. The team consulted with many different users and designers to create a common visual system that could be shared around the world. The book includes a table of contents in 18 different languages! 

The research and publication team sent out a questionnaire called “Our Search for Symbols” to crowdsource ideas and help solve difficult symbol challenges, like designing a symbol for push and pull. Readers from all ages and backgrounds responded to the call. Submissions reflected the many perspectives of symbol users and the challenges of meeting the needs of a diverse public with a single design. Symbol users of all ages and backgrounds sent in suggestions with arrows, hands, and curious shapes. An eleven-year-old child submitted a design for push showing a person pushing a green wheelbarrow and a design for pull showing a person pulling a red and purple sleigh. 

The Symbol Sourcebook wasn’t meant to be the final say on symbols. In fact, Dreyfuss hoped that the project would inspire others to explore how important these tools are in our daily lives. In 1972, Dreyfuss reflected, “I hope that the countless people and organizations who have already contributed information will continue to do so, and that they will be joined by new enthusiasts who are introduced to the importance of symbols through this Sourcebook.” So, roll up your sleeves and get ready to get creative! We’re crowdsourcing for the next Symbol Sourcebook! What symbols do you use in your world?

Please enjoy the opportunity to design your own symbol in the exhibition and share your symbol ideas with us by posting them on social media and tagging @cooperhewitt with #SymbolSourcebook2024. 

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