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.

Signs of the Times: How the Symbol Sourcebook Works
Sue Perks explains the structure of the Symbol Sourcebook, along with Henry Dreyfuss's thinking behind much of the book's content.
Black-and-white photograph of three people standing around a table. A man wearing horn-rimmed reads and points to a sheet of paper.
Signs of the Times: Producing the Symbol Sourcebook
Looking at archival correspondence, Sue Perks charts the wide-reaching, collaborative process Henry Dreyfuss and his team undertook to create the Symbol Sourcebook.
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.
Our Search for Symbols
Symbols are important communication tools in our daily lives, constantly evolving based on new needs and users. Symbols have the power to instruct, protect, entertain, connect, and even divide us. From 1969 to 1972, the visionary designer Henry Dreyfuss (American, 1904–1972) oversaw the making of the Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols,...
Madeleine Moore-Burrell Documentary: So Good, So Far, 2015 (with visual decriptions)
In the mid-1960s, Madeleine Moore-Burrell began her career in industrial design at Henry Dreyfuss’s firm in New York City, where she was the only woman of color on staff. She contributed to the design of important new symbols for major clients including American Airlines, John Deere, Polaroid, and Singer Manufacturing Company. Her symbols for camera...
Madeleine Moore-Burrell Documentary: So Good, So Far, 2015
In the mid-1960s, Madeleine Moore-Burrell began her career in industrial design at Henry Dreyfuss’s firm in New York City, where she was the only woman of color on staff. She contributed to the design of important new symbols for major clients including American Airlines, John Deere, Polaroid, and Singer Manufacturing Company. Her symbols for camera...
What Emoji Are Missing from Your Keyboard? (with visual descriptions)
Emoji are picture-based characters that have transformed our online communication by instantly conveying details about who we are, how we are feeling, and what we believe in. The governing body Unicode Consortium annually approves and standardizes each new emoji, but anyone can submit a design. Watch and hear the stories of designers who have made...
What Emoji Are Missing from Your Keyboard?
Emoji are picture-based characters that have transformed our online communication by instantly conveying details about who we are, how we are feeling, and what we believe in. The governing body Unicode Consortium annually approves and standardizes each new emoji, but anyone can submit a design. Watch and hear the stories of designers who have made...