Dusting off the ol' Symbol Sourcebook

I always seem to be a bit behind in my television viewing. The availability of DVD packages of current highly-rate shows, and the number of recordings on my best friend TiVo, contribute to my tardiness in keeping up with the rest of the world.

A few weeks ago, I joined millions of others in becoming addicted to the AMC offering Mad Men. The program conveys an incredible, and visually stimulating, image of the advertising profession - one that I may have had in my mind when beginning my advertising studies in college back in the 1970's.

In watching multiple first season shows to catch up with the story line, one small graphic image stood out for me in the episode "The Hobo Code." In the program, a young Don Draper is befriended by a hobo who is working on the family home in exchange for a meal. In a conversation, the hobo teaches the boy about the chalk codes that hobos write on the houses they pass. When the hobo leaves the next morning, the young boy notices that on the gate to his own home is a picture of a knife: a dishonest man lives here.

This past week I was viewing some of the programs on my TiVo "Now Playing" list. CBS Sunday Morning is one of the programs I hate to miss - and I'm usually a few weeks behind in my viewing. The particular program I was watching had a feature, by reporter Bill Geist, on modern day hobos. These hobos were attending the 2008 Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. Coincidently, the primary focus of the feature was a man whose hobo nickname is "Adman."

Geist visited the National Hobo Museum in the piece. One of the visuals shown was a collection of the graphic hobo code symbols, referred to in the "Mad Men" episode.

I knew I'd seen this imagery before, but couldn't immediately remember where. I suddenly remembered a book - with a red, black and white cover - in my collection of nearly 400 design volumes. The graphic "hobo code" was featured (above) in the Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols, by iconic industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss.

Originally published in 1972, Symbol Sourcebook was a required resource as part of my design studies - when I was taught that, as designers, we had an obligation to design with a purpose and that was not to simply "make things pretty." The book was important in understanding the historical perspective of signs and symbols, what the graphic imagery could convey, and the messages transmitted by specific color selctions. My copy of the book is the 1984 paperback version. However, the iconography and design element information in the volume is still incredibly relevant today.

It's been some time since I flipped through the pages of the book, one of many sign, symbol and shape references in my personal design library. I'm pleased that two sightings of the "hobo code" caused me to revisit Symbol Sourcebook. I highly recommend that every designer have a copy in their own collection.

© 2008 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives

1 comment:

Christian Messer said...

What a great story - to lead you to revisit that book, one that I should ad to my library I'm sure. As visual people we often have these moments of "Where have I seen that before?" It is more often than not that this question turns into a hunt and subconscious sleuthing, to at the end have a pleasant ending.