As the Falcon 9 rocket launched on May 30th of this year, it ignited a new era of space travel. Soaring on the wings of a private company – SpaceX – this is also the first time since 2011 that American astronauts have been launched into space from American ground. 

As we celebrate the significance of this scientific milestone, I’d like to throwback to a bygone era of design that stemmed from a time of changing technology and space exploration  – the Atomic Age of graphic design. 

Did you know: Back in 2015, SpaceX unveiled three retrofuturistic posters for Mars travel. The style of these posters take heavy inspiration from the atomic age.


The 1950s were home to major technological advancement:  the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War extended from nuclear weapons to the space race, with both parties eager to prove their superiority as innovators at the frontiers of technology.

While the countries flaunted their firepower, citizens had no choice but to embrace the races on the sidelines, with fears of rising tensions leading to an all-out nuclear war.

With nowhere to run, Cold War anxieties permeated into every aspect of life. Schools demonstrated duck-and-cover drills in case of atomic bomb attack, fallout shelters were being built, media portrayal of nuclear attacks influenced the public conciousness; and out came a design style that reflected the zeitgeist.


But within the political unrest of the 50s was a glimmer of hope. Some saw beyond the potential of the atom as a nuclear weapon, and saw its role as a new source of energy. Hence, motifs of the atomic particles flooded the designs of middle-class households, from wallpaper to furniture, and what was depicted was a unique vision of the future.

Taking influence from themes of atomic science, common characteristics include abstract shapes and bright colors. Some say that the sleek, organic shapes of its designs were inspired by the media portrayal of nuclear exposure, rendering human beings into mutant forms. Others argue that the shapes harken to a simpler time, when nature was ruled by the forms of living organisms such as plants and amoebas.


Looking back at the origins of the Atomic Age design era, it’s interesting to note how much of society has changed, and how much has not. 

We still live in a time of uncertainty, but anxieties take the form of new unknowns. COVID-19 has thrusted the world into paranoia, and nuclear anxiety is still prevalent with the rising tensions between North Korea and the United States gracing the headlines. However, we should also recognize that we’ve made some giant leaps for humankind, with the Falcon 9 launch being the latest example.

The Atomic Age design style is a perfect little capsule of the paradox between fear and optimism, and how society used art to tame the anxieties of its people. With all that’s happening today, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see the resurgence of the atomic age visual trend as a reflection of the times. Or perhaps we’ll see the birth of a new design style, one that mirrors more accurately the anxieties of today.