Disaster = poster?


Just a few days ago, the johnson banks studio was caught in a heated debate. The cause of it? An appropriate response to the tragedies in Japan.

As regular readers of this blog will know, we have many links to the country (including a Japanese American designer). Our main priority over the last week has been to ensure by electronic means that our many friends and some family over there are safe (including those in Sendai, one of the most devastated areas, visited as part of this project). Thankfully, they are all fine, although their emails back have often been harrowing in their detail and sadness.

The debate concerned appropriate reaction, fuelled in part by Weiden + Kennedy’s Red Cross poster at the top of this post, swiftly followed by this poster by Signalnoise.


It seems that others have made up their mind – Fast Code came off the fence with this critique, then Eye Magazine quickly followed (and has sparked off a sometimes furious debate in the process).

Essentially, both articles ask the same thing: why do graphic designers feel the need to design posters about tragic events?


Last year we were contacted by the Haiti poster project (which essentially asks for poster donations that are sold online to raise funds). We couldn’t respond, partly because of time-pressures, and partly because, in our case, visualizing the horror of the Haiti earthquake seemed somehow inappropriate and possibly too easy to lapse into glib responses. Many designers did take part, some of them are great, and money is being raised, which is all good.

Yet, sure enough, some of the posters are already starting to surface in this year’s round of design competitions and that’s where all those inappropriate/ethical alarm bells start clanging in our heads again.

If, as a profession, all we can do in response to disaster is design a nice poster (with our names at the bottom to ensure a bit of PR), offer it up online, then quietly enter it into design competitions a few months later, that doesn’t feel quite right somehow.

You could argue conversely that designers should react in the best form they know and if that response raises funds, who are we to criticise? Weiden’s poster has so far raised $30,000, Signalnoise’s, $7,000: would they have raised that without it? Good question. Together, both companies would have struggled to raise $37k on their own: by supplying an alternative route, more money has been raised. It isn’t clear yet how much the Haiti poster project has raised, but that stemmed out of a Hurricane Katrina project that aimed to raise $1,000,000 for the Red Cross.


But you can see why we're in a quandary. Perhaps the last word on this should go to the late Alan Fletcher. His response to the 9/11 tragedy? To collect postcards of the World Trade Center, then carefully burn holes in the top. He felt he had to respond, somehow. He did. But he didn’t then offer them as a limited edition poster.

The Red Cross donation page is here.
The Save the Children donation page is here.
The Oxfam donation page is here.

In case you’re wondering, the £700 or so that’s in the johnson banks Paypal account (from selling stuff from our shop) is being shared amongst these three.

There's talk of a global Pecha Kucha in aid of the disaster – keep an eye on the PK homepage for more news