Peace on Earth

A Conversation About Art, Design, Protest and Generosity

In the aftermath of the Paris bombings, amid the disbelief and horror, an image emerged and was adopted around the world: the universal peace symbol redrawn with four gestural brushstrokes into an expression of militant solidarity.

Contained in that graphic moment is a poignant synchronicity – that this iconic, emotional emblem was created by an RCA hand, redrawing the work of another RCA hand over a distance of 50 years. 

Unravelling that cultural palimpsest brings together elements of social, art and design history in a conversation that embraces the purpose of creative endeavour, generosity and its effect on the human spirit.

The universal peace symbol was created by Gerald Holtom, who studied Painting at the RCA from 1932 to 1935, for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Its first public outing was the four-day, 52-mile Aldermaston protest in Easter 1958, when thousands marched against the imminent threat of nuclear weapons.

As a graphic motif, it combines the semaphore signs for the letters N (nuclear) and D (disarmament) enclosed in a circle. Holtom also said that he represented his own feelings of despair (the central design can be read as a human figure, with hands outstretched and pointing down) at the global challenge the peace movement faced.  

Holtom chose not to copyright the symbol, giving it freely to support a cause he believed in passionately. The result of that generosity – way before the internet age – is that it has been taken up around the world, whenever communities of people raise their voices to protest against militarism, weapons and the use of force.

It’s a phenomenally successful example of design doing its job well: instantly recognisable, easily understood and infinitely scalable, broadcasting its message from lapel badges to banners. The visual language is redacted, mechanistic anthropomorphism and the emotional tempo is measured – it’s a badge of affiliation more than a rallying cry.

Symbols give a recognisable, tangible form to an emotional impetus, realising an abstract concept and enabling people to mobilise around it. Coming together around a common cause builds trust, which empowers protest. As Dean of Communication Neville Brody says, ‘That design can be a powerful mechanism for collective action is evidenced precisely by the iconic CND symbol.’

Jean Jullien’s (MA Visual Communication, 2010) instinctive, reactive reworking Peace for Paris has a more emotional design purpose: where the CND symbol confronts militarism, his Paris peace symbol – drawing the Eiffel tower with four sweeping strokes – is humanistic. The tip of the tower breaks the circle, locating it in a specific moment. It is simultaneously a beacon of outrage, protest and hope.

Drawn by an expatriate Parisian graphic designer in extremis, the image was created to show those at home that he was thinking about them. That people used and shared it was unexpected but welcomed by Jullien, and there the generosity is located. What was created as a private expression became an image for everyone; a communication tool that speaks of solidarity and the need for peace. 

Today, in our beyond-postmodern, globalised society, meaning and truth can remain relative and localised. We are an imperfect, inattentive species with a lamentable inability to give equal concern to events at home and abroad. But the worldwide web brings occasions in which mass communication of people’s instinctive emotions coalesces into an expression of our common humanity.

Within hours of the attacks in Paris, Jullien’s image was on banners, t-shirts and social-media posts around the world. It was a momentary breaking down of barriers, when – for Jullien – the power of the internet, harnessed for good, suggested that, 'this is how we can feel, unite, communicate as humans and as a society.' 

Images – whether they are labelled ‘art’ or ‘design’ – have a powerful universality, precisely because they can be read across the barriers of language. Strongest, often, are those that don’t need cultural, historical knowledge to be understood.

‘That’s the thing about images,’ says Peter Kennard, RCA alumnus and Senior Research Reader in Photography, Art and the Public Domain. ‘Their meaning is immediately apparent, engendering an emotional identification, which brings a sense of affiliation, and that takes you beyond the written word.’ Of his own artistic practice, he says, ‘I’m making images that people have to think about, a non-verbal moment that sparks deep, nuanced references. 

Kennard produces montage images to catalyse people into action. He uses the Brechtian maxim, ‘Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.’ If the bad, new images contain inhumanity, then you put that in front of people, because meaning shrinks when you show the horror without the dialectic of where it’s coming from.

The classic montage is a framing: putting two images together to get a third meaning. ‘I’ve always felt that you should break the image and show the causes,’ he says. ‘So if you show the mushroom cloud, you put a skeleton underneath. It’s about revealing invisible connections, disassociating them from direct representation into statement and argument… my subject has to be made up from events from around the world.’

‘Montage is a very active medium. You can see that someone’s put it together. I don’t try to hide the cracks; I’m happy to show that handmade process. A successful image will set people thinking. It’s a way for people to get in, that encourages them to engage critically.’

‘If you make that sort of work, you don’t get money for it. The audience is not a moneyed, gallery audience. No one gets paid, and you don’t think about it. You can’t legislate for people’s responses, but the way it goes out is as important as the way it’s made,’ says Kennard, who frequently makes campaign work, and therein lies the unifying thread.

At the heart of mobilising positive, peaceful activism is a radical, subversive generosity on the part of artists and designers, which runs counter to any social structure that privileges the ‘I’ over the ‘we’, and refutes the unfestive – but nonetheless accurate – observation that we may no longer know how to give without counting the cost.

Giving breaks the cycle of greed, and encourages people to be generous, community-minded and constructive. It’s about doing something for the sake of change, for the common good – which is what the original peace symbol was about. There’s a refreshing positivity to giving freely, which runs counter to one’s normal transactions in the world.

Anyone who’s been involved in the best bits of peaceful activism knows that mobilising positive human energy is life affirming. Like singing in a Christmas choir, one of the reasons to go on a march is to be there in a group of people who believe the human race isn’t doomed after all.

As artist Jimmy Durham says, ‘Humanity is not a completed project,’ meaning both that we are still here and that we need to try harder. Artists and designers have a long tradition of bending the tools of their trade to that cause, beating swords into aesthetic ploughshares.

The role of art may be to expose the underbelly of society, and the role of design may be to communicate ideas, but add in generosity and you arrive at the joining of makers' hands, the giving of gifts and the will for collective change.

In the festive spirit of munificence, Peter Kennard and Neville Brody have collaborated to produce a new work for our troubled times: Peace on Earth. Download it, print it, share it. We wish you a peaceful new year.

Download Peace on Earth A4 | PDF | JPG

Download Peace on Earth A3 | PDF | JPG 

Download Peace on Earth A2 | PDF | JPG

(When you click on a the link for your A4, A3 or A2 image, it will open in your browser. Then simply 'right click' the image to choose how and where to save it, and rename it if you wish.)

Read more from Peter Kennard on the Guardian.

@RCA #peaceonearth