Design and Its Response to Tragedy

In November 2015 we watched in horror as a series of terror attacks in Paris left 129 people dead. It was an awful, awful day. I personally haven’t been as emotionally affected by such an event since the Sandy Hook Massacre almost 3 years prior. Many of us took to social media to express our outrage, grief and solidarity with those in Paris. On Twitter, the hashtag #PorteOuverte allowed those on the streets of Paris who had no refuge the opportunity to get to a place of safety as strangers opened their doors and offered sanctuary. On Facebook, friends who were in Paris were asked to check in and mark themselves as “safe”, bringing comfort to loved ones. These are some examples of features that have been designed that can actually contribute in a positive way in an emergency situation. Design can help in other ways too. Visual storytelling in news media can help us understand and contextualize events that can feel beyond our comprehension. Design can inform loved ones if we ever find ourselves checked into a hospital unexpectedly.

Alongside the tweets and Facebook updates, we saw designers, illustrators and artists post work as a show of solidarity or as a way to process and express the conflicting emotions of anger and sadness that incidents like this can ignite. I have absolutely no doubt that virtually every person who posted an illustration or piece of hand lettering was genuine in their intentions and wanted to use their skills as a way to lend weight to the outpouring of sentiment.

As designers we find ourselves with an unprecedented number of canvases upon which we can project our work. We post shots to Dribbble. We create slick looking portfolios with Squarespace or Behance. We post artwork to Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. All of this is marketing in one way or another. A way of extending and reinforcing our “personal brand”. We use these tools as a way to help market our skills and allow potential employers to hire us or to grow our voice and standing within the creative community. This is where I feel some conflict. We are using these same platforms to post work that supports a movement that we also use to market ourselves. The lines between the two are getting blurred and it feels off.

Sometimes our voice is not required. When we make a choice about what movements or issues we choose to support, we are also making a choice about which movements we choose not to support. The day before Paris there was a terror attack that killed 37 people in Beirut. Indeed, Facebook’s Safety Check feature was not activated in Lebanon. I haven’t seen the same outpouring of our collective creative consciousness. I certainly have not seen such a response to the killings of Tamir Rice or Eric Garner. Nor have I seen the same reaction to the mass shootings that happen in the United States seemingly every few days. Why is that? Is it because we feel safer standing behind a movement where no-one in good conscience could possibly be on the other side? Is it because it’s closer to home? Is it because we feel safer knowing that politically or ethically we are unlikely to be challenged on our point of view? What are the other effects of posting our work in situations like these? Do we also build our own personal brands even if that is not the primary motivation? I’m sure the likes and retweets help do that.

After the attacks on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the creative community leapt into action to stand behind the artists and to stand for free speech. That reaction was aligned to the initial murderous act. The killing of employees at the magazine. If you believe that the illustrations they made were appropriate and should be allowed as “free speech” then the response felt appropriate. Artists and designers were fighting back with exactly the same medium that the terrorists wished to silence, only magnified hundredfold. It was an act of defiance. I’m not sure the similar reaction to the attacks in Paris had the same effect.

We complain about “press-a-button punditry” but surely the term would also apply to press-a-button solidarity? I’d hope that in sharing our sentiments via our design work on social media that we encourage others to join in and contribute something that actually helps. Like giving blood or donating to an organization that is mobilizing help at the locations where it is needed. At this point, changing our avatar or positing a drawing on Instagram isn’t enough. We need something more substantive. It’s fine if we want to express ourselves but we need to ensure that it is backed up with action otherwise I’m not sure it really means anything.

As designers, and humans, it’s important that we feel able to express ourselves through our work and I would not wish to discourage anyone from ever doing that. However, we also have an obligation to try and make a positive contribution to the world we live in. When we hover over the “post” button we should be asking ourselves for whom we are posting. Is it genuinely for those affected or is it for ourselves? It could be both. Either way, posting is fine. But we should at least have the self-awareness that in trying to support others we may also be supporting ourselves.

Update: Since I initially wrote this post after the terror attacks in France in November 2015, Facebook has implemented a community activated Safety Check feature. More here.