Life, Death and Graphic Design: The Critical Role of Information Design in Emergencies by Peggy Cady

Graphic design helps people make decisions. This is a given to designers. We don’t often think about how vital it becomes in an emergency situation. Visual information guides our thinking process, helps us assess personal risk and gain understanding so that we can make informed decisions; decisions which can have a profound impact on our lives. They can mean life or death. This article explores the vital importance of information design to the public and aid workers during the disasters in Japan.

About the author:
Peggy Cady is a graphic designer in Victoria, BC. She is a former national president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) and a GDC Fellow.

Life, Death and Graphic Design:
The Critical Role of Information Design in Emergencies

By Peggy Cady CGD, FGDC
Download the PDF of this article at

We don’t often think about how graphic design helps us deal with our everyday decisions. We don’t realize how valuable it becomes in a real emergency because in that situation, generally, the only thing we are thinking about is survival. We look for warning signs and symbols: the skull and crossbones for lethal danger, the EXIT sign, the evacuation route, H for hospital, In case of Fire Break Glass, Toxic, High Voltage. Clear labeling is vital on medicines and poisons. Under extreme stress, we need easy to understand directions to a gathering spot and quick visuals on how to open the airplane emergency exit.

Visual information can guide our decision-making process, help us assess personal risk in dangerous situations and gain understanding so that we can make decisions; decisions which can have a profound impact on our lives and on the lives of others. They can mean life or death.

After receiving a message from a designer in Japan asking for assistance clarifying government and media information about radiation hazards, I felt moved to offer help. Images of the devastation in Japan made me want to take action. Donating to the Red Cross and relief groups was one option. I also found that I could do research that might contribute to the efforts in gathering and understanding information. While looking for answers to the designer’s questions and thinking about how to portray the information, I was struck by how important graphic design is in this situation and how its value is manifesting itself in the wealth of information graphics, diagrams, charts and images appearing on the web to help inform people about this life-threatening situation.

What I need to know right now is whether or not I will get cancer or possibly die if I go outside today. What are the risks? Is it safe for me to be here or do I need to evacuate my family from this area? Can I eat the produce, drink the milk? I can’t understand the information we are getting in the news.

In the wake of the ongoing nuclear disaster, citizens of Japan have been baffled by government-supplied information on radiation hazards. Information has been hard to get and difficult to understand. Officials are bogged down with the immensity of the crisis and the uncharted territory of dealing with a problem of this magnitude. There are few precedents to refer to and no one wants to trigger panic. This nuclear crisis and its scale present a new type of emergency with many unknowns, not just for Japan, but for the world. Lessons were learned from Chernobyl and the many other accidents at nuclear power plants around the world recorded since 1952, but this series of events is more complex. (see Information about nuclear accidents: and

References to radiation hazards are supplied to the public in varying terms which they don’t understand – sievert/year, millisievert/hour, microsievert/hour. There is data but no explanation. See the Japan Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology site where they supply graphs for some items, raw data for others. Here, there are reams of raw data to be interpreted and there is a great need for visual exposition.

The Institute for Information Design Japan reached out to the world community of designers and scientists via their Facebook D4J page, asking for visual explanations that could be posted to the news media and web, saying “Developments at the nuclear power stations are even more difficult to comprehend – we have few cues to help us relate the short-mid-long-term effects to the scale of urgency we use in our everyday judgments and decision-making.” They asked for explanation of various measurement units, radiation levels, radiation forecasts, when to evacuate, the effect of consumption of irradiated food. They asked for “visualizations that speak for themselves”…and here, we have the essence of graphic design.

Visualizations that speak for themselves;
design puts data into context

This is a life and death situation. People have to know how radiation is affecting their food, their environment and their personal safety. When the amount of radiation it takes to make you very ill and increase your lifetime risk of cancer by four percent is one sievert, you want to know what a sievert is and how many are out there in your neighbourhood over what period of time. If there is little or no danger, you want to know that, too.

There are so many different ways to measure and describe radiation – bequerels, rads, grays, sieverts (see Figure 2) – it is no wonder people are confused. The effect varies if the radiation is inhaled or ingested, how old the person is and the amount of background radiation in the area. The response to this crisis from designers, web programmers and scientists demonstrates the value of information graphics and their ability translate data and help people. Some examples follow. I’ve included screen shots for a quick visual reference. Click links and images to see the sites in detail.

The web and social media are making it possible for people to collaborate, interpret data and deliver information on the situation. Along with a wealth of crowd-sourced research provided on the D4J Facebook site, graphic representations are emerging on the offshoot, Japan Nuclear Emergency Facebook page. Spearheaded by photographer Scott Bryson, this group gathers data, articles and research, digging deep into the issues to help people follow the crisis as it unfolds.

Designers at ‘Information is Beautiful’ responded to the D4J plea with a graphic radiation dosage diagram. Here we can compare the effects of radiation at different levels and evaluate the danger.

