Disaster and the Poster

I'm taking a break today from the usual link dump to address a trend I personally find disturbing, and hopefully get your opinion on the subject. As we've all seen with the current situation in Japan, the horrors of natural disaster inspire designers to create posters, of which proceeds go to help fund recovery efforts. This in itself is a noble act, we all want to do what we can when we witness fellow humans in dire need of assistance. We do what we know, and poster designers create posters. Sometimes, however, I think we lose sight of the purpose of the poster itself and instead create misguided monuments to our own ego, adding yet another piece to an already huge pile of production and consumption.

The question it seems we fail to ask ourselves before creating these posters is "What is the concept of this piece? What am I trying to communicate? Does anyone really want this monument to tragedy hanging on their wall as a decoration?" I understand that the money raised goes to a good cause, but is the middleman of the poster really a necessary step between the donator and recipient? I'm not going to single out specific designs because I truly believe these pieces are done by designers with their hearts in the right place. I will say, however, that most of the designs I've seen so far focus on two elements: the red circle of the Japanese flag and some sort of icon representing either the earthquake, the tsunami or the ensuing wreckage created by both.

What are we saying? If the intent is to simply communicate that there was a terrible disaster in Japan, then I guess they are successful. But shouldn't the purpose of a relief poster be to create something that motivates its audience to act while communicating a message of hope or some form of kinship within the human race? This is after all a piece of art that is intended to be hung on a wall in someone's home or place of business. As poster designers, it is our duty to create something that functions beyond a simple depiction of a disaster and inspires empathy or even action on the part of the audience. It seems as if we, in a race to get something produced and publicized as quickly as possible, forget the most important role of poster design to begin with...What is its purpose, and what does it say?

I'm definitely not saying we shouldn't donate as much as we can to the relief effort in Japan, obviously this is a terrible tragedy that deserves our help. By all means, donate as much as you can to foundations like the Red Cross or Salvation Army. But do we need another monument to tragedy and consumption in our homes? I can't say I won't purchase a poster that helps fund relief efforts in Japan, but if I do, it will be one that communicates a sense of hope and reverence for Japanese culture rather than destruction and pity.


Anonymous said...

well said. thanks for this.

iankiar said...

I totally agree the help-Japan poster creators have their hearts in the right place.

But I think they're marketing them the wrong way.

I think they're "office art" vs "home art".

i.e. the makers of these posters should present them as "Hey everyone - why don't you get a bunch of co-workers to each pitch in 20 bucks and we get on of these for the office?" Then they hang it up at the office for a month or two where everyone sees it...

Or, the prints should be pedaled to business owners - store, restaurants - to get them to put the posters in the front windows.

Oliver G said...

Great post, I too felt a little confused when seeing the flood of charity prints. Although I want to donate and also honor the memory of the victims, I wouldn't be comfortable hanging any of them on my wall.

I think a lot of designers just see this as great opportunity to sell a design hidden behind pretend worthiness, I mean who would know...

Kristin said...

Absolutely, how well put! I'm organizing a fundraiser for the coming week, selling work of my fellow design students at my university to raise money for Doctors without Borders. I've come across a lot of posts with the posters you talk about and we are looking to move definitively in the direction you speak of. Creating illustrations/poster designs that are objects of beauty inspired by Japanese culture, to benefit the Japanese people, and NOT to create an artistic reminder of something so horrific as this disaster.

Anonymous said...

AMEN Brother!

Anonymous said...

so right. thanks and greetings from germany!

Harry Diaz said...

I think you are right. Most of the posters being produced highlight the natural disaster itself. Very few of these have any concept at all. It's a shame.

Anonymous said...

Very good insight. Something many of us may have missed due to the immediacy of the current situation.


Lisa Woods said...

First off, thank you for this thoughtful post.

I've seen a lot of re-circulating of Japanese earthquake posters (I have done it myself). And I've seen a few antagonistic comments condemning those same posters, their creators, and the design community at large for praising and promoting them. But your post was the first to really address the issue.

I'm of two minds about 'disaster posters'. One one side, I feel the creators are honestly trying to help. I am a big fan of both the Haiti Poster Project and of the Hurricane Poster Project from a few years ago. I think they rallied the creative community and did a lot of good by encouraging artistic exploration and, of course, raising money.

On the other side, I agree that images that focus on the disaster aspect of the situation instead of the hope/help side can seem to be trivializing the calamity of others. (I think it's interesting to note that man-made calamities such as the BP oil spill also generated grim, hopeless, and sometimes glib imagery, but for some reason that seems less morally reprehensible.)

It seems that some the commenters above who are trying to define a conciliatory position focus on the location and the duration of displaying the posters. Office vs home (public vs private display) and long-term vs short-term (limited call to action vs morbid memento). These are issues of context.

I think other issues are:

• tone (What is an appropriate tone when representing the loss of human life?)
• intent (How do you judge if the purpose is to help others or to self promote? And what if the creator is doing both simultaneously?)
• uniqueness/cleverness of concept (Do design elegance and cleverness—or lack thereof—compete with the tone of calamity?)
• desecration of national symbols (Is manipulating the Japanese flag necessarily akin to disrespect? Or only when the result is trite?)
• context (Where can one display a disaster poster and for how long before it becomes an indecent fetish?)

I have no pat answers…. but I hope your post generates more discussion!

William Roth said...

I think everyone wants to be the next Shepard Fairey. I saw the trend too but I wasn't sure if it was because of some contest, or if the illustrators were pitching their work out to news agencies for their stories. There is always opportunity, especially during a crisis.

I see also iPhone apps making their march sales go towards Japan relief efforts, what a crock. Microsoft tried some marketing stunt too, where every RT would get another dollar towards relief efforts.

The Best Part said...

By no means am I condemning designers of relief posters in general or poster projects (like the Haiti or Hurricane ones), in fact I both participated in the Haiti Poster Project and own a poster from the Hurricane Poster Project that hangs in my home to this day (http://bit.ly/e5wxa9). Both, however, communicate ideas of hope, kinship and reverence for the affected people. While some designers may subconsciously be after the fame and publicity attached to such events, I don't think anyone intentionally sets out to do so. It's simply a lack of understanding of the artistic process and the importance of conceptual thought. Being adept with Photoshop textures is great, but it's a very small part of what makes a piece successful. In my opinion, the root of the problem lies in design education. So many graduates of graphic design programs have never taken classes that stress conceptual thought, theory or design history. Teaching a student Photoshop does not make them a designer. It's not the fault of the students or graduates themselves, they expect a design education to make them a good designer. It lies on educational institutions to care about the depth of education that their graduates receive, and most simply don't know that there's more to design than the computer. It's sad but true, and it's getting worse before it's getting better.

Alberto said...

I totally agree.
Estoy totalmente de acuerdo.