The Exit to Safety: What Design Can Do

May 15 - June 3, 2007

Keiko Sano/AXIS Gallery Curator

Text by Satoshi Fujitsuka

The Exit to Safety: What Design Can Do
Keiko Sano/AXIS Gallery Curator
What can we do about natural disasters from the perspective of design? In 2007, an exhibition, “The Exit to Safety: What Design Can Do”, was held to search for answers to this question. Seven designers from different fields showcased various results from several previously held workshops. We spoke to Keiko Sano, a curator at AXIS Gallery, about the exhibition.
What should design do to move away from the concept of “things”?
“What can design do for society?” I had been wanting to bring this topic up in an exhibition. I think I’ve always had a broad view of design, maybe because I come from a different background, with no specific education in design. Design is for people and should make a better society. I was certain that making “things” was not the ultimate goal of design and that “design trends” seemed to be lacking in social perspective. So, I wanted to point out, especially to young people and students of design, that there was a need for works of design in areas that had not yet involved design. At the same time, Hirokazu Nagata, a member of “The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake + Creative Timeline Mapping Project” and an expert in disaster prevention education, encouraged me to collaborate with an exhibition about disaster prevention and creativity, “Jishin EXPO” (Earthquake Expo). I took the plunge and opened an exhibition with a theme previously unexplored by people in the design field ― disaster and design.
To confront disaster, start by listening to first hand stories
After the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, I felt that everyone had begun seeing earthquakes as a possible threat to themselves. This gave me another reason to open the exhibition at that time. The problem was how to set up an exhibition with a huge theme, such as disaster. My plan was to appoint designers of various genres and have them hold workshops to individually contemplate the theme. I had concerns and was nervous about how this would work out, and what would come out of it. Of course, not all the designers were large earthquake survivors, so the biggest challenge was how they would realistically reenact the disaster experience in their minds and take the issue to a personal level. Of course, they could study the records and watch videos of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. However, ultimately, we believed this project could not be done without listening to the stories of real survivors, so, together, we visited “The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution” in Kobe. Four survivors told their stories for us, and we listened to them one by one. The stories were all so graphic that attending designers listened quietly with downcast eyes. I couldn’t help but cry. On our way home on the bullet train, there was a sense of despair. Everybody was thinking, “We may not be able to do it.” It stuck in my memory when Yoji Ishii, a graphic designer, murmured, “This may not be about things.”
The discussions held by young designers brought it all together
After that, we met once a month for three workshops. Rather than making something during the workshops, we spent the time mainly brainstorming, discussing themes and reporting our progress. The concept for the exhibition finally came together a month after the Kobe trip. We spent the remaining two months brushing up individual projects. Rather than standing over the designers, I left them to their own devices, and only responded to specific questions as needed. There was little need for my involvement since they were each working on their projects with solid concepts. However, we had to give up the earlier idea of using pictograms as it ended up putting too much pressure on the young artist who was appointed to work with it.
An exhibition not only for viewing, but to encourage people to think and perceive
There were two entrances to the venue. Visitors were to choose either a bright entrance or a dark one. If they chose the dark side, they had to find their way through, in pitch-dark, using what they could from their belongings. The floor of the venue was made uneven to replicate the ground conditions after an earthquake. This meant it was difficult to walk because of the destruction, uplifted areas and rubble. We asked visitors to take off their shoes to feel the roughness of the ground with the soles of their feet. Removing shoes was inconvenient but we thought it would be interesting as an experience-based exhibition. We also created and exhibited many original pictograms that can be used during disasters.
Videos of our workshops were streamed. There were areas where children could lie down and relax. Various workshops were also held within the exhibition. There seemed to be a relatively large number of young people and families visiting. It drew considerable media attention and attracted visitors from government administration and the fire department too. However, I felt the main designers’ responses seemed weak.
Making design and creativity take root in society
The applicants who passed the document screening for “Jishin EXPO” made the prototypes. Mr. Nagata had enthusiastically said, “I’d definitely make them commercialized. This is the place for that.” That was an impressive statement. There was a piece called “Leisure Sheet*” (*picnic blanket) that became a bag when the attached strings were pulled. It was so well thought out that it could even be used to hold water, signal SOS, or be used as a blanket for warmth. Such a simple design makes you wonder why it didn’t already exist. I thought it could be commercialized, but it wasn’t that easy. MUJI had considered commercializing a few designs but hadn’t come through. The cost of production seemed to be the main problem. Corporations may not have the space or time to develop such products. I’ve heard that even when such products do get commercialized, they may turn out completely different from the original ideas. However, the connection with MUJI for this project did pay off, as MUJI later established a new department for disaster preparedness products.
Adopt creativity in daily life
I collaborated with architect, Masashi Sogabe, who organized a specialty store for disaster preparedness items at “Jishin EXPO”. His idea, which seemed very design oriented, was that even items not specifically sold for disaster could still be useful at these times. We set up a store selling selected items in the “AXIS Gallery”. There must be even more goods now. Hoping for disaster preparedness items to be top-selling products may be too much to expect, however, I at least want them to become so common and well-known that they would be regularly taken up by mass media. Finding creativity and imagination in daily life is always important, let alone in the aftermath of earthquake disasters. At the beginning, I doubted the power of design in the face of disaster, but flexible thinking is a great strength in an emergency. I would like to take the initiative to expand the ideas. Utilizing something close at hand must also be a role of the design. While interviewing earthquake survivors, I asked, “Is there anything design can do in the face of life or death situations and disasters?” One reply encouraged me: “I think there are. The important thing is that you are thinking about it. I am counting on you.”
Forming a study group after the Great East Japan Earthquake
This exhibition took place four years prior to the Great East Japan Earthquake. I thought I knew something about disasters after the exhibition, but I was at a loss when it happened to me. I was shocked and ashamed, feeling I hadn’t learned anything at all. I had to do something about it. I came up with the idea to host a study group, inviting other design professionals who were trying to do something but were feeling the same anguish as I was. I suggested, “Let’s start by getting together. It has to be better than thinking about it alone. Let’s talk about what we can do.” We got more and more feedback from the participants. I would like to continue the group study sessions where we can share our thoughts and feelings, until they lead us to some effective actions.
(This study group later led us to the movement of “Ishinomaki Laboratory”)
Interview took place on September 14, 2011

