By Rob Alderson

As Jean Jullien heard the news of the terror attacks unfolding in Paris on Friday night, he pulled out a sketchbook and created a simple brush and ink image of the peace symbol with the Eiffel Tower as its central spoke (shown above, via Jullien’s Twitter).

It took only one minute but it was to become a symbol of hope, defiance and humanity. At the time of writing, Jullien’s Instagram post of the image had 160,000 likes and more than 3,400 comments. It appeared on posters and placards, was printed on T-shirts and jackets, painted on faces and drawn on cards left at the scenes of the attacks.

In the frenzied media atmosphere that followed Friday night, the man behind the image became news as well. From The New York Times to The Daily Telegraph, Wired to Slate, media platforms queued up to speak to him.

But there were people questioning his motives, too; Jean stopped reading the Instagram comments after accusations that he’d been too quick to create a response or that he was cashing in on the tragedy (he has said several times that people are free to use the symbol however they like, as long as any proceeds go to helping the victims and their families).

There was consternation on Twitter, too, at what some saw as artists rushing to respond to the events in a way that came across as self-promotional, overwrought or flippant. Rurik Bradbury railed to The Washington Post about, “people’s vicarious participation in the event, which on the ground is a horrible tragedy, but in cyberspace is flattened to a meme like any other.”

It’s worth pointing out that good things came out of the story assuming these viral characteristics. The #PorteOuverte hashtag was used to offer shelter to people stranded on the streets of Paris while Facebook’s Safety Check was a useful (if perhaps not perfect) feature.

But I can see why people are uncomfortable about the way the online world reacts to tragedies and Jullien has admitted he is “sort of embarrassed” by how quickly his sketch took on a life of its own.

Would it be better for designers to pause and think about how they can practically contribute to the aftermath of major incidents – looking at the structures and services we might need now or in the future – rather than dashing out a poster?  

Similar questions were thrown up after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011, and after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January this year.

Unwittingly, these events provided templates to show how a timely and powerful visual response could and would get a lot of attention. Are there creatives out there who jump on these situations to further their own careers? I’d hope not.

But if you’re an artist, or a designer or an illustrator what do you do? I imagine I wasn’t the only one sat watching the pictures from Paris on Friday night, gawping uselessly, confused and afraid. Jean – and many other creatives – did what felt right at that moment. As he told Wired, “It was more an instinctive, human reaction than an illustrator’s reaction.”

That immediacy, and the simplicity of its message explains in part the popularity of Jullien’s image. But it also says something about the power of imagery at times like this, to help us make sense of what we can’t believe we’re seeing.

Like many people over this weekend I read thousands of words about the events in Paris, and heard thousands more from the TV and radio coverage. I heard chilling accounts from people who were in the Bataclan concert hall and I read wordy analyses of the rise of ISIS. Am I better informed? Yes. Do I understand what happened on Friday night? No.

And that’s where imagery comes in. It bypasses the head and goes straight for the gut. Many people wanted to show solidarity with Paris and express hope in the face of horror – in Jullien’s image they found a very concise way of doing that.

Rob Alderson is an arts and design writer and editor. See and @RobAlderson

Read more here:: Peace for Paris and the role of the imagemaker in times of tragedy