Japan relief efforts: Icograda’s response

Following our CR May piece on how design can help in times of crisis, Icograda’s Tokyo-based president elect, Leimei Julia Chiu, spoke to us about her involvement in the reconstruction efforts in Japan – and what designers can do to help

Following our CR May piece on how design can help in times of crisis, Icograda‘s Tokyo-based president elect, Leimei Julia Chiu, spoke to us about her involvement in the reconstruction efforts in Japan – and what designers can do to help…

Chiu talked CR through the efforts currently being made on the ground, detailing Icograda’s plans for the short and long term, and offered further thoughts on what designers might be able to contribute to the areas of the world most affected by crisis and disaster.

What follows is our Q&A email interview with Chiu, who kindly took time away from working on Icograda’s strategy towards the Japanese relief efforts to answer our questions. It’s perhaps appropriate to start with something that Chiu signed off with in one of her emails. “The media is already moving on to the next topic,” she wrote, “but the process for the designers to contribute has only just begun.” In a sense, we hope this post – in publishing Chiu’s comments – continues to get designers thinking.


CR: The provision of information seems to be one specific area that the skills of designers could be best put to use in times of crisis: good, reliable information can lead people to shelter, food etc, it’s a vital part of the chain. Do you think more could be done to raise awareness of the need for the provision of systems of information in times like this?

LJC: Definitely. There are so many ways that communication designers can contribute. Here, the information bulletin boards that should be providing good, reliable information to lead people to find their loved ones placed at various shelters are not designed at all. Because the areas affected are so huge, and many of the towns are completely diminished by the tsunami, we have hundreds and thousands of ‘refugees’ who have to be placed at public housing and transitional shelters across the whole country. This also means they will need to receive information in order to learn how to adapt to a life in a completely new city or environment.

In the case of those people from the Fukushima area who had to be relocated to other cities and towns because of the nuclear reactors; there have been incidents where children are being bullied at school because of the misconception that they will spread the nuclear contamination.

There need to be campaign tools targeting the general public to eliminate this kind of discrimination, as well as tools to help the local communities learn how to help these ‘refugees’ to integrate into the new environment. At some of the shelters, we also need to provide effective campaign tools to raise awareness of sexual crimes against women and children. Graphic designers also need to provide their services to fit both the digital platform users as well as traditional analogue communication tools because of the large percentage of older population in the affected areas.


CR: How has Icograda and the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Organisation [JIDPO – Chiu is its executive director], been involved in offering help at this difficult time? Are you issuing calls for additional help through JIDPO, which Icograda can then put out to the wider design community?

LJC: I’ve been working on how design can be used to help the reconstruction efforts to rebuild Japan, and at JIDPO we have shifted all our projects towards how design can help with community-rebuilding in the north-eastern areas. More details are at JIDPO president Kazunori Iizuka’s statement at jidpo.or.jp/en/news/2011/0401.html and also at a more recent news piece on JIDPO’s Revival Support Team at jidpo.or.jp/en/news/2011/0401_2.html.


CR: From the Tokyo perspective, what would you ask from the international design community? What do you think would be the most helpful thing for the design community to do, or to provide?

LJC: At the moment, I think what needs to be done is to start the process of identifying case studies from around the world which could then be used to help people. When the victims of the Sendai area are eventually able to settle into transitional shelters and start the process of rebuilding their communities, we could tap into this resource to provide effective assistance through design. I’m contacting major design awards from around the world to collect good case studies, products, services and systems that could be of use to the reconstruction efforts. At the same time, design associations from Icograda’s network in 129 cities will be contacted as well to join this project.


CR: In the days and weeks following the tsunami we noticed a wealth of print and poster projects springing up, in support of the Japanese relief efforts (most often the prints are for sale with the proceeds going to the various charities on the ground). CR, too, is involved with Designer for Japan, for example. Would you recommend designers put their skills towards some of these initiatives – if they’re unable to put them to immediate good use on the ground? It seems that, for many, it’s a good starting point in offering help…

LJC: Yes. At the same time though, I also feel that as time goes by the next step would be to utilise design skills to help people who will have to rebuild their lives from scratch; but not by designing posters.

Here is my plan: This year, I will be the design manager directing an initiative by the Niigata [prefecture] government in which they sponsor companies in Niigata to develop new products. Niigata is next to Sendai where the triple catastrophe hit and also experienced an earthquake several years back. The prefecture is famous for its strong tradition of craft industries and the government supports the integration of design to help the manufactures in the region touse their traditional skills and yet develop new products for today’s lifestyle.

I’m thinking of setting the theme for this year as follows: How we can design products, systems for a better living environment where people have been displaced, and are trying to reorient themselves to build a new life from scratch? We need ideas and the companies in Niigata will realise these ideas into real products or systems after one year. There’s more information on this at nico.or.jp/hyaku/english/.

For example, I was thinking of information devices that could be used to improve human behaviour – such as radiation monitors or applications available on mobile devices (iPhone etc) that could check the safety of the physical environment of food. It also became apparent that when a disaster hits, we often have to cope with power shortages and rolling blackouts until the infrastructure is completely recovered. It would be good to design a device that lets you see how much electricity or water you are consuming. This device would also be used for normal living environments.

I’m also thinking about the possibility of having these Japanese companies and craft industries teach their experiences in other countries to preserve and pass on the knowledge and skills. Maybe we could design an information system to match these needs – so governments or design centres in countries like Brazil or Thailand might be interested in inviting them to give workshops to small and medium scale companies within their countries? This would also benefit the other countries who need to learn from the Japanese expertise to upgrade their industries.

Providing donations isn’t as effective as providing job opportunities or means for the victims to learn how to stand up on their own again so that they have the hope and the ability to rebuild their communities. There are many things to think about and to plan, and we will need all the help to share the experiences and expertise. We will also need to commit to this on a very, very long term basis.

Keep up to date with Icograda’s ongoing work at icograda.org.

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