Marks With Meaning

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What can we do when facts are discarded like old tissues? The Big Lie that began with Joseph Goebbels may or may not have turned into The Big Idea in advertising, but it has devolved into our current vernacular as an acceptable substitute for truth. For instance, all our new President-Elect has to say is that something he does not believe is untrue, and it becomes untrue (even if it is). Forget about the Southern border wall, there is currently a propaganda wall that is impervious to tangible, believable information. How it is breached will come down to how designers exercise their powers of persuasive communications.

But this is not new news. How to use symbols in the service of viable information has been an ongoing topic for us visual communicators, as this 1959 copy of “The Fourth Annual Communications Conference of the Art Directors Club of New York” attests.


The author of “The Challenge of Symbology,” Dr. Rudolf Modley, was the assistant to the director of the Social Museum in Vienna and curator of Social Sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. From 1934 he was executive director of Pictorial Statistics Inc., and in the United States promoted and built upon the work of information graphics Isotype pioneer Otto Neurath. Modley’s most famous book was The Handbook of Pictorial Symbols, a staple in every designer’s library, even before the rise of pictorial statistics.

This long-forgotten Art Directors Club keynote has as much resonance today, as “eye and ear compete for space,” as it did over 50 years ago. We are more likely than ever to be befuddled and manipulated by the most simple of image and word. What we see and hear speaks to our guts rather than our minds.

Lies are a virus that when left untreated don’t simply disappear on their own—they leave scar tissue that continues to forever be part of our thought processes. The answer to the question, “Now what do we do?” is made clear in this booklet. It’s what we should have been doing since media became so fragmented and entertainment trumped information: EDUCATE. Or if that seems too daunting, simply MAKE FACTS GREAT AGAIN. Symbols can aid the cause of language.


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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →