“What can design do for earthquake disasters?” – Design methodology to alleviate the world’s crises.

June 5, 2009

Yusuke Kakei / issue+design

Text by Mai Fukushima

“What can design do for earthquake disasters?” 2009 NTT Publishing.
Yusuke Kakei, issue+design
The “Earthquake+design Project” gathered 44 students from all over the country under the theme, “Evacuation life design for immediately after an earthquake”, and came up with many potential ideas to alleviate the anxiety of survivors. They were later put to practical use in the disaster areas of the Great East Japan Earthquake. This book introduces a methodology for drawing out the essential power of design, including research conducted during the six-months of the “Earthquake+design Project”, and various experimental approaches and resulting ideas. We interviewed Yusuke Kakei, the founder of this project and the author of the book.
What Japanese designers can do for the world
The project was launched with Atsushi Yamazaki of studio-L. We had already been discussing on a daily basis how design could contribute to social issues on a broad spectrum. The issue of earthquakes was just one of them. Environmental issues were also on the agenda at that time, and we came to the subject of earthquake disasters when discussing which topics the Japanese people have been the first in the world to take seriously on a personal level. Poverty, for instance, would not be an easy topic to think about in Japan, since many are unfamiliar with it. On the other hand, earthquakes are a familiar subject to every Japanese person, since someone they know, if not their family or themselves, must have experienced it. We thought we could come up with ideas that could be useful in frequent earthquake areas like Indonesia and the US West Coast. It all began with our thought that the participation of Japanese designers and students in the field was meaningful to society.
Why work with students
One of the main reasons we worked with college students, rather than professional designers, was to broaden the output. I feel that if a person approaches design for social issues with assumptions based on their own professional techniques, the results tend to be constrained by their own field. They tend to be narrowed to the solutions within the capacities of fields such as graphics, architecture or products. I thought that would tend to remove us from the essence of the issue. That is why we targeted students and attempted to create a space where they could simply face the issue together directly, rather than making assumptions based on their individual skills.
The power of imagining the situation
“Design shelter for 300 people” was the theme we provided for the students. The project took place 13 years after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. So the first barrier for the students was to grasp the issue as their own without actually going through the experience. They would need to understand the overall flow of problems; for example, the water shortage in shelters. Thorough research about the causes and types of water shortages and their effects on people was critical. We trained the students to come up with more detailed ideas, since these designs had to be practical, given the context of approaching the earthquake as a social issue.
Preparing for the future through collaboration with survivors
After presenting the students’ ideas to the survivors of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, we received a lot of feedback that improved upon them. Once a disaster happens, people are likely to hesitate to volunteer, thinking “outsiders’ suggestions may seem smug to the survivors”. However, by setting up such a forum to exchange opinions with survivors in advance, we had a stock of ideas prepared for future disasters, and we were able to use those ideas immediately at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake. There are many things to be done first in the long process of reconstruction assistance. I believe design should have the power to predict and prepare for the future.
Realization of ideas
A students’ idea, “skill sharing ID”, was put to use at the disaster areas of the Great East Japan Earthquake as “Dekimasu Zekken” (can-do plate). While about 1.8 million volunteered at the disaster areas of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, frequent problems arose between volunteers and refugees, among volunteers, and among refugees. The applied idea was a tool for encouraging people to declare “what I can do” in an attempt to solve those problems by making the most out of the volunteers’ skills and guiding refugees to help each other. The original idea was for the refugees to wear them, but we improved the idea based on the feedback from the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake survivors that “it should be applied to the volunteers”. Also, since the Great East Japan Earthquake refugee community was close knit in the sense that the refugees often knew each other already and had trusting relationships, while the urban earthquake of Kobe where refugees staying together had no previous relationships.
Possibilities for design
This project is characterized by its broad output. It was supported by experts and volunteers from many fields, including Mr. Yamazaki of studio-L. When designing in a project like this, it is important to have the flexibility to incorporate ideas from other fields, rather than obstinately clinging to your own ideas.
Many volunteers gather and various actions take place right after an earthquake. But in the field of design, we often have to wait for an order from the site, then start a project. However, we were able to use our ideas immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake because we were prepared through this project. I wrote this book about the project hoping to help people apply the power of design, so that even if they could not respond to the next sudden disaster, by looking ahead they will have the prospect of knowing what is needed and what to do in three months, six months, five years, or 10 years….
Even if all are not professional designers, design can help us support each other when things go wrong. I hope more and more people will agree with this thought, and more and more designs will be created in the world to support this.

Initial research

Initial Research


June 5, 2009


Background and Objectives

I believe using the power of design is a shortcut to solving social problems and overcoming unrest in Japan and the world. I wrote this book in hoping for more people to agree with my thoughts, and to make such a movement in the world. (Excerpts from “What can design do for earthquake disasters?”)



The many who are concerned about current society and wish to contribute or act in their daily lives and work.



A summary of the project results of the “Earthquake+design Project”, which has been undertaken since July 2008. The project was launched in July 2008. Established headquarters with Mr. Yamazaki of studio-L and others. Held a competition for students with the theme of “Earthquake”. Students from various fields participated with the condition of being paired. Held briefings and workshops in Kobe, Fukuoka and Tokyo. Twenty one teams participated and came up with 114 ideas.  (Excerpts from “What can design do for earthquake disasters?”)




issue +design / studio-L 


Partner Organizations/Companies

Creative Direction: Kazufumi Nagai

Editing / Creative Direction: Yusuke Kakei

Art Direction: Yasuhiko Kozuka

Book Design: Michi Matsunaga

Photo: Nohagi Naka

Illustration: Misa Imada

Production Assistant: Sachi Shiraki

Collaborated in Editing and Writing: Atsushi Ohnuki

Editor: Ensuisha

Editorial Cooperation: Shohei Okabe