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In A Moment Of Crisis, A 70-Year-Old Symbol Of Doomsday Endures

Michael Bierut explains why the Doomsday Clock remains so potent in 2017.

In A Moment Of Crisis, A 70-Year-Old Symbol Of Doomsday Endures
[Images: courtesy Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists]

It might feel like the world is ending. Based on the annual announcement of the Doomsday Clock, a simple piece of information design that represents a group of scientists and policy experts’ assessment of the existential dangers the world faces, it turns out we’re only two and a half minutes to midnight–which indicates the end of human civilization as we know it. This is the closest the clock has been to midnight since 1953, when the U.S. and Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs above ground.

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The clock serves as a metaphor for the threats to humanity posed by both technology and climate change, courtesy of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Started in 1945 by scientists working on the Manhattan Project who felt a moral responsibility to warn the world about the consequences of the work, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was first published as a newsletter, then as a magazine, and now as a journal full of analysis from its board of experts. Once a year, their assessment of the existential dangers the world faces is translated into the Doomsday Clock, which was originally designed by Martyl Langsdorf, a landscape painter and the wife of one of the nuclear physicists working on the atomic bomb.

This year marks the clock’s 70th anniversary, a milestone that coincides with one of the most uncertain moments in recent political history. According to Michael Bierut of Pentagram, who redesigned the clock in 2007, its symbolism is just as relevant today as it was during the Cold War.

“I think it does this remarkable thing where it takes a whole complicated set of data and reduces it to a single, instantly understandable and emotionally potent metaphor,” Bierut says. “Scientists, experts, often resist that level of simplification. We all know what clocks are and most people are familiar with kind of the dramatic device of the ticking time bomb. It’s the classic, almost cliche device to instill suspense in a situation: Think about the number of times we see action movies with the bomb hidden that’s going to go off. They hit on that as a device to actually summarize a lot of data and expert analysis. That’s really remarkable and really powerful.”

Every Doomsday Clock announcement comes with a host of peer-reviewed, fact-checked, foot-noted policy papers, but it’s moving the clock’s hands that makes the news and communicates the more nuanced message of the scientists most effectively. “You can talk about all the data in the world and all the complex political courses, but there’s something simple about an atomic bomb going off,” Bierut says. “If that’s something you’re up against, you have to have the means to be simple, clear and, in a sense, provocative. It’s something that’s meant to get your attention so all those details can come to the fore.”

The first Doomsday Clock was similar in appearance to today’s version. The 1947 cover of the Bulletin magazine featured the top left quarter of a clock set against a nuclear orange background, reading just 12 minutes to midnight. Bierut’s redesign reduces the clock to a black-and-white version composed of its simplest elements: the outer edge, the numerical delineations, and the hands, which can be adapted each year depending on the organization’s decision.

The clock remains a piece of smart information design in today’s world, functioning as a political statement and a representation of scientific research. “Manipulating the symbol doesn’t make us any safer,” Bierut says. “These guys are trying to take objective truth and convert it to the metaphor that makes that truth more legible to more people.”

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Bierut points to the 2016 presidential race to illustrate the potency of distilling information into a single statement. Trump knew how to get people’s attention with a dynamic and clear mode of communication (which was effective enough to get him elected, even if it is utterly lacking in facts). “[Trump] was someone who had this eerie ability to reduce everything down to simple catchphrases,” Bierut says. “I would argue that there’s a danger in thinking that there’s something inherently wrong or suspicious about that ability to communicate with that sort of compelling clarity. I don’t think it necessarily means things are being over simplified or sensationalized. In fact, in today’s world, the ability to communicate with that sort of impact is actually where the battle is going to be.” The pussy cat hats of the Women’s March on Washington were another impactful symbol, a “sea of pink that was a statement that communicated an enormous amount to people in a way that wasn’t a list of policy demands,” he says.

To Bierut, the Doomsday Clock holds a similar kind of symbolic power, distilling complex science and policy into a single forceful image that suggests the urgency of nuclear proliferation and the steady march of climate change. Bierut believes this type of communication is the most effective, both in politics and design: “To wield the tools of communication with that sort of authority will take the day.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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