Visualizing the Many Ways to Say ‘Peace’

A foreword from Listen To The World

[Jakarta, LTTW] For centuries, humans have always had the desire to create peace (and war). It can be traced from myriad of visual symbols regarding peace which created and practiced within many cultures of the world, proves that peace does matter to human life.

However, symbols of peace has always been an interesting subject to deal with, especially for artists, musicians, dancers, writers, and often graphic designers. Although every culture has their own ideas and concept regarding peace, probably the most popular symbol known to the world today is a pigeon carrying an olive tree, which originated in Europe—in Greece to be exact. This symbol has been used and consumed in many peace campaigns around the world, even though pigeons and olive trees are not an everyday thing in regions outside Europe; nonetheless, we may say that peace has always been a central issue wherever we are.

Now, amid the fast-paced changing times that we have never imagined before, conflicts are growing ubiquitously. Promoting peace is urgently needed. Of course, it’s not easy, and it requires the right dose of knowledge, patient, and courage. Visual symbol certainly has its significant role to this matter, to be integrated with other ethical efforts. Now, when pigeons and olive trees are no longer relevant to man’s desire for peace, what will we do? Obviously, putting a lot of efforts into implementing the symbols are far more essential than creating a new one; especially when war is the hobby of man.


Visualizing the Many Ways to Say ‘Peace’


(LONDON, 25 JAN 2013, THE NY TIMES) — It began with a fight, or the threat of one. In Greek mythology, when the pugilistic god Poseidon claimed ownership of the region of Attica, he plunged his trident into the ground and unleashed a salt water spring to symbolize his power as god of the sea. The goddess Athena disputed his claim by planting an olive tree there, saying that it represented peace and prosperity, and the furious Poseidon challenged her to single combat.

Zeus intervened, and asked the other gods and goddesses to settle the matter by deciding who had given them the better gift. All of the gods voted for Poseidon and the goddesses for Athena, but as Zeus abstained, the women’s votes outnumbered the men’s by one, and Athena won. As patron of Attica, she lent her name to its biggest city, Athens, and her gift, the olive tree, has been a symbol of peace ever since.

Not that it is alone. From white doves and rainbow stripes, to angels, broken rifles and two-fingered salutes, countless images have served as peace motifs over the centuries. A new book, “Signs for Peace: An Impossible Visual Encyclopedia,” compiled by the Swiss-born graphic designer Ruedi Baur and his wife, the sociologist Vera Baur Kockot, presents hundreds of images of them through the ages. As you would expect of a “Visual Encyclopedia,” their book does not tell the design histories of each peace symbol, but demonstrates the various ways in which the emblems have come to convey the same message to people from diverse cultures and different eras.

Other phenomena, including love, danger, women’s rights and environmentalism, have inspired rich traditions of visual symbolism too, but rarely to the same degree as peace. It is a universal issue that has had a profound effect on people’s lives all over the world throughout history, making it only natural us to seek different ways of demonstrating its importance.

Let’s start with the olive branch, which exemplifies how a pictorial symbol can acquire a specific meaning through an organic process of suggestion and reminder. Had its mythology ended with Athena’s challenge to Poseidon, the olive branch may well have been forgotten, but it was also adopted as a peace symbol in ancient Rome. Virgil referred to it in that guise in his epic poem the “Aeneid,” and Eirene, the Roman goddess of peace, was often depicted holding one.

During the 1600s, it became fashionable for poets and artists to use the olive branch as a peace motif, and it was subsequently added to the coins of various countries. It has since appeared in so many official contexts — from the Great Seal of the United States in 1782, to the United Nations’ flag in 1946 — that we are constantly reminded of what “passing the olive branch” means.

That leafy twig has also played a supporting role in another peace emblem. One of the most evocative biblical references to peace is the story of the dove that fled Noah’s Ark and returned carrying an olive leaf to symbolize the start of a peaceful era. It was portrayed in a similar guise in early Christian art and Medieval manuscripts in which its leaf was eventually replaced by a sprig of olives.

The twig-laden dove was adopted as the emblem of anti-war protest groups in the 19th century. But the dove appeared on its own, unencumbered by foliage, in its most famous incarnation, the posters devised by Pablo Picasso for a series of World Peace Congresses in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Like the olive branch, the dove of peace retained the same symbolic meaning for centuries, unlike another type of peace symbol, which can boast an equally long history, but has represented different things over the years.

Take the rainbow flag, which is composed of seven stripes, one in each color of the rainbow, and has been embraced by numerous causes, from the German Peasants’ War in the 1520s to the International Cooperative Movement in the 1920s. In 1961, the rainbow flag became the emblem of a peace march in Italy, and has since featured in similar anti-war protests, but has taken on other meanings too.

Since the 1970s, it has been a popular motif for gay rights groups, albeit with a slightly different palette and a new name, the “freedom flag.” Rainbow stripes also featured in early versions of Apple’s corporate logo, reportedly in an attempt to differentiate the company, which was rooted in Californian counterculture, from the then-bastion of the computer industry, IBM, whose emblem featured monochrome stripes.

Back to the peace movement, where a third type of symbol has been designed from scratch to convey a particular meaning, in much the same way as corporate logos like Apple’s and IBM’s. Typical is the emblem designed in 1958 for the British anti-nuclear group, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, by one of its members, the textile designer Gerald Holtom. It combines the semaphore signs for the letters N and D, for “nuclear” and “disarmament,” framed by a circle signifying the world.

Having designed the symbol of his own volition, Holtom presented it to the campaign in spring 1958, just in time for the first of an annual series of protest marches from central London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Berkshire. Unlike the olive branch or rainbow flag, Holtom’s emblem had no historic associations, but was so memorable that it swiftly became recognizable as a motif, first for the anti-nuclear cause, and then for peace in general.

My own favorite peace symbol was designed specifically for the purpose like Holtom’s emblem, and is less famous, but no less eloquent. It is the brilliantly simple “Peace Poster” devised by the American graphic designer Robert Brownjohn for the New York Peace Campaign in 1969 in which the handwritten letters ‘P’ and ‘E’ are followed by an Ace of Spades playing card and, finally, a question mark.

A version of this article appeared in print on January 28, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune.