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Sue Perks

Sue is a graphic designer, writer, researcher and educator. Her research interests are based around archives and build on themes from her doctoral thesis on the legacy of the principles of Isotype. Sue’s current research is based in the Henry Dreyfuss Symbol Sourcebook Archive at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.

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As a graphic design student at Leicester Polytechnic from 1978-81. I was aware of a substantial red book of symbols on the library shelf, but I had no idea how important this book would become in my life 30 years on, or that it would kick start The Symbol Group!

I was re-introduced to Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook in about 2010 while researching archival material for my PhD in the Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection at University of Reading. One of my case studies involved a 1959 feasibility study for the creation of a symbol dictionary that involved Marie Neurath, Rudolf Modley and Henry Dreyfuss. Sadly, it was yet another unsuccessful attempt (the first in in the 1940s, followed by several more) to complete such an ambitious symbol dictionary project, something that had been foxing designers interested in communication through symbols (along with the possibility that symbols could be the answer to breaking language barriers) for many years, but none had been successful, until industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss published his Symbol Sourcebook in 1972 – the culmination of a life’s work with symbols, a project he intended to work on during his retirement.

The Isotype Collection didn’t contain any more correspondence between Marie Neurath and Henry Dreyfuss after 1960 and I assumed the project had been resigned to history; the only legacy as far as Dreyfuss was concerned being the two-page section on Isotype that appears in the Symbol Sourcebook. But it wasn’t until fellow Symbol Group founder Wibo Bakker found letters relating to the 1959 project in the Henry Dreyfuss Symbol Sourcebook archive at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, that I realised that Marie Neurath had been consulted in 1968 by Symbol Sourcebook Project manager Paul Clifton regarding the classification methods adopted for the 1959 project. That archival find in 2016 has resulted (to date) in three visits to the Symbol Sourcebook archive, several papers and conference presentations in places as N.I.D. in Ahmedabad, India, and ICTVC in Greece in 2016, 2019 and 2022.

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Dreyfuss’ work with symbols has provided the spark that has ignited the formation of The Symbol Group and our plans for staging biennial symposia, beginning with our inaugural symposium on

7 & 8 October 2022 ‘Symbol ’22: Dreyfuss at 50” which will explore Dreyfuss’ legacy, 50 years since the publishing of the book in 1972. What started as a utopian idea over a few drinks with Wibo Bakker and K J Hepworth at ICTVC in Nicosia in 2016 to create a contemporary version of the computerised symbol data bank that Dreyfuss dreamed about in the 1960s, has grown into an extensive body of writing, a celebration of the 50 th anniversary of the publishing of the book, the formation of The Symbol Group, and an exhibition ‘Give me a Sign: The Power of Symbols’ opening in April 2023 at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. Katherine sadly couldn’t continue with the project, but before leaving she introduced us to Jason Forrest our third founder member.


UCA have had huge faith in my research and awarded me three travel grants to visit the Symbol Sourcebook archive, where I got to know Emily Orr 


and Pam Horn who have been so generous with their time and ideas in facilitating my visits to the archive. Developing this fruitful relationship has culminated in UCA awarding a Knowledge Exchange grant for Cooper Hewitt can make a video on Dreyfuss’ work with symbols. For this, I am eternally grateful to Dr Tracy Crowther and Dr Amer Alwarea in UCA’s Research Office who have been instrumental in helping to shape The Symbol Group project and biennial symposia concept – based on rotating symbol related themes. I would also like to thank Pam Holaday, one of Dreyfuss’ original team members from 1970 – 1971 who I had the great pleasure of meeting in Pasadena in March 2022 - who drew the majority of the symbols for the Symbol Sourcebook – you did a great job Pam! Thanks to, (as always) my partner Jeff Willis for The Symbol Group identity, Bhavisha Patel for her patience and expertise designing our website and Martin Foessleitner for promoting and organising ‘Symbol ’22’ in association with IIID.


I’d particularly like to thank my inspirational founder member colleagues Wibo Bakker, Jason Forrest for going along with the journey and fitting in the challenging birth of The Symbol Group around their busy schedules (and indulging in symbol conversations as often as we could along the way!) Our first online symposium ‘Symbol ’22: Symbol Sourcebook at 50’ on 7 & 8 October 2022 is being realised due to funding from Information Design Association. It will be brought to life by an incredible group of Keynote speakers – seeing you all on the same call a few months back was a truly astonishing experience and I can’t wait for Symbol ’22 to happen! Finally, thank you Henry Dreyfuss and your Symbol Sourcebook team for an amazing project and for showing me real graphic design history viewed on a day-to-day basis through the correspondence in your archive – it will be a source of fascination for me for many years to come!

Copy of the Symbol Sourcebook in Sue Perks' home library

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Steve Jobs with Henry Drefuss Symbol Sourcebook in the background


Hans Dieter Reichert with Symbol Sourcebook

Source: Izzy Reichert 


Nigel Holmes with Symbol Sourcebook

Source: Nigel Holmes

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