With Dan Brown‘s The Lost Symbol flying off bookstore shelves, we got to thinking about lesser known symbols, those that are usually recognized only within specific disciplines or have been lost to the ages. Famed industrial designer (and symbol junkie) Henry Dreyfuss and his staff once assembled a database of 20,000 symbols that served as raw material for the Symbol Sourcebook. Originally published in 1972 and now available from Wiley, the book still lives up to its subtitle—”An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols”—and comes complete with a wacky foreword by Buckminster Fuller. By focusing on “functional, instructive graphic symbols” and omitting alphabets, numbers, emblems, and logos, Dreyfuss created a visual reference that remains valuable and inspirational to designers—or anyone who might be curious about the universal symbol for everything from apricots to zeppelins.
We asked design historian Russell Flinchum, author of the authoritative biography of Dreyfuss, to shed some light on the Symbol Sourcebook. “The origins began with a desire to label John Deere and National Supply Co. (oil drilling equipment) with standard international labels that wouldn’t have to be changed from country to country, thus saving much time and effort,” he explained. The symbol gathering was primarily a joint project of Dreyfuss and hiw wife, Doris, who worked closely with Paul Clifton, the main designer on the project. “It began with a mass mailing of every organization involved with symbols they could think of, then collating this information and boiling it down to standard appearances.” Dreyfuss used the same approach in preparing The Measure of Man, the pioneering ergonomic reference manual published in 1960.