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Symbol Sourcebook

True to its name the Symbol Sourcebook is an extensive collection of symbols from different fields of life, science and industries.

In addition to that it offers analytic approaches to what symbols are and how they are used. Dreyfuss also introduces some iconic historical figures that have influenced the evolution of symbols, but mostly the book functions as an index of symbols. This text is a reference of some of most interesting points of the book.

There are 5000 languages in the world and hundreds of attempts have been made to develop a common international language to help intercommunication. The challenge of this has been that the language is always based on a single alphabet, usually Roman. This restricts their usefulness to a minority of nations. 

Dreyfuss visions a system based on symbols as the ultimate solution. He emphasizes that it is not another language, but a system that would be a supplement to all languages to help gain a faster and better understanding in specific fields. Dreyfuss gives music, mathematics and science as examples of such accepted systems that are adopted and interpreted regardless of language.

According to Dreyfuss languages evolved through man's need for more abstraction and subtler differences of degree in communication than symbols could provide. Now we have come full circle and need universally understandable means of communication. Meanwhile symbols have multiplied in number in such a degree that it needs to be addressed.  

Interface symbols and icons help solve the following problems:

  1. In emergency situations simple forms and colors can be understood more rapidly.
  2. Symbols can fit in a smaller space than written words.
  3. Symbols are essential in products that are distributed and shipped globally. Using text is no longer an option.

Dreyfuss recognizes three main types of graphic symbols:

  1. Representational - Fairly accurate simplified pictures of objects.
  2. Abstract - Reduce essential elements of message to graphic terms. Some abstract symbols might have once been representational, but they have become simplified to such a degree that they only exist as symbolic indications.
  3. Arbitrary - Symbols that are invented and therefore need to be learned to be understood.

The book quotes a piece of text by Charles K. Bliss, B.Sc. (1897–1985). The inventor of Semantography and Blissymbols. Semantography claimed to be a writing system that is not dependent of any language. It is a library of symbols that can be used to construct almost any sentence or concept. The text makes a reference to Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz (1646-1716), one of the developers of calculus and a pioneer of mechanical calculators, who already dreamt of such a system in the 17th century.

Dreyfuss also introduces the reader to Otto Neurath's ISOTYPE system. Otto Neurath's theory was that pictures are a better manner of communication than words at least in the early stages of learning. Neurath devised techniques for the design and application of pictograms used for communication.

The system was named ISOTYPE, short for International System Of TYpographic Picture Education. Neurath's system doesn't go quite a far as that of Bliss but its elements are more detailed, depictive and perhaps practical. 

The book also introduces a set of basic symbols, "an alphabet of symbols" and how background shapes, colors and pictograms are combined for instance in traffic signs to communicate different things. Systems such as this are like a grammar for the language of symbols.

Dreyfuss also unveils some interesting historical facts such as, how the function of symbols in shop signs was traditionally to tell illiterate people and people who don't understand the local language what the store has to offer.

Another interesting section is the explanation of how the peace sign was born. It was introduced by the pacifist Lord Bertrand Russell during the Easter of 1958, while he was marching for nuclear disarmament in Aldermaston, England. It is suggested that the symbol consists of the letter N (=nuclear) and D (=disarmament) in the semaphore alphabet, which is the system for signaling with flags used in the maritime world. The letters are surround by a circle that stands for complete, worldwide or total.



Dreyfuss, H. (1972). Symbol Sourcebook. New York. McGraw-Hill.

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