2011 Sendai Disaster: On John Pavlus’ Article

The Creative Response

More than three months after the fact, the events that transpired during the March 11th Japanese earthquake and tsunami still remain well in the minds of many. Not only because of what happened, but also in terms of the rapid response from the world over. In the same momentum, artists and designers proceeded to channel the creative language, churning out countless beautiful works in an effort to raise awareness and money to donate to one of the many dedicated relief organisations involved. These creatives, usually so by profession, took time out of their schedules to reflect and respond in whatever way they felt was appropriate. Most were willing to forego the usual monetary benefits that tend to go hand-in-hand with their other creative pursuits.

Like everyone with the emotional capacity to respond to beauty, I liked certain works over others. I even compiled a list of several of them. The creations I picked were selected because I feel they did more than memorialise the thousands of victims or emphasise the relevance of a tragic but important event. Instead, the designers behind the chosen pieces decided to highlight the values of compassion, resilience, patience, and stoicism. By permanently capturing the face of grace under fire, these designs transformed into a message with a global scope instead of just a Japanese one.

I have to confess, however, that my selections were heavily influenced by something I read prior to compiling said post.

The Difficult Question

On March 15th, Fast Company regular contributor John Pavlus dared himself — and others — to answer the following: “Is This Poster to Aid Japan’s Tsunami Victims a Crime Against Design?”. The “poster” implied by the title is in reference to the generally well-received “Help Japan” print created by Signalnoise, and is the subject of Pavlus’ conflicted feelings over purchasing a copy for his own personal consumption. The resulting write-up is a hard but necessary examination of the motivations behind designing for disaster.

Asking difficult questions comes with being put in a difficult position — and it happens, sometimes unwittingly. Pavlus’ hesitant tone of writing, however, indicates he was fully aware of the weight of his words. Sure enough, it elicited a lot of responses, which covered a wide spectrum of views. Some in agreement, some vehemently disagreeing, but all are as interesting as they are passionate. On the other hand, it would have been better without the occasional pot shot, but their presence is only quite telling of the strength of Pavlus’ message.

Seeing Red

Pavlus starts off by praising the poster’s soft aesthetics, and does not deny its success as a catalyst for awareness. Signalnose’s effort rakes in USD 7000 in funds for the Canadian Red Cross, and the news of its reprint is met with much enthusiasm. However, what appears to be a premised pre-occupation with “pretty things” makes Pavlus question his own motives of buying a copy:

Let’s say I did buy one of these posters: what on earth am I supposed to do with it? Hang it in my living room like some overly aestheticized/sanitized symbol of a blindly horrific natural disaster that I had no direct experience of? Or, worse, as some sick, bragging monument to my own willingness to ‘help’? To be honest, the only sane thing to do with a poster like this might be to just burn the thing as soon as it arrives in the mail.

Although Pavlus questions the motives of consumption in exchange for donation, it coloured my criteria when compiling sample work for my post on the creative response. Most of the designs I’ve happened upon during my search employed the sun-disc of the Japanese flag, creative license exercised in the interspersing of the key elements relating to the earthquake and tsunami. Hairline cracks, circles identifying epicentres, the First Aid Cross, seismic waves, and references to Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa were evidence of that research. It is without a doubt the designers’ intentions were noble, but instead of the rich red design element being a symbol of national pride and endurance, the results of its rehashing seemed almost… violent.

Creating is not the crime, for the act of creation is the instinctual remedy and the opposite of destruction. I also think the issue self-promotion in the midst of creating designs for charity is unavoidable, seeing as it is normal to become curious about the faces behind anything that propels the world forward. Besides, can we really be completely anonymous?

But I was uncomfortable with how help was being directed by creating, capturing, and marketing designs so suggestive of brutality. Is shock factor through design really necessary, when so much mainstream media coverage had already been dedicated to the grisly details? Pavlus asks if there would be the same amount of response had there been no well-designed aid collateral to connect the Canadian Red Cross to the much-needed USD 7000. Looking at the world as it is, there is no definitive answer. After all, we have grown long accustomed to getting more bang for the buck. But I sat back and mulled it over, anyway.

Signal to Noise

… shouldn’t our desire to donate come from actual compassion, not as a side effect of our fascination with pretty artifacts? Indeed it should.

Perhaps another angle to consider is the signal to noise ratio of the entire creative response. Disasters tend to evoke an emotional response, and Pavlus’ examination of conscience is no exception. It is hardly a bad thing, because creations triggered by any sort of personal resonance is meaningful. However, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the emotional aspects of it all. In this case — if you allow me to conjecture — an excess of designers campaigning for awareness with their continuous output of creations, when most are already largely aware.

