What can we do to help?

After the Japanese earthquake, the creative community rushed to offer its sympathy and support, but do visual communicators have more to offer the cause of disaster relief than fundraising posters? And how could such practical efforts be best implemented on the ground?

Mark Sinclair examines the work being done by design organisations, relief agencies and charities and challenges third year graphic design students from Kingston University to devise aid relief concepts, as he asks What can we do to help?

On March 11, the east coast of Japan’s Tōhoku region bore the brunt of an undersea earthquake that triggered a devastating tsunami. The ports of Sendai and Ishinomaki were particularly badly hit and repeated CCTV footage of water tumbling through Sendai airport offered an early indication of the scale of the disaster. The plight of Ishinomaki received far less news coverage, but one story of survival did emerge via a Washington Post journalist based in the city. Andrew Higgins reported that in the days following the tsunami, despite the loss of power and the surrounding chaos, the local newspaper was still managing to get stories out. They were being handwritten onto huge sheets of white paper and distributed to the city’s emergency relief centres.

“People who suffer a tragedy like this need food, water and, also, information,” Hiroyuki Takeuchi, chief reporter at the Hibi Shimbun, told Higgins. “People used to get their news from television and the internet. But when there is no light and no electricity, the only thing they have is our newspaper.” Takeuchi’s account puts the focus on an aspect of disaster relief that receives little attention in the media, even in the calls for help, following such a crisis: the urgent need for reliable information on the ground. If there is a system in place to filter and disseminate information then shelter, food and water, medical aid and communications can be sought out more easily. In short, lives can be saved.

“Information, communication and coordination are the most important things in a crisis situation,” says designer Derk Dumbar, whose series of International Disaster Pictograms is an ongoing project for his studio based in The Hague (a selection of pictograms is shown overleaf). “Effective communication is key to countering confusion. But during crises there are many obstacles in the way of effective communication. The victims of war or natural disaster are usually confused and disorientated; they are focused on surviving.”

In the weeks following the Tōhoku tsunami, the internet has become the campaigning ground for design-related fundraising. Threadless.com’s Sunrise project has assembled T-shirt designs expressing people’s love for Japan, while raising money for its relief efforts; numerous appeals from individuals and groups such as Cause for Design and Love for Japan have been set up; while CR is helping to produce prints for the Designers for Japan initiative. In each case, the money raised by the selling of T-shirts and posters will go towards the continuing relief efforts. But while these actions contribute monetarily, their sheer ubiquity might suggest that graphic designers can do little else to help.

Design’s responsibility
Yet as Dumbar points out, designers are in the business of engagement and their skills could perhaps be better used if brought directly in front of the victims of disaster. “Any effort is a good one in my opinion,” says Dumbar of the design community’s fund-raising work to date. “But I think the possibilities are not being fully exploited – that’s why we designed the set of disaster pictograms. When designed well, pictograms are in principle universally recognisable. They combine maximum readability and international usability because they cross over language borders and, in combination with carefully chosen colours and basic shapes, are visible from afar. 2 3 Still, their legibility rests upon abstracted but recognisable references to visual reality, a standardisation of design, and a consistency of use.” In other words, all things that designers are trained to do.

Outside of the disaster zone itself, a proper understanding of a crisis can also be led by design. Digitalsurgeons’ Help Japan infographic chart, though now already out of date, was posted around numerous blogs, while a more rigorous effort by designer Rama C Hoetzlein, which put the radiation levels at the Fukushima plant into context, has circulated widely. David McCandless also recently added a clear-cut Radiation Dosage Chart to his ongoing Information is Beautiful site. In part, these are reactions to the misreporting of the news networks, not to mention the sensationalism of tabloid journalism. (For example, in the UK, The Sun has recently used “Apocalypse” and “Get Out of Tokyo Now” as headlines, doing little to aid people’s comprehension of what is happening.) Inside Japan, it seems perfectly possible that morale has been at the mercy of a hyperbolic Western media keen on maintaining drama at the expense of fact. The potential to educate, to illustrate and even to dispel fear (via visual communications or not) is too often a responsibility left to the most reckless of newspapers.

However, what’s been made clear during the last few weeks is that international design bodies can fulfil a co-ordinating role in times of crisis. Both the AIGA and Icograda issued statements following the Japanese tsunami and through communicating with their various networks within the country, are well placed to channel relief efforts from the design community in the right direction. The AIGA, for example, is already listening out for requests for help from JAGDA and JIDPO, Japan’s Graphic Designers Association and Industrial Design Promotion Organisation, respectively, and has intimated that collating a series of case studies where design has been applied in crisis situations, could also prove valuable. “Wayfinding and information for those in a crisis is critical and usually addressed after the fact and then, perhaps, for the last disaster,” says Ric Grefé, AIGA’s executive director. “But designers are critical in making the complex clear and turning information into understanding.”

For Grefé, lessons already learnt in the US may also be translatable to other areas of the world and to other forms of disaster. “At the national level, AIGA tries to involve designers as critical contributors in addressing substantial social problems. This can be through innovative approaches to high concept but low cost or low tech solutions to human centered dilemmas,” he explains. “Many of these problems are disasters and crises such as hunger, access to clean water, disease. We pursue these engagements with experts, NGOs, corporations, academics and other designers. They are not traumatic and sudden event-driven catastrophes, although they represent the use of creativity to defeat habit and find a path through complexity. They represent a model of how we would like to see designers used even in a case like the current chaos and challenge in Japan; yet, for reasons of culture, distance and timeliness, our members are unlikely to be involved in anything like this in Japan in the short term.”

