Japan: how to respond?

The creative community, appalled by events in Japan, has rushed to help. But is the resultant plethora of fundraising prints and posters an adequate or appropriate response? And does visual communications have a longer-term role to play in disaster relief?

The creative community, appalled by events in Japan, has rushed to help. But is the resultant plethora of fundraising prints and posters an adequate or appropriate response? And does visual communications have a longer-term role to play in disaster relief?

Just as happened with Haiti, almost as soon as news of the awful earthquake in Japan spread across the world, they started to appear: fund-raising posters produced by designers, ad agencies and illustrators anxious to do their bit. The logic is straightforward – buy the poster and the proceeds go to aid those in need.

But this approach has not gone unquestioned. There’s a good debate about the issues over at Eye plus Johnson Banks has also summarised the arguments on its Thought for the Week page. In a piece for the Fast Company website, writer John Pavlus called a poster (above) created by Signalnoise that has raised over $7000 for the Canadian Red Cross “fundamentally grotesque”. “Shouldn’t our desire to donate come from actual compassion, not as a side effect of our fascination with pretty artifacts?” Pavlus asked.

The QBN forum has also been debating the topic, asking whether the desire to create such posters is driven as much by self-promotion as it is by a genuine desire to help. And just what are the buyers of such posters supposed to do with them once they get them home? Does anyone really want an image of a crying Japanese flag hanging on their wall? Is such a poster’s presence serving merely, as Pavlus writes, “as some sick, bragging monument to my own willingness to ‘help’?”

These are important questions to ask, but I really don’t believe such posters’ makers are primarily or even substantially motivated by self-promotion. It seems to me entirely legitimate that imagemakers should respond to an urge to help by making an image – it’s what they do. It’s why musicians, respond to the same urge with benefit gigs or charity records.

Wieden + Kennedy’s poster to raise funds for Japan, available here

Why do we have to buy things at all in order to donate? Shouldn’t we just donate directly to charity without acquiring a poster or a CD along the way?

Many do just that, but the history of charity fundraising suggests that, as humans, we often need a little prompting in order to contribute. Everything from Live Aid, through charity auctions down to a raffle for the local hospice or a sponsored walk for a day centre exists because of this. In an ideal world, we would all make charitable donations entirely unbidden, but experience shows that sometimes we need helping along, whether by a concert from a favourite band or just by an old lady shaking a collecting tin and giving us a sticker.

One of the organisations that is involved on the ground in Japan is ShelterBox which delivers emergency aid via distinctive green boxes packed with vital equipment and supplies.

Go to the Get Involved section on its website and its position seems quite clear “By organising, or taking part in an event that raises funds for ShelterBox,” it says “you will be directly providing aid for people affected by disasters all over the world.” For an imagemaker, a simple and cost-effective way to do that is to make a print and sell it. In doing so, chances are they will end up channeling more much-needed cash ShelterBox’s way than if they had just stuck their hand in their pocket and donated directly.

Perhaps some of our community’s unease over the charity poster stems from feelings of inadequacy in comparison to other areas of design. Architects, for example, with a desire to assist disaster relief have the skills to design emergency shelters. Product designers can create simple, cheap forms of heating food. Is a poster really the best we can do? What can visual communicators do to directly influence operations on the ground?

Photo: Rob Kollaard

One possible answer was proposed by Gert Dumbar and his son Derk in 2007. A Safe Place is a system of pictograms designed as a tool for communication between aid workers and victims of disasters. Giving people in disaster areas good and accurate information, the theory goes, can save many lives.

Are there other, similarly practical ways in which visual communicators can get involved? It’s something we are going to look at in the May issue of CR but if readers know of more examples, please let us know in the comments below.

Such projects would give our community the chance to get involved at a deeper, more long-term level. Reactive fundraising is valuable and welcome, but it also would be good to see visual communicators affecting disaster relief on the ground in a similarly positive way. Hopefully, our forthcoming piece will point up some opportunities.

All this has been on my mind of late not just because of the online debates but also because I have been involved in attempting to organise a response to the Japan disaster from the creative community.

Just over a week ago, a prominent designer called. He wanted to do something to help Japan, could CR help? The designer contacted friends and colleagues, many of whom had friends in Japan and who felt a great affinity for the country. All were keen to help in addition to donating money themselves, but how?

For a group of people with limited resources, selling Giclée prints is do-able and it’s effective. A very high proportion of the money raised in this way goes to the charity concerned as there are few up-front costs. Organisations like ShelterBox and the Red Cross who are engaged on the ground in Japan need cash and they need it quickly. Selling prints will provide it, so that route seemed sensible as a first response.

But it also seemed necessary to divorce the works from the disaster itself. There’s no need to illustrate what just happened, and no need to raise awareness. Contributors have been asked to concentrate not on the disaster but on why they love Japan, what makes it beautiful, unique and important to them. In this way we hope that the prints will have a longer life and will act not as a reminder of something awful but as a reminder of a moment when the creative community came together to support their friends and colleagues at a time of great need.

But what else can we do? A lot of people have offered items for auction, so that will happen soon. But besides fundraising, can this community help on the ground in any meaningful way? Do you know of any ways in which it is already doing so? Can we help to make sure that agencies are better equipped to respond to any future disaster?

Can we create a model for future disaster responses by the creative community? We will be setting up a website to act as a forum for suggestions and debate. We will be contacting Japanese designers and NGOs for their views but we would like to invite all CR readers to advise us also. Please let us know your suggestions in the comments below. If you know of anyone else who is already tackling these issues, please give us details.

UPDATE: really interesting Washington Post story here (linked by magCuture) on a local Japanese newspaper producing a handwritten edition. “People need food, water and, also, information.”

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