Help Japan: 2 years later

Help Japan

If you know me at all, you’ll also know that I don’t discuss my Help Japan poster very often. Of all my posters and designs it was the one that reached the furthest, was seen by the widest audience, and galvanized charitable funds far above my expectation. This all happened 2 years ago and it’s taken me this long to approach the subject publicly, and personally.

I create lots of stuff, the size of my portfolio is proof of that. So when something happens where I think my creative efforts may help, I’ll give it a shot. That’s what happened on the morning of March 11, 2011 when news reached me about what happened in Japan. I made something to raise money, much the same as the ladies in the seniors’ home who held a bake sale around the corner from my house. I’d sell my poster via my online store and donate the proceeds to the Canadian Red Cross. A simple little idea, I thought. So I got started.

Within an hour my poster went viral.

I started getting phone calls from the New York Times and other big publications. The response was intimidatingly positive as I started setting up the print run, ordering shipping supplies and enlisting friends to help me with all the work. A LOT of work, hundreds of tubes to be packed, processed and shipped but it was definitely worth it given the cause. I couldn’t believe it.

Then the unexpected happened. Even if you have the best intentions possible, sometimes things can come out of left field to give you a knock. When a story, video, or piece of art goes viral it breaches the bubble of personal audience and goes out to the general online public, which exposes you to not only the positive, but to the negative. It’s no secret that the negative screams louder than the positive, especially with the anonymity of the internet. This was a harsh reality hit me head-on.

Each morning during my time packing, shipping, corresponding and donating I was receiving emails and blog comments from those who took it upon themselves to tell me I was doing something horrible. The remarks were almost frightening, ranging from harsh design critiques, cultural differences and personal attacks on my character. They’re all still live here and here, if you need some context. For a time I was even scared of answering my own phone. For a freelancer working alone out of a small home office, this wasn’t easy to deal with in the least. But I kept forcing the bigger picture into my head: the good cause.

This is when Fast Company decided to rear its head. In this article entitled ‘Is This Poster to Aid Japan’s Tsunami Victims a Crime Against Design?’, John Pavlus took it upon himself to voice his opinion about my charitable endeavour. It should be noted right away that neither Fast Company, nor John himself, contacted me for a statement prior to posting the article on their very well-travelled website. A pretty key mis-step in journalism I would well imagine, especially given the gravity of the topic at hand. Unknown to anyone but myself (and close friends), this article alone caused the most damage to me and my campaign, igniting not only a new round of harsh emails and comments… but this time, from within the design community. A field I love and respect. This alone caused me to almost shut down the campaign.

Despite all of this, the campaign was seen through and raised around $20,000 for the Canadian Red Cross as I shipped posters out of my basement. I said earlier, far and above the original little idea.

So, why am I writing this 2 years later? It’s not out of disagreement with nay-sayers and it’s certainly not an attempt to garner sympathy or encouragement (seriously, please withhold comments of that nature, guys). I’ve been running this blog for 5 years and I’ve always felt a certain responsibility to my audience (specifically designers) to discuss the industry through experience, as transparently as possible. We all have ups and downs, and we all have stories surrounding them. My reasons are 2-fold…

First, be careful. If your main goal is for something to “go viral” in whatever form, be careful. Your work will be reaching a much wider audience and in some cases people won’t think twice about voicing harsh opinion several times over to a complete stranger. Growing a thick skin only comes through experience. Even though you have the best intentions, your truth might get contorted and thrown under the bus. So be careful.

And second, stick it out. If you are doing something with nothing but the best intentions do NOT let those people stop you, whether they are anonymous critics or writers on respected websites. If you’re doing what you believe in, and you’re doing it for others don’t let an elusive negative force stop you, even if it sticks with you well after the fact.

2 years later, I’m thinking hard on all this stuff and despite the harsh language directed toward me, my design and my campaign, I wouldn’t have done it any differently.






25 responses to “Help Japan: 2 years later”

  1. Josh Avatar

    Sympathy withheld per your request… encouragement taken, not given. Thank you, James, from all of us.

  2. Leukocyt Avatar

    It’s a harsh reality my good man. It’s a shame that stuff like that happens.
    Some people that also followed your example and created “Help Japan” faced an even more severe reaction.

  3. @smackdrenaline Avatar

    As a designer and writer, I am for voicing my passion and knowledge for something. Everyone talks about everyone. It will never end and i am more than glad that i donated to this cause.

  4. Michael Artman Avatar

    Hard to argue with the amount of money you raised from that campaign, James. I’ve always felt the ultimate goal of any visual art is to make the world a better place, and if your efforts here even made the smallest impact in someone’s life, the project was successful. Well written response, keep doing things the Signalnoise way.

  5. Calvin Ombogo Avatar
    Calvin Ombogo

    it amazes me how such a simple concept can draw that much emotion.