The amount of internet users today could possibly back this claim. Compared to just a decade ago, the voice of the internet is now far more audible, faster, and evolved. With connections reaching speeds that far impress the olden days of dial-up, information can be exchanged in real-time. For the creatives, digital is readily available. There is an easier access to graphics software, allowing the proficient to create and disseminate. It also paves the way for far more convenience from the more manual techniques used in the design industry decades ago. With that said, this is in no way downplaying the years of training today’s designers undergo to hone their craft. However, it is worth remembering that in less digitally connected times, it was far more difficult to get their work shown to many people in a short amount of time.

Factoring these, therein possibly lies the problem. Raising awareness for Japan only deals with the beginning, and Pavlus dares to ask what direction should designers be taking after that initial period. In this respect, I do find myself agreeing with him. Print posters are well and good in the beginning, but there is an environmental impact in its production. Then, what?

Perhaps a re-routing of this passion can turn some of the excess noise into well-invested energy. In the midst of people donating their time and money, creatives are direly needed in the field to provide solutions that can temper the disaster aftermath. Others are good at finding ways to keep the media engaged long after the so-called “initial hype” has faded. Finding that personal fit depends on personal circumstance, of course, but we already seem to have some of the tools at our disposal.

(Also, signal to noise ratio? Signalnoise? It wasn’t lost on me, folks.)

A Necessary Dialogue

Pavlus’ multilateral questions are loaded. With the countless ways to broach the issue, I do not have a fixed opinion. It is possible for some of these posters to become memorialised, its sentiments and context captured forever in a museum display case. For all one knows, the indignation felt by those reacting to Pavlus’ article will transform into a soft reverence. As grief fades, resilience and compassion remain. Perhaps alongside those, a sympathetic view of Pavlus’ post will, too, be remembered instead.

I firmly believe Pavlus brought forward an important and much-needed discussion. I applaud him for stepping forward, fully risking the backlash that happened, and reminding people in the design industry to take that extra few seconds to re-examine their motivations behind their creations. With the recent aftershocks in Christchurch, New Zealand, I wonder if people are now considering these questions.

What About You?

Do you think the sudden influx of posters is an adequate way of directing global attention to disaster-afflicted areas? How else can the design industry utilise their creativity and intelligence as relief efforts? What is your stance on John Pavlus’ write-up?


  1. Maria Celina

    @Jannie: Good one, Jannie. Not only can re-usable bags promote awareness with tasteful designs that can potentially remind people of the plight of those affected by disasters, but in terms of the bigger picture, can also work as a campaign to reduce one’s carbon footprint.

    Besides, the design community can greatly contribute to designing these bags. Re-usable bags for grocery shopping already exist, but most of the ones I’ve seen emblazon corporate identities, which work in promoting the business but are not always aesthetically pleasing.

    @Rachel: When I checked my website statistics to corroborate your comment, Rachel, you attempted to comment around the time my domain was being processed for renewal. It is very likely the error you encountered is connected to that.

    You’re right, it is weird to receive incentives for a donation that is supposed to be out of the inherent good of humanity. We often don’t think about it until someone (like Pavlus) points it out. Hopefully with the idea somewhat out there, it can produce a butterfly effect of awareness and learning. Or stronger yet, un-learning.

  2. Charles Ravndal

    Jannie has wonderful pointers. I agree that donating should come from actual compassion, not that we get something in return through some merchandise. As Rachel pointed out, I also feel a bit odd to “donate” by purchasing something.

  3. Rachel

    I tried to comment last week, but some error prevented me from it :(

    It’s a good point that Pavlus is making, although sadly not too well-received. I would be unsure what to do with the poster, if and once I purchase it, because it would only remind me of the disaster… not a good thing to remember Japan by. I don’t know what a good alternative would be to this, though.

    As well-meaning as the designers are, it feels odd for me that we “donate” by purchasing goods for ourselves (poster, concert ticket, a beer), but then again I understand the need for a fun factor to give that extra donating nudge :) I guess, as long as there are earnings, the means justify the ends, huh?

  4. Jannie

    Regarding Pavlus’ question/quote about posters, I honestly wouldn’t know what to do with them either once they arrive. I am always up for a good cause as well as the expression of emotion and sentiment through creativity. It’s great the proceeds for those beautiful (Yes, a lot of them were beautiful.) posters will go to those affected by the disaster. Other than making posters, however, I believe there are other ways to express creativity and intelligence as relief efforts.

    I’m pretty sure someone came up with this idea already. I always thought of the people in the art industry making decorative grocery bags. Because many people aim to save paper and plastic, it would be great to have those bags one can use for each trip to the market. When the bags are purchased, the proceeds can go toward those affected by the disaster. While helping other people, we are also helping the environment as well by saving paper and plastic. :) We are also making good use of the bags too. :)

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