Give Me a Sign: The Language of Symbols examines the fascinating histories behind many of the symbols that instruct, protect, entertain, empower, and connect people. As important communication tools in our daily lives, symbols are constantly evolving based on new needs and users. They formed some of the first written human expressions and today animate our digital chats.

This exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols (1972), a manual that compiled and categorized thousands of symbols in use internationally and helped to elevate the importance of symbols and increase their number in our world. The origin story of the Symbol Sourcebook—told in the exhibition for the first time through primary materials from Cooper Hewitt’s Henry Dreyfuss Archive—has inspired us to look at symbols now and explore their evolution and future.

EXHIBITION HIGHLIGHTS

Symbol Sourcebook 2024

In the collaborative spirit of the Symbol Sourcebook, which Dreyfuss intended to expand with the creation of new symbols, visitors are invited to design symbols and participate in creative activities in-gallery and online to co-create a Symbol Sourcebook of 2024. Share your symbol designs with us by posting them on social media and tagging @cooperhewitt with #SymbolSourcebook2024.

Verbal Description Audio Tour

Experience an audio-only version of Give Me a Sign: The Language of Symbols. This audio tour is designed to be an independent experience for blind and low vision visitors. Listeners will be able to hear all of the information presented in the exhibition, along with in-depth verbal descriptions of the images and objects on display. The tour also provides directional information to help listeners find their way through the galleries.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The exhibition was curated by Emily M. Orr, Associate Curator and Acting Head of Product Design and Decorative Arts at Cooper Hewitt, with Adriana Burkins, STEAM Program Manager, Bronx Children’s Museum, and with support from Cooper Hewitt Curatorial Fellows Arpie Gennetian and Uttara Nanavati, and former Interaction Lab Director, Rachel Ginsberg.

Exhibition and graphic design by Studio Matthews.

SUPPORT

Give Me a Sign: The Language of Symbols is made possible with generous support from the Marks Family Foundation Endowment Fund.

Page from the book the Symbol Sourcebook showing black text and black and grey imagery on a white background; “HOME ECONOMICS” at top left with “Dressmaking and Tailoring” below to indicate three rows of symbols including a pair of pants with two parallel stripes on the left leg with “TAKE IN PANTS LEG” below.
Signs of the Times: Questions for Vogue
Henry Dreyfuss worked to get the Symbol Sourcebook promoted on the pages of the magazine to an unexpected result.
Give Me a Sign: The Language of Symbols Curator Tour
In this guided tour of Give Me a Sign: The Language of Symbols, visitors will discover the stories behind symbols from the STOP sign to the laugh-cry emoji and learn about how symbols play a critical and ubiquitous role in everyday life. As communication tools designed to break language barriers, symbols instruct, protect, entertain, connect, and communicate beliefs. Tour led by the exhibition’s curator, Emily Orr, Associate Curator and Acting Head of Product Design and Decorative Arts.
Signs of the Times: Context Is Everything
Sue Perks analyzes the various symbols that have stood for "poison" or "danger" and proves that in communication design context is everything.
A white, rounded-square ashtray featuring a red outline of a triangle with a black vertical line in it.
Signs of the Times: Neiman Marcus’s Symbol Merchandise
As part of a broad promotional push for the Symbol Sourcebook, Henry Dreyfuss worked with Neiman Marcus to produce a bold selection of merchandise related to symbols.
Page one of a handwritten timeline on yellow line paper with text written neatly in black with red underlining. Full transcript of the document at the bottom of the webpage.
Signs of the Times: Symbol Sourcebook Chronology
Paul Clifton, project manager of the Symbol Sourcebook, compiled a chronology documenting key moments in the development of the project.
A horizontal poster titled [Henry Dreyfuss Symbol Sourcebook 1972] featuring a black and white checkered grid of symbols with red accents.
Virtual Verbal Description Tour – Give Me a Sign
Join us for a virtual tour of Cooper Hewitt’s current exhibition, Give Me A Sign: The Language of Symbols, co-led by curator Emily Orr and Accessibility & Inclusion Manager Kirsten Sweeney.
A horizontal poster titled [Henry Dreyfuss Symbol Sourcebook 1972] featuring a black and white checkered grid of symbols with red accents.
Verbal Description Tour & Tactile Drawing Workshop – Give Me a Sign
Join us for a tour of Cooper Hewitt’s current exhibition, Give Me A Sign: The Language of Symbols, co-led by curator Emily Orr and Accessibility & Inclusion Manager Kirsten Sweeney in collaboration with the NYPL Heiskell Braille & Talking Book Library.
Grid of various symbols appearing largely in black and white, with a few symbols marked in red.
Behind the Scenes: Give Me a Sign
Join us to discover how the Symbol Sourcebook has challenged us to look at the importance of symbols now and explore their evolution and future. Tour the Give Me a Sign exhibition and design your own symbol with curator Emily M. Orr. Explore selections from Cooper Hewitt’s Henry Dreyfuss Archive with former curatorial fellow Arpie Gennetian in the Drue Heinz Study Center. Enjoy this unique opportunity to dive deeper into design history through drawings, writings, and more!
Signs of the Times: Interview with Pam Holaday
Sue Perks interviews Pam Holaday, member of the Symbol Sourcebook team who drew the majority of the symbols.