"Help Japan" T-shirts and posters: Can good design help the beleaguered country?

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March 22 2011 7:14 AM

You Say You're Concerned About Japan

Do you have the T-shirt to prove it?

Click here to see a slide show of T-shirts, posters, and prints designed to raise money for Japan relief efforts.

Of course you're concerned about the well-being of the Japanese people in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami, and still-unfolding nuclear crisis. But do you have the tastefully designed products to prove it?

It's an ugly question, sure, but one that's becoming hard to avoid, given the onslaught of help-Japan posters, T-shirts, and so on and so on, popping up all over the Web. Even Threadless, the T-shirt company famous for its crowdsourced designs, got into the creativity-for-a-cause market by way of a contest offering $500, a gift certificate, and the promise that the winning design would "help Japan rise from the rubble." In short, we're seeing enough examples of this emergent genre of concern-expression to fill a small gallery—or rather, a boutique.

And what's wrong with that? Well, whenever charitable effort manifests itself in the marketplace, it makes people uneasy or, in the case of Microsoft's tweet-about-Japan campaign, upset. Do we need a trendy object to signal that we've acted on our concern? Should empathy really be channeled through our taste in design? Does this design surge suggest that "helping Japan" is merely some kind of meme to get in on, before the next thing to hit the cool-product blogs makes it passé? Is there a connection, or a tension, between doing good and selling good stuff?

First, let's consider the stuff. The central visual motif that help-Japan designers have glommed onto is the famous red sun symbol from the country's flag. A print by W+K Studio (connected to famous ad agency Wieden + Kennedy) mixes the red disc with the similarly iconic Red Cross plus sign, reversed out in white. (It's offered in exchange for a $25 donation or more, which the studio says it will pass along to the American Red Cross.) Another design, from Zac Neulieb Prints, puts the red sun on a black background and overlays a seismograph pattern. (This goes for $22.50, proceeds going, again, to the American Red Cross.) Posters by Halifax-based designer James White show the disc cracked, hovering over the words "Help Japan." (They're $29.99; he's giving money to the Canadian Red Cross.) A notable entry in the Threadless contest depicts the sun symbol marred by a kind of crater.

Each of these efforts is impressive in its way, though I doubt any of them will be lasting artifacts. Then again, I don't think they were really intended to be. Recontextualizing a familiar icon with a visual tweak referencing current events is an approach that aims very specifically to communicate urgency: Act now, not later. Some of these images would be solid magazine covers, for instance.

Not everybody has turned to the sun symbol. This $20 Salvation Army T-shirt by a designer calling himself Hydro74 puts Japanese characters across an intricately embellished version of the organization's famous shield logo; it's translated, somewhat weirdly, as "Save World Army," according to the online store listing. (Side note: I was previously unaware that the Salvation Army sells a variety of T's featuring Hot Topic-style remixes of its branding.) One of the $25 T-shirts sold by band Linkin Park, designed by guitarist and vocalist Mike Shinoda, features an origami butterfly. The many Threadless entries included visuals ranging from giant robots to bandaged hearts.

It seems petty to point out that much of this work is rather poor. I suspect all of these creators mean well, and that matters. I'm ambivalent about pretty much all of these whipped-up objects, even the more visually successful ones. But focusing on the objects may be missing the point. Most of these creations seem designed more to spread an idea than to be owned, and to that end they've quite effectively exploited the Web design-hype machine.

What this barrage of iconography amounts to, in other words, is a de facto persuasion campaign. Considered collectively, we might call it the propaganda of concern. Because it's been spread largely by cool design blogs, which are suddenly awash in Japan-awareness products, it's appealed to an audience that's generally more engaged with Desirable New Stuff than with Serious World Events. The publicity means more than the products: Nobody who is persuaded to care has to buy a souvenir of whatever actions they take as a result. Even open criticism of these products typically concludes with an exhortation to give. So the propaganda has almost certainly inspired charitable acts well beyond raw marketplace transactions.

To me, that qualifies the help-Japan category of goods as definitively harmless—but not much more. "We felt a helplessness that compelled us to do something," the store listing for that W+K poster says. Uh, welcome to the herd: The Japan catastrophe has been a classic example of the "CNN effect." Normally it is a great challenge to persuade people to "do something" about the world's many ills and injustices. In scenarios like the Japan crisis, though, many people are anxious to feel like they're contributing to any solution or form of relief, no persuasion from a T-shirt required. In fact the short-term outpouring can outpace the creation of mechanisms to deal with it: Experts on crisis giving often say it can be wise to wait until actual plans for money deployment take shape. ("Many groups are raising money without really knowing how it will be spent—or even if it will be needed," according to a recent New York Times story; the Wall Street Journal suggested aid groups are cautiously trying to avoid uncoordinated responses, and waiting for more signals from the Japanese government.) By the time that happens, of course, most people have moved on to other concerns.

If the many sharp minds of the design community really want to "do something," the more significant challenge would involve finding ways to use their creative powers to sustain engagement over time, in defiance of the news cycle. And not just in terms of money, but the more precious commodity of attention. (Would it matter if everyone who texted a donation for "Haitian relief efforts" actually remained keenly engaged in what's happening in that country today? I think so.) This would be a more valuable contribution to discourse by design than simply amplifying the zeitgeist with a hastily concocted poster. But reacting quickly is much easier, and more psychologically rewarding. In this, the creative design minds are just like the rest of us.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.