A similar but more graphic diagram was made by (Illuminiating Japan) with even better results. This site provides a wealth of visual illustrations and information about the earthquakes, the reactors and radiation.

The Russian site Rianovosti provided a diagram of the Effects of Radiation on the Human Body.

An urban site,, displays a graph reporting radiation updates minute by minute in Tokyo. A reader says, “Thank you so much for setting up this website. I currently live in Tokyo and worry that we are not being informed by TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company] the hourly/daily radiation levels in Tokyo. On this site, you are using uR/hr. What level/number is a normal level? Is 12 uR/hr the normal level?” [Normal levels are 10-15 uR/hr.]

MIT’s Technology Review reported, in an article titled Internet Activists Mobilize for Japan, “Within two hours of the Japanese earthquake, a version of Ushahidi, Web software that helps people share information during a crisis, had been created by Japanese volunteers working with the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Ushahidi consists of a Web server and other software that lets anyone send in information—via a cell phone and the Web—that is then displayed on a map. The site, dedicated to Japan,, is being used to pinpoint locations where people may be trapped, dangerous areas that should be avoided, and supplies of food and clean water.”

The BBC News site has clear graphic explanations of how the Fukushima nuclear reactor broke down, which help to us understand what actually is going on inside the reactor.

The Radiation Dose Chart, by Randall Munro, shows the effect of ionizing radiation doses from various sources, putting our daily contact with radiation into perspective, alleviating some worry.

YouTube Videos graphically warn us of the radiation flow in wind currents to help us understand and warn us about radiation traveling around the world. See Fukushima forecast shows Northwest
US under threat

Designers help people make sense of data

Real time crowd-sourced radiation readings are now available on the web. This is an amazing phenomenon. There are even instructions on how to hook up a Geiger counter to a monitoring website. See
“a collective voice helping others stay informed,” where people are photographing radiation readings from iPhones, geo tagging them and uploading the images to Flickr and Twitter. The Real time radiation level website uses “special web robots called STUBBY to track the radiation level in real time from various web resources.” MarianSteinbach’s blog hosts a radiation data dump called Japan Radiation Open Data. She is a “User Experience Designer and Information Visualization enthusiast.”

Crowd sourced radiation data is put to good use by interaction designer, Haiyan Zhang. Current radiation readings are collected from Geiger counters around the country to report radiation levels on a map of Japan. On her blog, Zhang explains her motivation and the design problems she worked through in creating her visualisation of radiation readings.

“These are crowd-source readings from numerous geiger counters hooked up to the Internet. …The readings come from sources such as local councils, motivated individuals and official readings from Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). My aim with this map is to make the data easily readable and understandable, so people can very quickly get an overview of the radiation levels across Japan and are able to drill in to get further details per region. From a user experience point-of-view, I wanted the numbers to be at a glance, avoiding the extra clicks that these mashups usually ask of the user. So you see the readings highlighted in yellow on the map. The orange circles are coloured based on the severity of the reading (the darker the orange, the higher the reading). Clicking on these circles will also bring up more details about the reading (location, timestamp, millisievert).

The toughest part of this visualisation is really understanding what the numbers mean and what impact they have on human health. The first step to this process is standardising the units of measurement, as the crowd-sourced measurements and visualisations may use a number of representations. Units here are in µSv/h (or microsieverts) and we’ve been hearing CNN and NHK World refer to the unit Milisieverts (1 milisievert = 1000 microsieverts). I also urge other mappers out there to use the µSv/h unit, so we speak a common language.”

Target Map, Japan Radiation Maximum by Prefecture is another good site for checking radiation levels. It has an interactive map where you can click on an area and see if the radiation is at a dangerous level. This is a very clear, informative and easy to navigate site .

The non-profit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Austria provides a visual summary of the daily status of reactors and a Fukushima contaminated water flow illustration).

The site Graphing Earthquake, Radiation and Water Data in Japan shows radiation levels over time in various areas, earthquakes, aftershocks, iodine-31 levels in water purifying plants and weather. “I made these [graphs] as quite a few people are getting confused with all the numbers floating around and to show in an easily viewable format the levels that are being stated. …The graphs will be updated at least twice a day depending on circumstances,” says Phillip Mills, who put the site together.

In an emergency situation we rely heavily on visual information to help make sense of the chaos around us. Skilled at translating unstructured information into clear messages, graphic designers are also experienced in varied techniques used to analyse and portray data in order to give it meaning. They consider the end user’s needs, do research, plan, problem solve, set objectives, test and evaluate. Working closely with government, planners, architects, behaviourists, psychologists and other specialists is part of the job. Designers shape complex ideas and information to communicate messages effectively in an appropriate format.
In times of emergency and disaster, graphic designers don’t provide the essentials of food, shelter and medicine, but information design is an invaluable asset to aid groups, governments, businesses and others who help people. Easily accessible signs, instructions, wayfinding systems, maps, charts, diagrams, interpretive graphics and websites can mean the difference between life and death.

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