Initial research

Initial Research 


May 15 – June 3, 2007 


Background & Objectives

Despite living in a metropolis, where it is said a large earthquake will occur in the foreseeable future, many of us have little idea about how to protect ourselves from potential disaster. Crisis will not wait for us to be ready. In fact, it could strike on any normal day with no advance warning. The exhibition was not designed to show fearful images of potential disaster. Instead, the intention was to take a step forward and use it as a creative outlet for us to explore the possibilities of design to help promote safety in the case of a disaster. Seven designers from different fields showcased the results from many of their previously held workshops, in which they searched for answers to the question: “What can design do?”



Visitors from Japan and overseas



Planning: AXIS Gallery , PLUS ARTS NPO 

Participating Designers: Yoji Ishii, Hitoshi Imakita, Hiroki Kutsuna, chuoarchi, Asao Tokoro, Masayoshi Kodaira, Hitoshi Koizumi

Space Design: Hiroki Kutsuna (Landscape Designer) 

Graphic Design: Hitoshi Koizumi


Organizer: AXIS Gallery , The Earthquake EXPO Planning Committee (2007)

Partner Organizations & Companies


The exhibition was supported by the following partner organizations and companies: Sogabe Lab at KUARC (Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, Kanagawa University), Koshin Planning Co., Ltd., Sanyo Co., Ltd., Japan Gore-Tex Inc., Dainichidori District Community Planning Group, Takeo Co., Ltd., T Steps Corp., Petroleum Distributor Cooperative of Tokyo, Coca-Cola (Japan) Company, Ltd., Samsung Japan Corporation, Hariu Communications Co., Ltd., The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution, Photobition Japan K.K., Primera Corp., Hokudan Shinsai Memorial Park, American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter, BankART1929, Croix-Rouge francaise, NTT DATA Kansai Corporation, YKK Corporation, YKK Fastening Products Sales Inc., YKK Snap Fasteners Japan Co., Ltd. and many other companies who supported our initiatives.  (2007)



AXIS Gallery 



5-17-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo