Universality through Visual Symbols

Lee Davis

The decades following World War II were years of growing international cooperation, telecommunication, trade, and air travel, but they were also an era of heightened conflict, nuclear proliferation, political division, racial inequity, and environmental degradation. With increasing globalization, new channels and methods of communication were necessary if cross-cultural communication, international cooperation, mutual understanding, and peace were to be achieved.

The decades following World War II were years of growing international cooperation, telecommunication, trade, and air travel, but they were also an era of heightened conflict, nuclear proliferation, political division, racial inequity, and environmental degradation. With increasing globalization, new channels and methods of communication were necessary if cross-cultural communication, international cooperation, mutual understanding, and peace were to be achieved.

In the summer of 1968, American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978) and Austrian-American graphic designer Rudolf Modley (1906–1976) called for a system of universally understood pictographic symbols, or “glyphs,” with the goal of facilitating worldwide communication. The need for such glyphs was so urgent, they argued, that without them “hungry, frightened, confused people will continue to . . . contribute to the situation and hostility in which many human communities live today.”[1] Universal, unambiguous symbols, they believed, would immediately provoke “visual thinking” and help overcome the current “chaos” of communication in international travel, trade, health and safety, scientific research, and intercultural relations.

This rather utopian idea might have been dismissed as fantastical had its principal author not been Mead, a renowned cultural anthropologist and international peace advocate. Together Mead and Modley founded a nonprofit, Glyphs Inc., and endeavored for over a decade, until 1976, to build it into an international, coordinated movement to promote and develop a universal system of graphic symbols. They were allied in the belief that communication was at the heart of the problem in national and ideological conflicts (the Cold War, the Vietnam War, environmental degradation) and in cross-cultural relations (international trade, travel, cross-disciplinary scientific research).

Mead’s growing fascination with signs and symbols was evident as early as the 1930s and 1940s, during and after World War II. Her writings on cross-cultural communication and visual anthropology—most notably her 1947 article “The Application of Anthropological Techniques to Cross-National Communication”—laid the philosophical groundwork for Glyphs Inc. two decades later.[2] She is credited with coining the term semiotics in 1962 to denote the study of “patterned communication in all modalities.”[3] In 1964 she called upon the United Nations Committee for the International Cooperation Year to create a system of universally recognized graphic symbols. Mead pointed to the tremendous “social and economic fragmentation” and the lamentable “state of communication” of the world and the urgency to save humankind from nuclear annihilation.[4] What was needed, she believed, was a “new, shared culture,” a common ground that would align and synchronize humankind in order to achieve worldwide intelligibility.[5] She proposed the development of a new, universal second language alongside an international system of visual communication to be learned by every child: “What is needed, internationally, is a set of glyphs which does not refer to any single phonological system or to any specific cultural system of images but will, instead, form a system of visual signs with universally recognized referents.”[6]

Mead saw a critical role for anthropologists in ensuring that the design of glyphs acknowledged and incorporated diverse cultural references and styles. In her foundational 1969 article “Anthropology and Glyphs,” she argued that there are no naturally universal symbols:

It is important to insist that there are no universal symbols, although there are many widely distributed symbols which are based on widely distributed artifacts (like the arrow) and widely distributed forms of representation (like the sun). As long as anyone believes that human beings naturally “follow the arrow,” treat red as a signal of danger, think a skull and crossbones means poison, or express negation by a head shake, we will be seriously prevented from accomplishing an urgent international enterprise.[7]

Mead realized that creating a universal visual language would require more than anthropologists. She envisioned a global interdisciplinary effort involving “the clearest minds in every field of the humanities, the sciences, the arts, engineering, and politics.”[8] She found in Modley a unique and ardent design ally. Born and educated in Vienna, he spent his high school and university years working alongside Otto Neurath, the inventor of the International System of Typographic Picture Education (ISOTYPE), a method of pictorial statistics.[9] He emigrated to the United States and in 1934 established Pictorial Statistics, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to promoting and developing ISOTYPE-like pictographs for government and corporate use and for application in education and public information.

