Written by Dr. Sue Perks
In conjunction with the exhibition Give Me a Sign: The Language of Symbols, designer and researcher Sue Perks offers an expansive look into the Henry Dreyfuss Archive held at Cooper Hewitt. The archive contains detailed documentation on Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols, which serves as the basis for the exhibition.
From 1970 to 1972, the final design phase of the Symbol Sourcebook was completed, and the first edition was published on January 11, 1972. Henry Dreyfuss and his wife and business partner, Doris Marks Dreyfuss (fig. 1), were both in their late 60s and considered the project—to design a book on symbols and set up a symbol Data Bank—as a creative endeavour for their retirement. It was a project that Dreyfuss had been quietly working on for the previous twenty years, having handed over the running of his industrial design company Henry Dreyfuss & Associates to Donald Genaro in New York in 1969 (when it became Henry Dreyfuss Associates). The completed Symbol Sourcebook contained approximately 3,000 symbols, mostly drawn by hand, the majority by Pamela Holaday over an 18-month period from mid 1970 to late 1971 (fig. 2). But the book itself forms the tip of a design-research iceberg underpinned by the 21.5 linear feet of material that makes up the Symbol Sourcebook portion of Cooper Hewitt’s Henry Dreyfuss Archive. It comprises many thousands of working documents, correspondence, and evidence of the design process, donated by Dreyfuss to Cooper Hewitt in 1972 (fig. 3). The archive demonstrates how symbol information was collected, cataloged, and processed to provide a comprehensive description of the origins and meanings behind each symbol, and it forms a snapshot of a fascinating time in US design history when graphic design was evolving as a creative discipline.
Archival material from 1968 to 1972 illustrates how the project was progressing and the sense of urgency that prevailed as the team went into the final artwork phase in 1971. Asking organizations and individuals for symbol contributions and managing the replies was an astonishing feat of administrative genius, all done using US mail, airmail, cables, conference calls, and telegrams (fig. 4). The correspondence was always friendly and, when possible, stated who had referred the team (fig. 5). If a reply came back offering symbols or information, it was quickly answered. Some correspondence trails are lengthy, while some are short, where organizations fail to get in touch. Dreyfuss wrote in pencil on one such letter “If they don’t respond they might be dead”—which shows both the humour and the frustration evident, especially if there was a dearth of symbols in some of the disciplines. Letters also ask for a response even if the recipients are not able to help, so that no time was wasted following up unproductive leads. But not all leads were pursued, and sometimes unsuitable material came forward, which needed to be courteously managed with a final letter. Correspondence from a few eccentrics does appear in the archive, as do requests for symbols sent to some surprising quarters: the Church of Latter-Day Saints (who could offer no symbols) and Playboy, from which Dreyfuss was checking for deeper meanings behind the rabbit trademark (fig.6) (he received no reply). There is also reference to a teacher of home economics who had invented her own set of symbols to teach knitting to Inuit. The lead was pursued, but pencil notes on the correspondence suggest the symbols may be too obscure to be included. They do not appear in the Symbol Sourcebook!
The need for prompt replies grew as the January 1972 print deadline from McGraw-Hill, the book’s publisher, neared. Final correspondence requested permission to reproduce every one of the 3,000+ symbols in the Symbol Sourcebook and in future editions and related material. Selected bibliographies were compiled for each area of research, which included publications covering symbols from each discipline. Dreyfuss used this technique to express his recognition of important contributors rather than attempting the almost impossible task of identifying the original source of each symbol.
The archive tells a detailed story of the lengths that Dreyfuss and his team (headed by project manager Paul Clifton) went to in their symbol research. It also contains the remnants of Dreyfuss’s symbol Data Bank, along with all the working papers, research material, and design development dummies for the Symbol Sourcebook. With the support of the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, contract archivists carefully cataloged the material alphabetically to include organizations, businesses, and design consultants; the majority was the result of Dreyfuss and his team’s brilliant work in sending out thousands of Symbol Questionnaires from 1970 onward (fig. 7). Recipients were asked if they used “instructional” symbols (defined as those that would stand instead of a caption) in their practice. Many confused instructional symbols with company trademarks, even though correspondence specifically highlights the difference repeatedly.
The final correspondence in the archive is in response to “A Plea for more Symbols,” which appears on the frontispiece of the first edition of the Symbol Sourcebook and in which Dreyfuss asks readers to keep sending symbols to be added to the Data Bank, which in January 1972 remained open. Contributions were indeed forthcoming, some received after the deaths of Dreyfuss and Marks in October 1972. It’s sad to see acknowledgment letters sent out in response to these late symbol contributions, informing recipients of the pair’s demise.
The complex web of correspondence contained in the archive leaves the viewer astonished that the final phase of the Symbol Sourcebook project came to fruition in less than two years. It was possible as a feat of endurance and total dedication from a small and committed team.
Dr. Sue Perks is a designer, archival researcher, and writer on Isotype, museum design, and Henry Dreyfuss’s work with symbols. She was awarded a PhD from University of Reading in 2013. She regularly presents at international design conferences and co-founded The Symbol Group in 2022.
The exhibition Give Me a Sign: The Language of Symbols is on display at Cooper Hewitt through September 2, 2024.
 What was to finally become the Symbol Sourcebook had many titles over the years, but from 1968 through 1969 it was described as “an International Dictionary of Symbols.” Originally, in 1960, it was known as “A Dictionary of Graphic Symbols/the symbol project”; in 1968 it was “The Symbol Project/international dictionary of symbols”; in 1970 the name was “The Symbol Compendium”; and in 1971 it became “The International Dictionary of Symbols.”
Some funding contributed by the Design History Society Research Publication Grant.