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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.

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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]