In a 1959 keynote speech to the Art Directors Club in New York, Modley called for the creation of a new science, the science of symbology: “We need symbols which can bring closer to us the newly revealed aspects of nature and the increasingly complex workings of our social and economic world.”[10] Modley had strong opinions about the attributes of effective glyphs, writing in a memorandum to designers in 1965 that “good graphic symbols are simple and concise.”[11] He argued for a uniformity of design, relying on image- or concept-related symbols, and he suggested a system of basic building blocks for glyphs. Like Mead he believed that universality could only be achieved if designers developed a deeper understanding of cultural context: “The designer will be faced by many . . . problems which require thorough acquaintance with the modes of work, the habits of thought, the religious, political, and cultural patterns before he can design a truly valid symbol.”[12] He challenged standardization efforts that were culture or industry specific and argued that a symbol such as the crossed fork and knife, for example, was “unacceptable as a ‘universal’ symbol of food” because it failed to recognize cultural context.[13]

Modley, like Mead, also recognized that the process of creating glyphs would require disciplines and expertise beyond his own: “Designers alone are not able to solve these problems,” he wrote. “The task requires the combined efforts of psychologists, linguists, educators, anthropologists, sociologists, lawyers, engineers, designers, and many others. The need is so important that we cannot afford to take hasty and inadequate measures, but we should not delay in undertaking this essential task.”[14]

Mead and Modley believed that the biggest obstacle to universal symbol development was the lack of global coordination. More organizations and agencies were realizing the need for graphic symbols and developing them on their own, without international coordination and cooperation. Mead and Modley advocated instead for an “intensive transnational and interdisciplinary effort” by the world’s governments and scientific and business communities to develop a standardized and universal visual system.[15] Facilitating this global coordination was the principle mission of Glyphs Inc. According to Mead and Modley, the organization “does not design symbols but acts merely in an advisory capacity to others interested in the same objectives.”[16] They identified three priorities: compiling a symbol archive and dictionary of graphic symbols organized according to a graphic classification system; assembling a transnational, interdisciplinary effort concerned with determining those symbols most urgently needed, specifying their graphic characteristics, and evaluating and testing them against a set of generally accepted norms and working hypotheses; and engaging in a worldwide education effort to promote, adopt, and teach glyphs as widely as the alphabet and numerals.

These efforts gained momentum in the late 1960s and early 1970s through Mead and Modley’s writing and speaking engagements and Modley’s participation in international standardization committees and commissions among governments and industry, principally in Europe and the United States. In 1966, Glyphs Inc. began publishing a quarterly newsletter documenting its output.

As their efforts shifted from ideas into practice, the magnitude of the undertaking became evident. Mead and Modley faced increased criticism and competition, and they struggled with funding shortages and limited capacity. The challenges of realization were especially evident in the organization’s flagship undertaking, the planned exhibition Glyphs for World Communication in 1966–67. Mead and Modley called upon designers and design schools around the world to participate in a collaborative effort to develop a limited number of universally usable graphic symbols related to specific, predetermined applications in industry, travel, and trade. Proposals were received from twenty-seven designers from nine countries and were reviewed by a panel of design jurors representing eight countries. Although they were offered a gallery in the Time-Life building in New York, the exhibition was never realized and the submitted glyphs never published, due in part to insufficient funds. After reviewing the submissions, Modley noted, the jurors “felt that publication of the designs at this time would not contribute to the furtherance of universal graphic symbols. . . . Extensive preparatory study by experts in many disciplines must be undertaken before design work on glyph ‘candidates’ can be fruitfully started by designers.”[17]

Modley died in 1976, and Glyphs Inc. quickly faded from Mead’s list of priorities. Just before his death, Modley completed his Handbook of Pictorial Symbols, a mammoth undertaking compiling 3,250 pictorial symbols “representing every facet of human existence, from having a baby to committing suicide.”[18] But the two had not achieved their collective vision of a viable system of universal graphic symbols. They acknowledged that this goal was a daunting one: it had taken thousands of years to develop the world’s existing alphabets.

