Visualizing World Peace – Through Graphic Design

A new Swiss book 'Signs for Peace: An Impossible Visual Encyclopedia' looks at the different ways countries use images to fight for peace.

Leafing through “Signs for Peace: An Impossible Visual Encyclopedia,” compiled by Swiss-born graphic designer Ruedi Baur and his wife, sociologist Vera Baur Kocko, the reader starts out with a feeling of optimism. The cover of the book, published by Lars Muller Publishers, and its first pages, are in hues of shining orange, pink, green and yellow. They promise a happy ending, as does the book’s title.

But the hope of a rosy future quickly dwindles over the course of the 600-page tome, which attempts to define the global search for peace in graphic art. As the book’s subtitle suggests, the peaceful images of John Lennon, doves, arches and angels ultimately cannot compete with the thousands of images of soldiers, rifles, tanks, bombings and destruction from all over the world.

The chapter on Israel, like those on the dozens of other countries listed alphabetically in the book, does feature images of the peace that does not exist here. There’s the logo of the nongovernmental organization Peace Now; the slogan of the Dai Lakibush, or “End the Occupation,” political movement; former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former United States President Clinton; the security fence; the logo of the Coalition of Women for Peace, and Ehud Barak on a poster marking 18 years of the occupation. There are also posters by graphic designers David Tartakover and Ido “Sany” Arazi and poster artist Yossi Lemel and an image from the right-wing group Im Tirzu.

In a telephone interview, Baur says one of the central questions posed by the book is what the difference is between harmonious images, designed to support the idea of peace, and anti-war symbols or slogans. He believes it is difficult to separate the two, at least in Western culture. But in Chinese visual culture – which is based on harmony and tranquility – there is a dragon that is only used in times of peace, he notes. In Western culture, we make war, he says, so that peace will come in the end.

Baur says that in Christianity, peace and tranquility are to be found in heaven, which is not the everyday reality. It is something from the past or the future. When we get there, we’ll behave nicely. In other religions, according to Baur, heaven is also in the present. He gives the example of Buddhism, which talks about how we can bring heaven – or peace – to everyday life.

The book does not tell the history of the images and symbols it contains. Rather, it stresses that in an age of mass communication, the war for peace is not conducted only on the battlefield, but also in the visual field, with widely disseminated images, and in visual culture in general.

Baur says he got the idea for the book after a private client asked his graphic design company to “brand” peace. Initially, he says he thought the idea was silly, since it would be almost impossible to create one image for such a complex subject. But the request spurred long discussions in his office about expressions of peace in different cultures and conflicts. In the end, Baur says he was inspired to produce a whole book on the subject.

When he and his wife, Baur Kocko, started working on the book, Baur says they found surprising differences between countries in conflict and those at peace. He says images from troubled countries turned out to be much more personal. As an example, he mentions the couple’s visit to South America, a very tense place where he says people told him and his wife that they only feel at peace when they go to the hairdresser. Such a sentiment, he says, must affect the way peace images are created in there.

When asked whether it is possible to create an image that is not a cliche, Baur says the power of an image comes from embracing context. It is difficult to speak of peace in general, because each conflict has its own characteristics, as can be seen in images from Africa or other countries that promote peace differently than in the Western world.

Baur says that in running international workshops, he and Baur Kocko have also seen that graphic art varies on a personal level, depending heavily on the character and story of the artist.

Asked whether an image can actually change reality, Baur points to Picasso’s influential painting “Guernica.” There are, of course, images that only serve to elicit support from people outside the conflict, he says, but that is also important: a community in conflict should know it is not alone. Graphic design really can create change, he says, if only slightly.