What Does it Mean to Design for Disasters?

AIGA Design for Good and Field Innovation Team (FIT), a disaster response non-profit, recently held the Disruptive Design 4 Disasters contest to challenge designers to create solutions for relief scenarios based on rapid prototyping. When disaster strikes, there isn’t time for months, or even weeks, of rigorous research. After a disaster, FIT volunteers, including designers, apply their expertise to ideate quickly, offer a potential solution, gather feedback and reiterate until they get it right.

For example, after hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, FIT worked with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and design firm frog to assess FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) in New York City. Frog and FIT quickly created new color-coded signage that improved wayfinding in DRCs, and have since been used in DRCs following the Moore, OK tornadoes and the West Fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX. Frog continued to prototype and designed a new concept that’s now supported by FEMA and through other national partnerships.

Designers continue to rise to the occasion, but to increase excitement and awareness, FIT and AIGA Design for Good created the Disruptive Design 4 Disasters Challenge. To enter, designers made a short video that showcased a disruptively innovative process, system or product that could be used by communities affected by a disaster to get back to “normal” as soon as possible.

This year’s winners are Yale undergrads Kamya Jagadish, Jane Smyth and Edward Wang. Their idea, Illumiloon: Balloon Signaling for Storm Relief, targets the inevitable communication breakdown after every disaster. Using rubber weather balloons fitted with different colored bands to indicate a specific need, survivors tether the balloons to create a signaling system for the community and for emergency responders.

“We've been trying to think of ways to utilize existing technologies in a system that’s innovative,” said Wang. “The ultimate goal of the balloon signaling device is to try to help people help themselves and those around them using something they’re already familiar with.”

When asked about the role of designers in disasters, Jagadish added, “Every object we interact with and every process we go through is designed by someone. While the people involved with handling disasters may not be "designers," they’re still making conscious design decisions. People may conventionally think of designers as artists, but designers aren’t just there to make things more visually appealing; they’re there to create more efficient and effective objects and processes. There’s definitely room for designers in disasters, as there is room for designers in every aspect of life.”

Designers working with FIT move beyond human-centered approaches to humane methods, while delivering real-time innovation where people need it most. The Illumiloon team will be joining FIT during their bi-annual Bootcamp, in Midway, UT, November 5–9, 2014, where they’ll be trained for disaster deployment, finalize their design and begin field experimentation.