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Designing a Pictorial Language: Rudolf Modley’s Search for Philanthropic Support for the Development of a Universal System of SymbolsMay 3, 2022
In 1966, acclaimed cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, and graphic designer Rudolf Modley established the nonprofit Glyphs, Inc., to advance the research, classification, and promotion of universal graphic symbols around the world. Creating a visual language and system of symbols, they believed, could transcend language and lead to greater international understanding and harmony. But despite their esteemed records and vast international contacts, Mead and Modley's ambitious and utopian vision was never fully realized, stalled by lack of financing, unclear and unrealistic goals, differences over philosophy and methodology, and competition and criticism from other comparable endeavors. The correspondence, memos, proposals and reports available in the Rockefeller Archive Center holdings -- notably those of the Ford Foundation (and its affiliate, the Fund for the Advancement of Education), the Rockefeller Foundation (specifically those of the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board), and the Russell Sage Foundation -- provide rich insight into the journey and obstacles faced by Rudolf Modley in raising philanthropic support for his ambitious vision in the decades leading up to the formation of Glyphs, Inc. They shed light on the competing effort of renowned industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss to create an international dictionary of symbols, their differing methods and approach, and their lack of familiarity as designers with the nuances of raising philanthropic funds for their ambitious endeavor. Both Modley and Dreyfuss would go on to publish seminal books on graphic and pictorial symbols in the 1970s, but their tireless efforts to garner support from philanthropic foundations were fraught with false starts and disappointments.
Tracing the Divergence of Behavioral and Experimental Economics in the Rockefeller Archive Center's CollectionsJune 9, 2020
"I once asked Amos Tversky whatever happened to the tradition of Sidney Siegel in psychology, and he said, 'You are it.' That was not a compliment. [group laughter] That was a touché. [group laughter] He was putting me down. … 'You are it. You continued a bad tradition.'" (Vernon Smith at the Witness Seminar) This brief, and at first sight innocuous, if not jocular, exchange took place during a short two-day conference. Even if we must rely solely on Smith's memory (Tversky died over two decades ago), this exchange is far from being so insignificant as to be cast aside as merely a cute anecdote. Rather, it is symptomatic of an unease growing at that time between experimental economists, including Smith, on the one hand, and a group of economists and cognitive psychologists – soon to be referred to as behavioral economists – on the other.
Can the market be trusted to provide the bundle of goods and services that society deems a basic entitlement of citizenship? The retreat from state-centered welfare institutions and the rise of policy movements emphasizing market-based alternatives over the past thirty years is said to mark a breaking point from the progressivism of the early twentieth century. Evidence from the Russell Sage Foundation Records, housed at the Rockefeller Archive Center, suggests that the trajectory from state to market or public to private is less representative than is commonly thought. Among the Foundation's most successful campaigns was its battle to reform small-sum lending between 1909 and 1946. Inspired by journalistic tales of working families held in virtual slavery by nefarious loan sharks, the Russell Sage Foundation devoted considerable resources to freeing small borrowers from the high rates of interest and criminal intimidation thought to engender poverty, crime, class agitation, and political radicalism. The Foundation's gradual pivot from promoting philanthropic solutions meant to circumvent the market in money to embracing profit and competition as a market-oriented means of achieving progressive ends stands as a key moment in the rise of the personal finance industry. It also serves as an early case study in the privatization of American social policy and an object lesson in the challenges reformers have faced when forging partnerships with the competitive marketplace.
From the 1910s to the end of World War II, visual representations have been increasingly used in newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and official reports in the United States as a way to convey aspects of economic and social facts to a wider audience. A number of historians have shown that this movement toward visualization, which originated in various projects within social science departments and among social reformists, culminated during the years of the Great Depression when the Roosevelt administration used extensively photographs as a way to promote its economic policies. The most studied of these projects within the Roosevelt administration is the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration, which hired photographs such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein and sent them to the field to document the living conditions in rural America. Indeed, previous works on visualization have mostly focused on photographic representations of economic and social facts, as opposed to other types of visualization such as pictorial statistics, maps and drawings, which were equally important in the period. In addition, while these accounts focused on the artistic and communicational values of the resulting images, they did not investigate in depth the origins of this movement toward visualization in the works of economists and social scientists. Historians of social sciences -- especially economics -- have not paid attention to the visualization of social facts either because their work most often deal with the scientific and academic aspects of the discipline they study, therefore neglecting issues of communication and popularization. Indeed, contemporary social scientists tend to undermine the role of visual representation in their discipline because they do not consider visualization as constitutive of scientific knowledge, hence limiting its use to pedagogical purposes.
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