The most powerful piece of information design of the 20th century was designed by a landscape painter. In 1943, the nuclear physicist Alexander Langsdorf Jr. was called to Chicago to join hundreds of scientists in a secret wartime project: the race to develop an atomic bomb. Their work on the Manhattan Project made possible the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended World War II. But Langsdorf, like many of his colleagues, greeted the subsequent peace with profound unease. What were the implications of the fact that the human race had invented the means to render itself extinct?
To bring this question to a broader audience, Langsdorf and his fellow scientists began circulating a mimeographed newsletter called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In June 1947, the newsletter became a magazine. Langsdorf’s wife, Martyl, was an artist whose landscapes were exhibited in Chicago galleries. She volunteered to create the first cover. There wasn’t much room for an illustration, and the budget permitted only two colors. But she found a solution. The Doomsday Clock was born.
Arguments about nuclear proliferation have been complicated and contentious. The Doomsday Clock translates them into a brutally simple visual analogy, merging the looming approach of midnight with the drama of a ticking time bomb. Appropriately for an organization led by scientists, the Clock sidesteps overwrought imagery of mushroom clouds in favor of an instrument of measurement. Martyl set the minute hand at seven to midnight on that first cover “simply because it looked good.” Two years later, the Soviets tested their own nuclear device. The arms race was officially on. To emphasize the seriousness of these circumstances, the clock was moved to three minutes to midnight. It has been moved 20 times since. What a remarkable, clear, concise piece of communication!
Several years ago, the organization came to my design consulting firm, Pentagram, looking for a logo. We told them they already had one. That began a relationship between Pentagram and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that still continues. Each year, we publish the report that accompanies the announcement of the Clock’s position. And each year, we hope we turn back time.
This article has been excerpted from Michael Bierut’s new book, How To.