Harry Pearce’s Blood

“It’s All Our Blood” poster designed by Pentagram partner Harry Pearce.

I have great respect for Pentagram and their contributions to design and culture. Their work was an early inspiration to me ever since I knew what design was and there are many people that I admire and personally know who have worked there. But in a recent poster created by their London partner, Harry Pearce, to commemorate the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the sensitivity and thoughtfulness that I typically ascribe to their work has unfortunately been lost.

The design, a hackneyed and vain gesture created under the guise of empathy, now serves as marketable content for Pentagram. It demonstrates a lack of tact and critical thinking which should come in abundance when dealing with sensitive issues like these horrific tragedies. After seeing people sharing and promoting the poster without any dialogue around its problematic implications, I decided to add an alternative perspective to the conversation.

The Poster

Professor Jim Thrope at the University of Maryland approached Pearce to design a poster for an exhibition he was organizing entitled Questioning the Bomb. Using the 70th anniversary of the tragedy at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Thrope set out to create an exhibition which “engages various historical and contemporary issues surrounding war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

Pearce designed a poster that used his own blood photographed in water and stylized to create an effect reminiscent of a mushroom cloud. He explains that the title, It’s All Our Blood, suggests that the suffering and horror experienced by the people of Hiroshia and Nagasaki is a burden carried by the world collectively. He goes on to say, “I used my own blood to illustrate that in the end all our blood was symbolically spilt that day. We all still live under the cloud of what was done, and what could still be done, to us all. It’s a humble expression of empathy.” (The use of ‘humble’ here is particularly interesting.)

In a video Pentagram posted to Vimeo, Pearce leaves the viewer with this final thought: “What we do to others we are really doing to ourselves.”

The Response

It’s All Our Blood quickly garnered attention among many prominent design publications — partly due to Pentagram’s prestige but also no doubt thanks to Pearce’s sensationalist process. And Pentagram’s Twitter was sure to retweet every mention. People were enthralled by the idea that a designer would use his own blood for his work — my hunch is that it was seen as a sign of true dedication for an admirable cause.

Below is a sampling of headlines from articles written about the poster which quickly demonstrate who (or what) the focus was really on. (The headline that doesn’t even mention the subject of the poster is particularly telling.)

The Problem

There are a few issues that I take with this poster’s genesis, appearance, and reception.

The first, and most egregious, is Pearce’s facile reasoning for the design. Pearce, a British man unaffected by the devastation of the atomic blasts, misleadingly implies that the damage done to Japan was damage done to the world. It is true that in a way all humankind must bear the responsibility for the suffering we cause each other by our hatred and ignorance. But make no mistake: the Japanese are the people who have suffered and continue to suffer. To suggest otherwise is disrespectful and misguided. We will never know the pain and grief felt on that day, which continues to reverberate throughout the nation. For a British man to suggest, “Hey, my own blood was lost as well!” shifts the focus from the real victims to a fictional martyr narrative that has no place in the conversation.

Pearce himself nearly admits that he post-rationalized his concept and allowed the “clever” formal idea to take precedent when he says, “I was looking at ink drops underwater, for a completely different project, and when I turned the picture upside down I saw the mushroom cloud. I felt compelled to use my own blood dropped into water, coupled with the line, [‘It’s] all our blood’ in answer to the exhibitions title…

This sensationalized method created, unsurprisingly, a spectacle around the wrong subject. As shown in the above screenshots, the media was overcome with admiration for Pearce’s ‘novel’ approach. The poster didn’t seem to raise any awareness about the ethics of atomic weapons or our collective grief and remorse. Instead, Pearce’s blood — an incredibly tiny amount, safely removed by a professional, by the way — seemed to be the only thing people could focus on and it made its way into every headline. I have to believe this was an unintentional result of a gimmick injudiciously applied to the wrong subject and not a malicious plot to bolster Pentagram and Pearce’s reputation.

Lastly, there is a disturbing aesthetic fetishization happening in and around this poster. As designers, we are of course visually driven, but that can and should manifest itself in a variety of ways. An aesthetic tailored for a luxury glassware store should feel wholly different from one created for a Holocaust museum. Pearce, however, has designed a slick, stylized poster that is unbefitting of the grotesque tragedy which occurred. As an example, the aerial photographs of Hiroshima before and after say much more than a highfalutin mushroom cloud ever could. (But would the headlines be as grabby?)

Furthermore, the preposterous video posted above which documents the making of the poster only emphasizes the gross obsession with craft and spotlights the designers more so than the actual event depicted. The acoustic guitar soundtrack betrays a sickening sense of calm and peace, while the videographer obsesses over the blood, photography, and printing process. The true motivations for this poster’s creation are laid bare.

The result would be comical if it wasn’t so offensive. Five white people in a room, obsessing over the form of a blood mushroom cloud, in an attempt to demonstrate the pain they suffered from a Japanese tragedy.

Pearce with photographer Richard Foster in his studio.

A Reflection

Do I want Pearce to resign and Pentagram to publicly apologize? No, absolutely not. I genuinely believe this was a result of shortsightedness and a lack of critical thinking which was brushed aside due to an enthusiasm for a particular execution. I am writing this only to shift the conversation around the poster from unabashed enthusiasm to critical reflection on its impetus and form. The “cleverness” of Pearce’s idea seems to have distracted a lot of people from the insensitive nature of its genesis and the implications that follow.

This is an on-going problem with mainstream design writing. There is so much back-patting and self-service that the little criticism that does emerge rarely extends beyond superficial (and often subjective) accusations.

Designers have tremendous responsibility. We are in a position to shape our culture and public discourse. If we aren’t critically assessing the actions of ourselves and others (including the prestigious agencies and celebrated designers), we disenfranchise our practice and mislead the public. We can all do better.