Co.Design

Is This Poster to Aid Japan's Tsunami Victims a Crime Against Design?

Signalnoise.com's tastefully designed poster, sold to raise money for relief efforts, raises tough questions about the role of "pretty" design in a sensitive situation.

I almost didn't write this post, because the humanitarian tragedy following the earthquakes in Japan is such a sensitive, complicated situation. And designers like Signalnoise are earnestly trying to help by putting their formidable talents to work -- in this case, by designing and selling a very tasteful poster and donating the proceeds to help relief efforts. The poster was undeniably successful, funneling $7,000 to the Canadian Red Cross, and generating a wave of interest for a second print run -- which I was very tempted to join by purchasing one for myself. But when I stopped and thought about that knee-jerk desire for a second, the feeling wasn't good.

japan

First things first: As a piece of graphic design, the poster is quite well-done. The hairline cracks in the classic "rising sun" emblem of Japan, the faint speckling of dust beneath it, and the subtle ink-patterns in the red field all seem to reference (perhaps unintentionally -- Signalnoise's blog post doesn't say) a key philosophy of Japanese beauty called wabi sabi -- an untranslatable idea sometimes described as beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent and incomplete"... nurtur[ing] all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."

Am I supposed to hang this in my living room?

I might already be treading on thin ice just by bringing that up -- I'm certainly not implying that there's anything beautiful or "quintessentially Japanese" about the actual destruction or loss of life. But the understated "flawed"ness of Signalnoise's visual design, which highlights the unpredictable and subtle physicality of ink, paper, and other traditional media, seems to be at least in the neighborhood of wabi sabi -- which makes it all the more sensitive. It's almost enough to make you forget about the fundamental disaster-porn aspect of any project like this.

But of course it doesn't, not really. 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.

It's not impugning Signalnoise's motives to ask these questions, but it does make me wonder if the designer fully thought through everything that the project implied before starting it. If not, we can hardly fault him -- the first response to any tragedy is always emotional, for better or worse, and the urge to just dosomethinganythingNOW is a powerful one. But as he considers a second print run, perhaps this designer has bought himself some extra time to reflect on this stuff. By harnessing design's most oft-cited power -- that is, its power to create the desire to consume -- this poster can channel an idle, base urge in a much more compassionate direction.

The actual product is unavoidably grotesque.

But then, shouldn't our desire to donate come from actual compassion, not as a side effect of our fascination with pretty artifacts? Indeed it should. Of course, there are a lot of things we should do out of basic human decency that often go undone. So maybe projects like these are just coldly efficient, making lemonade from lemons. Yes, the actual product is unavoidably, fundamentally grotesque if you look beneath its tasteful surface. But would that $7,000 have gotten to the Canadian Red Cross without it?

Who knows. But having thought about all this, I do know I'm sure as hell not buying one now. Luckily, there's an even more efficient way to take action now that this poster has got our attention -- by skipping the product-consumption step altogether and just donating to a crisis-response organization directly. You can do so at Signalnoise's charity of choice below.

[Click here to donate to the Canadian Red Cross's earthquake relief efforts]

Add New Comment

89 Comments

  • Joseph Cotten

    It's beautiful. It reminds the viewer of the tragedy by inspiring sympathy and action. It sends money to the victims of the tragedy.

    Disaster porn? Eh? God save us; what has our society come to that we can look upon something pure and invent a new wicked term to describe it. I am baffled by the twisted worldview that would lead one to berate or critique this sort of art work.

  • Someguy

    Money was raised to those in need through this poster. Therefore, shut up about everything else.

  • SButt

    Excessive analytical thinking will generally kill any attempt at something done with the presumable intention for good.

  • Jimmy Salermo

    I can see the logic in both sides of the argument, but what worries me most (and speaks volumes about what people are actually arguing about) is that the Japanese commenters who have felt offended by these posters have gone ignored.

    I admit, I saw the poster and thought it looked beautiful. I also thought it was great that money is being raised that may not have otherwise been raised. Just like charity concerts, albums, t-shirts and other paraphernalia, designers can and should step up and use their skills for good. However, this needs to be done with sensitivity consideration for the subject matter. If Japanese people themselves feel that their flag should not be used in this manner, it doesn't matter what every other designer comes to huff and puff about in this thread - we should respect this, and maybe in future efforts put some research in to make sure we are not defiling national icons?

    I wouldn't blame the designers of these posters of purposely offending a nation - as has been said, most people acted on impulse, with a passion that I think should be commended; but when it becomes clear that unintentional offense has been caused, I feel it is incredibly self righteous of the design community to dig their heels in and ferociously defend their right to design whatever they please because it happens to be beautiful. It has raised much needed money, and nobody is disputing that, but ideally this could be done without causing offense in the process. And perhaps without quite so blatant self promotion thrown in.

    I still feel that charity posters and other items are a good idea. It's not realistic to expect the whole western world to donate without getting something in return, because our society is simply too selfish for that to happen soon enough for it to do the earthquake and tsunami survivors any good. But our efforts do need to be considered responses - just like everything else we design.