Lee Davis

Lee Davis is an author, designer, educator, and social entrepreneur. He is co-director of the Center for Social Design at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and co-chair of the Winterhouse Institute.

On a letterhead with the logo “GLYPHS INC.”, nine black and white, graphic symbols depict skulls, lighting, and other severe shapes. The words “danger radio-activity” appear beneath the logo.

Proposals for a glyph indicating dangerous levels of radioactivity, submitted in response to Glyphs for World Communication, an international call for designs in twenty categories, 1966–67. Margaret Mead Papers and South Pacific Ethnographic Archives, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Washington, DC.

On a letterhead with the logo “GLYPHS INC.”, nine black and white, graphic symbols depict flames and starbursts. The words “fire alarms” appear beneath the logo.

The competition called for glyphs visually communicating a range of concepts, including proposals for a glyph denoting “fire alarm,” 1966–67. Margaret Mead Papers and South Pacific Ethnographic Archives, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Washington, DC.

A magazine spread with the title “Communication Among All People, Everywhere” above four columns of text and a red-outlined shape that swoops across the spread and contains varies black and red icons.

Spread from Mead and Modley’s only jointly written article, “Communication among All People, Everywhere,” Natural History 77, no. 7 (August–September 1968). Courtesy of The National Museum of Natural History Library, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.

A moss green book cover with the title, in white text, “HANDBOOK OF PICTORIAL SYMBOLS: 3,250 Examples from International Sources”. Thirteen round or square icons in green, orange, yellow, and purple surround the title and depict various imagery, such as hands, an envelope, a rabbit, and an airplane.

Rudolph Modley. Handbook of Pictorial Symbols: 3,250 Examples from International Sources. New York: Dover, 1976. Cover design by Kiffi Diamond. Image courtesy of Dover Publications.


[1] Margaret Mead and Rudolf Modley, “Communication among All People, Everywhere,” in Natural History 77, no. 7 (August–September 1968): 57. The author is indebted to the archivists and librarians at the Library of Congress (Margaret Mead papers and South Pacific Ethnographic Archives) and the Rockefeller Archive Center for their patience and professionalism in supporting this research.

[2] Mead, “The Application of Anthropological Techniques to Cross-National Communication,” Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences 9, no. 4 (February 1947).

[3] Mead, “Vicissitudes of the Study of the Total Communication Process,” in Thomas Albert Sebeok, ed., Approaches to Semiotics (Boston: Mouton & Co., 1972): 277–88.

[4] Mead, “The Future as the Basis for Establishing a Shared Culture,” Daedalus 94, no. 1 (Winter 1965): 138.

[5] Ibid., 141.

[6] Ibid., 146–7.

[7] Mead, “Anthropology and Glyphs,” Print 23, no. 6 (November–December 1969), 53.

[8] Mead, “Future as the Basis,” 146.

[9] Modley, “The Challenge of Symbology,” in Elwood Whitney, ed., Symbology: The Use of Symbols in Visual Communications (New York: Art Directors Club, 1960), 19.

[10] Ibid., 30.

[11] Modley, “Guidelines on Designing Universally Usable Graphic Symbols (Glyphs),” memorandum, June 23, 1965.

[12] Modley, “Challenge,” 13.

[13] Modley, “Guidelines,” 6.

[14] Modley, “Graphic Symbols for World-Wide Communication,” in Gyorgy Kepes, ed., Sign, Image, Symbol (New York: George Braziller, 1966), 124–25.

[15] Modley, “Prospects and Problems for Universally Usable Graphic Symbols (Glyphs),” International Journal of Symbology (December 1969): 45.

[16] Modley, Handbook of Pictorial Symbols: 3,250 Examples from International Sources (New York: Dover Publications, 1976), x.

[17] Glyphs, Inc., quarterly newsletter, Summer 1968.

[18] Modley, Handbook.