Michael Bierut | Essays

Donal McLaughlin’s Little Button

Adam Bartos, Emblem in the United Nations General Assembly Building, from the series International Territory, 1989-1994

When Donal McLaughlin graduated from the Yale School of Architecture in 1933, the centerpiece of his portfolio was a design for an observatory in New York's Central Park, a domed building — “one big circle,” he remembered much later — that would provide a window on the heavens.

His observatory was never built. But little did he know then that his most famous design would be another circular form, something you and countless people around the world have seen millions of times over the past half century: the emblem of the United Nations.

I had never heard of Donal McLaughlin when I got a call from Mark Branch, executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine, asking if I’d like to interview him for an upcoming issue. I said yes, and a few weeks later, I found myself talking to a designer with a career that had placed him at the center of some of the major events of the twentieth century.

That career began inauspiciously. “It was the height of the depression. Architects were not working anywhere,” he told me. Luckily, an old friend in Washington got him a job at the National Park Service. His park work led to positions in the offices of industrial designers Walter Dorwin Teague and Raymond Loewy, where he worked on exhibits for the 1939 New York World's Fair for Kodak and Chrysler. There he learned he was good at something: making complicated information understandable. A few months before Pearl Harbor, Washington called again.

“‘Wild Bill’ Donovan” — the storied head of the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency — “was looking for some designers to create a war room for FDR, using the kinds of advanced techniques we'd developed for the World's Fair. It was to be built underneath the White House.” The subterranean War Room was never built, but excited by the potential of the experience, McLaughlin left private practice, moved back to Washington, and joined the OSS's Presentation Branch as Chief of their Graphics Division.

Throughout the war, McLaughlin's services were constantly in demand. His group designed films, displays, insignia and diagrams, work he remains proud of to this day. “My time at Yale and my time at the OSS were really the great standout years of my life,” he says now. “We weren't advertisers. We weren't trying to sell anything. Our whole message during the war was simply to take information and put it into forms that people could easily understand.” 

This was an era when the country's best designers were eager to put their talents in the service of their nation in a way that is, sadly, almost unimaginable today. McLaughlin's colleagues included a who‘s who of postwar American design: Eero Saarinen, stage designer Jo Mielziner, landscape designer Dan Kiley, and pioneering African-American graphic designer Georg Olden. Nothing seems to have been out of bounds: toward the war's end, for instance, McLaughlin's team created not only the visual displays that were used to convict Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg Trials, but the distinctive arrangement of the courtroom itself.

Around that same time, McLaughlin was given his most memorable assignment. The US State Department announced its intention to convene the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco in June 1945, and the OSS's Presentation Branch was asked to create displays, certificates, maps and guides for the delegates, and one seemingly modest thing. “It was my good fortune,” McLaughlin told me, “to be assigned the problem of designing a lapel pin for Conference identification.” He went through dozens of designs, struggling with the challenge of accommodating a suitable image with the conference's name, date and location, all in a one and one-sixteenth diameter circle. His solution was what McLaughlin describes as “an azimuthally equidistant projection showing all the countries in one circle,” flanked by crossed olive branches. It appeared not only on the delegate's pins, but was stamped in gold on the cover of the United Nations Charter. On June 26, the Charter was signed by delegates of fifty nations, and the United Nations was established. Donal McLaughlin, without fully intending to, had designed its emblem.

Talking with McLaughlin, I found myself thinking of that little pin. At the time, it must have seemed like a little job, almost the kind of thing an ambitious designer would consider a nuisance. We've all done projects like that, often with teeth gritted. There's a lesson here: you never know what might happen to those little jobs.

After the war, McLaughlin returned to private practice in Washington. His long career has included many striking achievements, including the interior design of Tiffany and Co.'s flagship store on Manhattan's 57th Street, as well as designs for countless government agencies, public institutions and small non-profits; he has taught at Howard University and American University. But, after more than 60 years, that one project stands out for him. “It's like an old, warm friend,” he says of the UN emblem. Then his mood darkens: “The fact that some in our current administration has treated it with contempt really bothers me.” McLaughlin was an idealist then, and clearly he remains one today. "I still believe that the UN is really our only hope for world peace."

Tomorrow, July 26, McLaughlin will celebrate his 100th birthday. His modesty and idealism are still very much intact. “I dreamed once of being an architect and building in brick and stone,” he remembers with a laugh. “And instead, the thing I'm best known for is a button.” But what a button: an emblem that's been seen by millions of people on every continent in every corner of globe, it's hard to imagine what greater legacy Donal McLaughlin could hope to leave behind.

Happy Birthday, Donal McLaughlin.

This essay originally appeared in a different form in the May/June 2007 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Posted in: Architecture, History

Comments [8]

Always love to see those "little jobs" become iconic.

Wow, this article gave me goose bumps! Love the part about little nuisance jobs becoming something bigger.
Sara Maassel

Happy 100th Mr. McLaughlin! Nice button.

Very Respectfully,
Joe Moran

Happy birthday, Mr. McLaughlin!

What a lovely article. Wow.

Quite motivating..What a legacy to have! Happy Birthday, Mr. McLaughlin!

Michael - this reminded me of Reyner Banham's great essay "O Bright Star . . ." on the subject of US sheriff stars. He describes studying a blow up reproduction of one. He writes: "But the pleasure of seeing a sheriff star under a microscope, as it were, was suddenly terminated by a dread thought which persistently afflicts all those who profess the trade of design historian: who designed it? Sheriff stars can't just happen; some person or group had made decisions, based on taste or tradition, standing orders or divine revelation, and had thus determined its form and iconography."
Adrian Shaughnessy

Best wishes to Mr. McLaughlin on his birthday.

I've always realized that the elegant concentric and crossing lines representing the globe were cartographic in nature.

However, whenever U.N. troops are placed in the middle of some hostile hot-spot, those same lines -- for me, at least -- regrettably seem to transform into the cross-hairs of a bomb-sight.

A symbol of benevolence oddly morphs into "We're with the U.N. Aim here."
Daniel Green

From the "wish I had thought of this yesterday" file:




Joe Moran

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