  • Thomas Fuchs

    I find it's a fairly obvious visual pun, one that a good few designers would have probably come up with (in one way or another) if posed with that challenge.
    In fact, a good few did.
    So i'm not terribly in awe of it from a design aspect.
    But hey, not everyone has to like it- if it helps and actually raises money, great. What it definitely does though is raise awareness of the designer's existence (after all, they made sure of that by placing their logo/info on the bottom), so the primary motives for its creation seem rather obvious...

  • Erik Finsrud

    Design is there to create a function with an aesthetic approach. James White and I (also a contributor) saw a need to help a problem within our means, using the skills we know best. I created my poster so that every time someone scrolled down my site, they would be reminded, and hopefully donate.

    People also deal with tragedy in different ways, photographers battle with documenting tragic imagery all the time, and it often gets published or hung on a wall for other humans to observe and reflect upon. Artists do much the same; documenting, expressing, reflecting, communicating.

    In this case we saw the tragedy, our gut reaction was to graphically express how we felt about it, perhaps help others feel the same thing and ultimately donate. Posters have been used to garner awareness, regardless if they are beautiful, or horrifying; if they are a reminder in your home, or propaganda on the street. They have their purpose.

    The proper way to react to tragedy is a grey area and everyone reacts differently. For anyone who's ever experienced anything tragic can relate. The mix of emotions can feel like insanity.

    The cold truth is, Japan had a tragedy. But people cared enough to help, hopefully that brings some warmth to the situation.

  • Jon Sharp

    I can relate to most of the views for and against but when all's said and done, money is being raised to help those who need it. Can't argue with anything Ryan originally said in the first response.

    Is the creator or purchaser on trial here? Who's morals are in question? I can't see that the creation of such a piece is in anyway wrong (content aside, general purpose in question here). As a purchaser, absolutely whatever reason they bought it for has no relevance in this discussion; at the end of the day money has gone to those who need it.

    Should I have to have a night of TV entertainment put on in order to donate money to Comic Relief? Should I not automatically donate without getting something in return? As a graphic designer I think the creator of the poster has used his talent for good, same as a comedian appearing on a fundraising show/event. A little self promotion, intended or not, in both cases but it's the end result that matters... donations to charity.

  • Atom Groom

    I think that it’s really the design and art community as a whole along with social media. It’s not necessarily a “disaster” that brings out this type of attention seeking, we just happen to see more.

    After I thought about this more, what’s the difference between an designer making a poster for Japan and a designer making a poster for his portfolio, because in the end, it’s all about “look at me, look at me.” “go to my blog” “look at my work” “go to my website”. ME ME ME ME ME!

    To me designers, artists, marketing and tech companies and the like, are all the same. Total over promotion. Constantly promoting their own work, constantly looking for attention.

    In the end, it’s flat out annoying. There’s no love or personality behind it, it’s just constant attention seeking attitudes. And THAT, is sad.

  • yoshie okabayashi

    Thank you so much for posting this.

    As a Japanese citizen, when I saw this poster last week, I felt disappointed. In Japan, the flag, hinomaru, is cautiously used due to what it represents: the emperor, militarism, the rising sun.

    While I appreciate the purpose of this poster and the money that will bring, there are far more clever and well thought out designs out there. W+K's design is fantastic, for example.

    To me, this is just a poorly designed work without thinking through the connotations.

  • Emrys Damon Miller

    This is an important dialogue to have. Of course the environmental footprint of producing posters is also something to consider.

    It's true that there are more pure, more direct, and more altruistic solutions than the creating and selling/buying of this poster to raise aid money. But I see this poster's release as good thing. It's beautiful, it provokes consideration of Japan's situation by all viewers, and it's been raising money.

    Thank you Signalnoise for the poster, thank you John Pavlus for the dialogue.

  • yuko Shimizu

    Thank you John, for posting this. I would not have written it myself.

    I am a Japanese person living in the US and working in the field of design. Although, I do not think this specific poster is distasteful or insensitive, I have been having difficulties for the last ten days or so, seeing all these 'clever idea' design and illustration pieces coming from all the designers, and many of them a little too quick, too clever and often times a bit too offensive and lacks enough research for the eye of the Japanese person who knows both Eastern and Western culture.

    I did not mention this topic, because I felt that by my saying so would make the audience think that I, as a Japanese person, being too sensitive. I am glad a non-Japanese person spoke up.

    By the way, I am learning a lot about the "responsibility of the design during disaster" during last ten days.

    Thank you again, John.

  • Mr.28

    It seems to me that this debate boils down to a couple of key points. The first is whether it's necessary to sell something in order to raise money. Well, as much as I would love to live in a world where everyone is altruistic and pure, it's just not the case. It makes good economic sense to incentivise aid, because, whatever the cause, most people are far more likely to help if they get something for their money.

    In terms of people wanting to feel good about themselves for buying a poster I would say much the same thing. So what? Yes we are a kind of selfish as a species, but if I can help someone in the process of a little ego masturbation then what the hell does it matter? We aren't evil as a species (not entirely, anyhow), just self-centred to a degree that makes evolutionary sense. I feel better, they feel better.

    But let me go one step further. It seems the other key point here is about the morality of self promotion. I'm going to go out on a limb here and defend that too. See, in this situation I benefit because I have a poster, the designer benefits from a little self promotion (which I feel didn't deserve this negative attention), and more importantly, Japan benefits from a charitable donation. It is by definition a win-win-win situation. Now I appreciate that that might seem like a tactless definition in the face of the events that necessitated it but my point is that to remove any of those benefits is akin to cutting your nose off to spite your face. I guess in summary (and I apologise for going on) my point is that, when you put sentiment aside, all this project does is generate a number of real world positives and no negatives. Surely that's a good thing?

  • Jacob Thomas

    John,
    As someone who designed almost the same exact thing (seen here: ) and for the same reason, I can say that my heart was in the right place.

    Why we do what we do might all fall apart the more we peel away the layers. It's possible that some part of my ego was involved, or I have some lack of respect floating around in my head while I created this image. Maybe I didn't think it through, maybe I had a gut reaction to do something, anything. So what? The fact is I did do something. Signalnoise did something.

    Photographers take photos, news casters report, 100's of magazines and newspapers write about it and have covers dealing with Japan (check out the New Yorker and Newsweek today) and designers/illustrators/painters we create images. We are bringing awareness to this terrible event like anyone else but doing it in our own way, our own language. We are doing something positive. Awareness breeds help.

    I can only hope to raise $7,000 for the cause. I wish I could do more. I wish I had more money or more time, more resources to make an impact because it's absolutely heart breaking to me. I for one don't know how to do anything else then what I'm doing. Once you make a donation and you're left feeling like you need to do something else, then what? Sit back and foil someone else's plan to help? Not me.

    I respect your opinion but it is certainly yours and not mine. Because I choose to keep moving forward with love. And if deep down inside some psychologist can discover that my motivations aren't 100% full of compassion OH WELL, I'm still moving forward and trying to help, so whatever is motivating me I'm sticking with it.

  • Anupriya Arvind

    I put this question to a friend of mine, Akshan,...n he had some interesting insights!! he said n i quote...............

    "I think its a great thing to do as long as this doesn't end up in design contests or wins the "Best poster of the century" award. I mean, this poster and pieces like this are much above that. They have a connection with something that's happened. They mark a moment in time. I believe that if not for this poster, people might not even remember this day in the future. The writer is actually at fault when he asks what he's supposed to do with the poster. Because that isn't the point. The point is to create a medium through which people donate. If people donate directly, that's awesome. But we all know how many of us would do that without someone or something directing us, or worse, without having something to benefit us. In that sense, I think the poster makes perfect sense to design , and to sell. " .........

    Anupriya Arvind

  • Carls Bad

    great write-up, this should be a few days material for design school

    The poster just feels like a little bit of hasty self promotion, that as an object misses the mark on something that would be hung on a wall. Did Japan ask for our help? They have asked foreign ESAR teams to leave now that the rescue period is done.

    sorry to be a harsh, but positivity is not always the key to solving problems , but its great for self promotion

  • jen kawanari

    thank you for having the courage to write this. it's something that needs to be said and i have been offended by many of the posters that have been displayed on design blogs and craft blogs all over the internet. some of the posters i have seen don't really reflect japanese culture nor the suffering of country. a lot of it i have seen seems to be done pretty quickly without much research and is just simply pretty eye candy. the profits may go towards charities in the end, but there has been a lot of criticism of the money going into the wrong hands, some charities are actually scams or the money gets pushed to other uses in the organization that are not for japan. i hope that if people really would like to help, they'd research how the money will be best used instead of hanging up a poster to make themselves feel better, while having a designer select the charity and trust their judgement blindly. it's lazy trendy charity. i do think it was meant well, but it was not thought out and seems like its also a nice opportunity to gain recognition for the designer. as a japanese american designer with family in japan, i was rather insulted. i was relieved to hear that i was not the only one to think this.

  • Hia Phua

    This image and the ensuing commentary reiterated to me how art & design are incredibly culture- and audience-specific. Like at least one other post (Meru Mir), which seems in the minority, my gut reaction was disgust - I was offended by what I read as the message, that this disaster shattered the country. So un-Japanese. Impactful design/art? More like a cheap shot to me - like the Twin Towers / weeping Statue of Liberty analogies someone else mentioned. Maybe it was effective at motivating some individuals to donate, but I don't know that the overall balance of positive outcome outweighs the negative for me.

  • Meru Mir

    The poster is disgusting, the imagery is highly negative. Just making the national flag of Japan tearing apart is obvious and dumb idea. If you want to support Japanese and make others help to raise money, use little japan flags as they are, they are pretty and strong visuals by themseves. So I appreciate this post and think that most of the designers making such posters are just busy making self-promotion or try to convince everyone around in their social responsibility. What a hypocrisy! If you want to help, go and donate your own money, and make it with no bulging.