  6. pgarram Avatar

    Hi, this is the first time I post a comment on your blog. I came via Twitter, thanks to an “Abduzeedo” retweet.

    I understand how this whole thing might have overwhelmed you in the past. You’re right about how things grow enormously when they go viral and escape of your control, but I think there’s no need to take bad comments too personally. I’m aware how designers and artists behave, as I consider myself a designer (worse or better), and you and me know we have a high and sensitive ego we’re always trying to feed. When nad comments show up, we tend to take it personally (it’s understandable), but we should not give those too much credit if we believe in what we do.
    Cheers, James White.

    – Pedro –

  7. Chris Dean Avatar

    Text-book semiotics. The difference between what the sender of a message intends, and what recipient of the message interprets can never be the same. Each interpreter brings a different universe of experience to the table when they decode a message. As (visual) communicators all we can do is attempt to be mindful of this phenomenon when we craft our messages and hope for the best. To let this prevent us from attempting communicate would result in the sound of one hand clapping. Well said Jim. Keep it up.

  8. Grant Darrah Avatar

    If I had to guess, you donated close to $20k more than all of those harsh critics combined. It’s amazing that their reaction was attack someone who was trying to do good, rather than doing good themselves.

    Kudos to you, James for quickly reacting to the tragedy and doing the only thing you could to raise a significant amount of money.

  9. James Avatar

    Anonymous online negativity isn’t anything new, and I’ve dealt with that countless times before this incident. But what sparked it for the most part was the Fast Company article, supposed “peers” in the industry. Lost all respect for them the day it was posted.

    My pal Ryan (of DesignChat) had it out with them, and they seemed to barely care how much damage the article inflicted. Ridiculous.

  10. Kyle Iman Avatar

    I commend you for sticking to your beliefs and using design to do good. We all could learn from your example. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Kris Carter Avatar

    “Everyone has the right to be wrong..” – Friend of Mine.

    That was a lot of reading. I remember when you first posted this design and my thought at the time was, “Damn that is a nice poster. Good job!”, and then “Dang.. the simplest ideas are always the best ones aren’t they!?”

    In the aftermath of tragedies, such as what happened in Japan, emotions are high. It’s a shame though that some people truly disconnect from logic and reason (and empathy) and reach out to attack instead of comfort. It’s like their frontal cortex simply turns off.

    A lot of these people mean well, and they donate because that is really all they can do. But they kind of miss the point. And that is at the core of all these comments of discontent.

    The poster was not something to be purchased so that one would revel in the suffering of others, but memorialize their pain so that the moment is simply never forgotten. Are people up in arms over the our war memorials honoring our fallen brothers and sisters? How about the memorials and artwork created in decades following the German Holocaust? Sadly there will always be the negative naysayers who’s only job is to frustrate the rest of us by trolling blogs and making harsh comments.

    I for one am simply not financially secure enough to drop everything and fly to Japan to help in the rebuilding efforts. Thankfully people like you help the greater community by creating art we can purchase, donate and remember.

    One last thought. I am a Christian. So in my faith we hold the symbol of the Cross in high regard. This is not an object of worship, but a powerful symbol that reminds us of a man who changed the very nature of man. People have had a problem with that memorial too. Yet it has endured as a reminder of what was lost and gained.

    Excellent work. Thank you for your work and for donating your time, resources and energy to help those in need.

  12. Kent Ward Avatar

    Hmm… Sounds like that Fast Company article really stung you. Really, though, I think it helped the mission. You used your skills to put out a product that acted as a vehicle to help facilitate people donating to a worthy cause and raise awareness. At the same time this article gave a sounding board to those who had a moral conflict with that practice, BUT, for those people he still listed a link to your charity of choice at the end of the article. It’s a win-win!

  13. Hoien Cadogan Avatar
    Hoien Cadogan

    Hi James.
    I’m glad to see you writing all these out.

    The first time I saw your poster, 2 years ago, I was once again stunned by your design and I felt the urgency to do something to help. I believe many felt the same too. Design sometimes takes an approach to plea for action by delivering a message of emergency through some “negative” images. Some NGOs, such as Green Peace, have posters of terrifying images. But I can hardly call yours negative. Of course the cracks, the strokes and the dust recall the earthquake, this is why everybody is struck by the visual impact. The abstraction and minimalist treatment bypass the exposure of the victims’ pain and meanwhile appeal to sympathy.

    Here I would like to address the question of what to do with this poster (even though it could be way too late) and I hope my words would serve as some alternative view to this dispute. I can hardly agree with Mr. Pavlus in his article “Is This Poster to Aid Japan’s Tsunami Victims a Crime Against Design?”. I do understand that some people wouldn’t prefer to hang this poster at home as a reminder of the natural disaster. However, instead of burning it, as suggested by Mr. Pavlus, they might put it up in the local community for fund raising or simply an appeal for action. If they had thought carefully before rage took over their mind…

    Lastly I want to thank you for giving some much time and effort to this campaign! Don’t let the good intention be ruined by some others unkindness.