Deborah Szebeko of London-based social design agency, Think Public, also believes that in times of disaster, designers need to have more of an active involvement with aid and relief efforts taking place. “Designers need to work with the charities or governments trying to provide information and design the most suitable forms to reach people where they are,” she says. “Government information often gets lost in complex language that isn’t easy to understand. But how could you use design to direct people to safety, or to reconnect people that have lost each other? These are design briefs that can really help address the anxiety that people face and reassure them in a time of crisis. This means thinking beyond traditional design briefs and becoming social designers, digging out the information to make sure it reaches the people that need it.”

As far as on the ground post-disaster design initiatives go, Dumbar’s in-depth pictogram research is continuing, but his studio has made a great deal of progress. “Design, in this case, is a structural tool for clarifying content and not, as it is used so often, a means of decorating a message,” he says. “These pictograms are meant to be of genuine help to those who have no time for stylistics and merely want quick answers to simple but essential questions.” Dumbar’s first set of pictograms is currently being reviewed by a range of international specialists, including various emergency relief agencies and logistics organisations.

Being better prepared
“The stage of disaster response that can save the most lives, and mitigate the effect of a disaster, is the preparedness stage,” says Thomas Lay, visual communications officer at ShelterBox, the UK-based charity that delivers emergency shelter and lifesaving supplies to victims of crises. “Effective visual communication educating communities in the safest and most appropriate actions to take when a disaster strikes is something that development agencies spend a lot of time and money working on, eg where to go in an earthquake, tsunami evacuation routes, the importance of hygiene to prevent the spread of disease, how to protect yourself against HIV/AIDS etc.” ShelterBox focuses on the early response phase of a disaster, Lay explains, with visual methods such as pictorial descriptions of the aid established as a part of the work carried out by the charity’s response teams (while direct translation and sign language are also used to explain the different ways to set up a camp, erect and maintain the tents and equipment).

“Another area that’s very progressive at the moment is the use of social media and the technological aspect of [communicating with recipients],” says Lay. “The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has just released a report titled Disaster Relief 2.0 that looks at the future of information sharing in humanitarian emergencies. The emergence of websites such as ushahidi.com and openstreetmap.org, combined with initiatives such as Mission 4636 – a text message service set up in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake to allow Haitians to inform the agencies of their needs – has opened the door to a new future of information gathering and sharing within the humanitarian sector. This would be a very interesting area for graphic designers to look at and assist with the presentation of information to agencies and effected populations.” Lay suggests that due to the various ways in which information is now consumed, charities like ShelterBox require a whole range of platforms to communicate their message. Indeed, according to Lay, one of the most effective methods used in the developing world remains the use of informative artworks that local artists paint onto the walls of buildings.

Graphic design offers no quick fix, but the levels of research, study and review that Dumbar alludes to are necessary in order to implement any system responsibly. Grefé, too, would add a word of caution. “We’re suggesting that designers be involved either as generous human beings or by applying their design mind to tough problems,” he says. “Over time, case studies are meant to make sure that designers are included among those who can make a difference. If they’re offered the opportunity to help now, they should. We simply urge that AIGA not rush to duplicate what others are better equipped to do, nor feel compelled to design objects that demonstrate our sympathy under the mistaken impression that this helps.”

Designers can no longer afford to react to a crisis once it has taken place, but must consider any effort in disaster relief as an ongoing concern. Even organising how a system of pictograms can be produced and distributed via aid relief requires considerable planning. “One aspect of dealing with the aftermath of large-scale disasters is often underestimated,” says Dumbar, “but it is of the essence: to be prepared for their occurrence.” Designers need to look at their involvement the other way around, ensuring that design plays a key role after disasters happen, but perhaps even more of one before they take place.

Updates at aiga.org, icograda.org, shelterbox.co.uk

See also this month’s Monograph and designersfor-japan.com.

CR briefed third year students on the graphic design course at Kingston University to produce designs for aiding victims of natural disasters. Here are some of the ideas they came up with. Thanks to course director Rebecca Wright and to all of the students who took part. See the slideshow at the top of this article to view the images.

Ben Lambert and Jack Llewellyn divided the people that they wanted to help into two groups: the survivors of the disaster itself and the friends and family who would be concerned about loved ones. Their solution was to design and build a website that lets people share their own information and content, be it a Twitter feed or infographic from someone on the ground, or a nuclear physicist making a Skype webcast. Network members submit information to a central hub, which is voted on as to its relevance. A framework then distils the most relevant information down into small file sizes so it can be sent over devices such as satellite phones. They also designed a series of boxes for transporting aid supplies. benlambert.co.uk/japan

Thirza Prentice and Sara Weavers designed a series of large helium balloons that can be used to indicate where aid is being distributed from within a disaster area. Other alternatives could let survivors know of meeting points and water stations, with each balloon fitted with solar powered lights so they remain visible at night. They also created a design for a range of magnetic letters that could be used to generate messages on the sides of aid vehicles.

Tom Moloney and James Cooney created an Animal Disaster Prediction system whereby the habits of various creatures could be monitored to detect behavioural changes prior to a natural disaster. The animals’ unusual movements would then initiate a warning system for the local population. The project is based on data from L’Aquila in Italy which revealed how a local toad colony left its breeding ground four days before an earthquake struck the area in 2009. Similarly, preceeding the tsunami of 2004, water buffalo belonging to a Sumatran village apparently stampeded to higher ground, saving the villagers that followed.

Grace Hsu and Derek Man worked on a set of stamps that feature informational icons. Each can then be used to update printed maps with details of where shelter, food and water supplies are located.



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