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Disaster != Fame

Signalnoise 'Help Japan' [Detail]

Following the not insignificant outpouring of designer responses to the crisis currently facing Japan, johnson banks earlier this week, posed the question Disaster = Poster? in their ongoing, thought-provoking series of articles ‘Thought for the Week’.

The thoughts expressed by johnson banks are echoed in a recent article published on the Eye Magazine blog, titled Poster initiatives mean well, but what are designers raising awareness of? Both articles, at heart, pose the same question: Who is the real beneficiary of what’s been swiftly designated ‘disaster porn’ and what motivates those who create these graphic responses?

The implication in both articles is that many of the designers creating posters (or other ‘designer ephemera’ to support various charity’s efforts in Japan) are motivated more by a desire for self-promotion than by genuine concern. That’s an easy assertion to make, and as some point out in the comments 1, might cynically be interpreted as a means of driving web site traffic to those making the assertion.

The reality, as always, is complicated and the graphic outpourings we witnessed in the wake of the tragedy in Japan were probably motivated by a variety of reasons.

Weiden + Kennedy’s elegantly minimal Red Cross poster quickly set the tone, with others swiftly following, including Signalnoise’s subtle and refined Help Japan poster. Suddenly the floodgates were opened with all manner of, “Stuff you can buy – that helps Japan,” collected helpfully by PA¥ FOR JAPAN, amongst others, (broadening the range of products on offer beyond the humble poster).

Returning to the posters that sparked this debate, however, the question boils down to this: Is making a poster an appropriate response to the tragedies in Japan? (Or, indeed, to tragedies anywhere?)

When Disaster Strikes

When disaster on a large scale strikes, a natural human emotion is to consider anything that you can do – even on a small scale – to alleviate the suffering of those affected. This is an admirable instinct, and no-one in their right mind would question that ethos. However, the question raised is: What good comes from the making of a poster?

The posters sparked by the situation in Japan are by no means the first such responses to tragedy. Other examples include The Haiti Poster Project, prompted by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which was, in turn, inspired by The Hurricane Poster Project, a response to Hurricane Katrina.

The reality is that posters have long been employed as a means of raising awareness and their use stretches back through history, and it’s worth reflecting on this rich visual and cultural history before hastily arriving at hurried opinions.


Traditionally, the poster has been used to raise awareness and to unite people around a common cause. One of the most recent examples of this to have seared itself into the public consciousness, is Shepard Fairey’s ubiquitous HOPE poster, which widely became became synonymous with the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. This, however, is just one in a long line of images that capture the public imagination, most notably with the propaganda posters created throughout the second world war 2, 3.

It could be argued that Weiden + Kennedy and Signalnoise’s efforts are doing the same, helping to raise awareness about the situation in Japan. However, thanks to the extensive media coverage the tsunami and its aftermath has had in Japan, raising awareness is not really an issue.

Unlike the beginning of the twentieth century, in the age of the internet, awareness travels fast, not least in a world where one can watch the horrifying events unfold half a world away streamed live via the web.

Marian Bantjes’ comment on the much-commented Eye article, suggests that the first instinct – applying your craft to help – is well-meaning, but misdirected. Bantjes states:

If you really feel a desire to express yourself in a poster, I would suggest choosing your charity, and applying your kick-ass graphics to creating a free poster or project that requests donations directly to that charity.

It’s a point well put and it’s one that’s hard to argue with. Further unpicking the thinking, Bantjes goes on to state:

I would further suggest that those who are so compelled to make posters, should take a broader look at the world, decide what under-reported areas still need help, choose an NGO that does good work in that area, and make something that communicates that need and directs people’s attention to that NGO or charity.

This sentiment chimes neatly with the principles embodied in the First Things First manifesto, first published by Ken Garland in 1964 and republished by Eye in 2000, a call to arms for designers to put their skills to uses other than the promotion of mindless consumerism.

First Things First

Updated and rewritten for the twenty-first century, the First Things First 2000 manifesto was reprinted with new signatories in Eye Issue 33. The manifesto stated:

Designers apply their skill and imagination to sell dog biscuits, designer coffee, diamonds, detergents … and heavy-duty recreational vehicles. Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design. The profession’s time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best.

The manifesto went on to suggest:

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention.

Perhaps it’s here that we might draw inspiration, putting our valuable time and effort into the creation of, as Bantjes’ puts it, “kick-ass graphics,” for those charities and NGOs that exist a little further from the spotlight.

Garland’s intention when he first published his manifesto was to stimulate discussion, to question and challenge the changing relationship between design and culture. As Eye neatly summarised it: “To highlight the values, ideals and sense of responsibility that once shaped the growth and practice of design [and] to re-assert these considerations as fundamental to any sensitive interpretation of graphic design’s role and potential.” No small challenge indeed.

When All Is Said and Done

The bottom line? Whilst it’s good to see representatives of an industry that is often labelled superficial and, for the most part, concerned solely with surface, doing what they can to help; the underlying question that this debate has raised has implications beyond the immediate discussion: To what uses might designers skills be put? How might we use our abilities as visual communicators and storytellers to do more for the world than add to the visual noise?

We, as designers, should be encouraged to participate and add to the cultural debate, to raise awareness, to point out injustices. But when we do so, we have a responsibility. That responsibility includes both offering insight and acting selflessly.

When an artist writes a poem or composes a protest song, the purpose is to show the situation in a different light to the one offered by traditional media, to provoke you to look at the situation from a different viewpoint. We too, have to answer to that brief. We also - if we truly want to help - should resist the urge to blow our own trumpets, and demand no glory.

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