  14. DAN-O Avatar


    first of all, thanks for sharing that experience with us.

    I will never understand such unprofessional behaviour as performed by this Fast Company guys. I mean, what would´ve been the downside (for them) of contacting you before the article was published?
    That kinda crap never makes sense to me………..ever!
    If someone speaks up like that it should happen with respect.
    I hope their moms taught them some manners.

    You did the exact right thing buddy!
    Keep it up!


    PS: Totally off topic, but it made me laugh out loud when I thought of what Draplin would´ve told those guys ;-)

  15. Ryan Avatar

    Hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (and wiser).

  16. Ally Avatar

    Its great to hear you supported a cause despite the hardship. It doesn’t surprise me that people are quick on the keystrokes. The same people would quietly pass you by on the street…

  17. Sacha Greif Avatar

    Wow. I read the part about “negativity”, and when I tried to imagine how what you did could in any way be perceived in a negative light, I must confess I came up short.

    I had to read that stupid, stupid article and some of these comments to understand, and still have a hard time grasping the logic behind it.

    I think you can rest easy knowing that what you did is 100%, unequivocally good. Despite what this article and comments say, there’s no gray area here. You helped people in need, that’s all that matters.

  18. @gariphic Avatar

    James, I think we all feel useless when a catastrophic event like a earthquake happens, moreso when it happens on the other side of the globe. I remember seeing the footage and feeling torn and helpless. As human beings we have a natural instinct to help in some small meaningful way. As designers we reach out by creating. For me creating is a cathartic healing process. I admire what you achieved despite all the haters. You raised awareness and $20K, — no small feat. You were called to action to make a difference. While others stood by idly did nothing, but spread negativity from their keyboards.

  19. Alex R Avatar
    Alex R

    Hi James

    I just read John Pavlus’ article and let me say – WOW- never before had i seen such a retarded and twisted “logic”(i use this term really loosely here).

    I don’t see how buying this poster is any different from buying a cancer awareness ribbon, bracelet or t-shirt.

    This guy pulled up some strange mental gymnastic in his post and for the point he is trying to prove he deserves the douche-bag of the year award.

    It sucks that stupid people like him exist that over analyze something until they start seeing something completely different.

    Now speaking about the art piece – how in the world can you consider it as “disaster-porn ” !? Is Picasso’s Guernica “disaster-porn ” !?

    This guy is just stupid, i wanted to leave a comment on his blog but decided against it , I think he enjoys trolling people with such articles and I don’t want to encourage his behavior.

    Don’t feel bad mate, in the end your gesture of kindness helped a lot of people and trolls like him don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

    Keep up doing the awesome stuff you do!

  20. Dylan D Avatar
    Dylan D

    Hey James. Unfortunately the world of design is full of immense personal opinions. Just a note that I felt this way before you made this article, I’d like to say that what you did was amazing.

    I understand the comments referring to the piece as being pictured as what the country was facing at the time, and how it could be considered odd or rude to have it displayed with such idea.

    But the piece clearly wasn’t something to ‘celebrate’ a horrible event, it was something to inspire people into performing a good deed. Without your work, how many people would have donated so much money? Likely not nearly as much. The piece allowed the viewer to think, about what was happening and most importantly what needed to be done. With that in the mind, they were able to do something to help, as small as it may have been.

    Without the inspiration that came from your piece, I believe many people would have just ‘said’ they would donate, instead of actually being motivated to actually do it. This piece was the motivation many people needed.

    Art is something everyone sees and thinks of differently. I value what you did to help James.

    Thank you,

  21. Oli Smith Avatar
    Oli Smith

    At the end of the day, an outsider of the design world wouldn’t say a word criticizing the poster. You raised $20,000 for charity. I think people have too much time on their hands if they can knock a poster which has raised funds which will help people.

    Respect for doing it, and sharing the post also.

  22. Thain Lurk Avatar

    Classy response to an injustice of haters. You keep designing James, that is what you were made to do.

  23. Corie Avatar

    Hey James!

    I think your goal of sharing your experience & knowledge of design process and industry with a certain objectiveness has always been one of the main reasons besides your art that has always kept me returning to your site for these past years. The insights you share from your own encounters with the design community help me all the time. Thank you for sharing something that probably wasn’t the easiest experience to try and put in words to share. :)


  24. Joe Nicklo Avatar

    As you once told me “Yep, that sounds like the Internet.”

    To me, Internet journalism is a joke. Until writers of blogs, big or small are held to the same standards as those in those paper publications known as newspapers and magazines (eww Paper?!) I can never make the internet my main source of news.

  25. Eliot Avatar

    tldr – fuck the haters. Wherever there is large amounts of traffic, there will always be somebody who doesn’t like it.

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