Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 1958 - Gerald Holtom

It's the Peace symbol's Birthday

How the peace sign, unveiled at a CND march on 4 April 1958, used an old symbol to express a modern message

The very fact that that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s symbol is 59-years-old today marks something of a success. In 1958, when the British graphic artist Gerald Holtom first publicly unveiled the logo at the start of CND’s Easter weekend march from London to the site of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire, many feared nuclear weapons might wipe out mankind. Holtom, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, had been working on the symbol for some weeks, and used well-established visual communication techniques to express this urgent message.

“The emblem was originally conceived by Holtom as a symbol for nuclear disarmament, and encompassed the semaphore (flag-waving) signals for the letters “N” and “D.”” explains our new book Graphic: 500 Designs that Matter. “Holtom also suggested symbolic readings of the shaft or broken cross as the death of man, and the surrounding circle as the unborn child, together representing the threat to existing humanity as well as the unborn. Our new book suggests that such symbolism may have been inspired by Rudolf Koch’s The Book of Signs, a collection of medieval symbols, highly influential in art and design education and professional practice at the time.

“The most significant characteristic of the peace symbol, however, was its distinctive yet simple form, which could be easily drawn or reproduced, thereby assuring its widespread use.


Peace or Paris - Jean Julien
Peace or Paris - Jean Julien

“The peace symbol appeared in a decade under the constant threat of nuclear war as the U.S. and Soviet Union arms race maintained a 'deterrence' via “mutually assured destruction.” The resulting nuclear-bomb testing caused the founding of Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and its adoption of the antinuclear or peace symbol in 1958. Protest marches and peace camps of the 1980s often displayed the symbol on posters and in graphics, including the popular photomontages of political artist Peter Kennard, though, significantly, CND never claimed copyright of the symbol.

"The symbol was also adopted in the 1960s by the hippie movement and by the U.S. public at large as a call for peace, particularly in protests against the Vietnam War, and accompanied a wide range of anti-war statements, even appearing on the Zippo lighters and helmets of American soldiers in Vietnam. Today, the peace symbol continues to maintain an international presence in the world of twenty-first century protest, and is a graphic reminder of how debates regarding nuclear weapons and armed conflict continue to resonate with new generations.”

Indeed, the French visual artist and children’s author Jean Julien created a version incorporating the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower following the 2015 Paris attacks.

For more on both this familiar piece of graphic design and many others order a copy of Graphic: 500 Designs that Matter and browse our Jean Julien books here.