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The Symbol Sourcebook

08 Jun 2018
My 1972 copy of the Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfuss on my desk

My secondhand copy of Henry Dreyfuss’s ‘Symbol Sourcebook’ is one of the most used reference books on my shelf. This is the book that Susan Kare used for inspiration when working on the original Macintosh icons, and it’s just as useful today. Henry Dreyfuss was the American indsutrial designer whose work includes the Hoover model 150, Polaroid SX-70 Land camera, but also this reference work that he wrote in 1972 (the book is exactly as old as me).

It’s an exhuastive collection of symbols that are grouped in two ways. The first section is by category/industry, such as ‘Agriculture’

The second section groups all the symbols again, but by their graphic form. In this example, all the triangle-based icons:

This makes it an enourmously useful resource. Some of these symbols are no longer in use, and of course there have been many more since it’s publication. I would love someone to update this, but it’s probably too big a task!

Something that particularly dated the book was this mini-essay entitled ‘Whirligig’:


“Time is bound to erase the association of the swastika with the Nazi Holocaust. Then one of the most distinctive of graphic symbols will be absolved of it’s latter day stigma and it’s early meanings will be again be known.”

Henry was very optimistic back in 1972, but I fear that 46 years later we’re no further away from that connotation.

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