Do Not Disturb door hangers, circa 1967. Designer unknown.
Imagine that you are sitting in your house, somewhere on the coast of Mississippi, and it's raining really hard outside. The wind is howling, the furniture is shaking and suddenly, all the power goes out. You're dead in the center of a category 3 storm with 120 mile-an-hour winds.
Now think: would your first instinct be to put a door hanger on your doorknob?
And yet, an eight-week hurricane awareness campaign currently underway in Mississippi has targeted door hangers in their campaign to prevent another Katrina-like public meltdown. Door hangers like those throwaway "Do Not Disturb" signs in hotels whose demented idea was this? (Hint: it's a government agency.) Was someone thinking they might be used as emergency flotation devices in the event of a flood? Assuming the gale-force winds haven't already pulverized them into a tornado of plastic shrapnel?
The Mississippi campaign ("Stay Alert, Stay Alive") was announced this week by Governor Haley Barbour and is being overseen by their own local agency, MEMA (the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency), not to be confused with FEMA, (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), who are the ones actually responsible for this door hanger lunacy. Sources say the door hangers tell residents to call a toll-free number if they will need transportation in the event of an evacuation due to a hurricane. In a sort of perverse and timely twist, a report published this week by a Senate panel sub-committee which included more than 80 recommendations on topics like better civilian preparedness, faster disaster response and stronger relief efforts makes a persuasive case for eliminating the agency entirely. Somehow, the door hangers seem the perfect metaphor for FEMA's failure: they're one-dimensional, unnecessarily complicated, and basically useless.
And what real purpose do they actually serve? One FEMA official was quoted as saying "they provide useful tips on what to do in the event of an evacuation." This would assume that reading is how most people seek, let alone digest their information a hypothesis which, even if it were true, would likely be compromised in light of a natural disaster. A recent report from the US Department of Education cites literacy statistics that suggest reading may not be the surest bet: 11 million people in America today are termed non-literate, meaning interviewers could not communicate with them or that they were unable to answer a minimum number of questions. And so, the door hangers are currently being printed in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, even though the another goverment agency, The National Center for Education Statistics, claims that non-literate in English includes the 2 percent who could not be tested because they can not communicate in English or Spanish, and the 3 percent who took an alternative assessment because they were unable to complete a minimum number of simple literacy screening questions.
So, go on and ask yourself: can door hangers change the world? A 2004 study at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government found that along with volunteer phone calls and face-to-face visits, door hangers were the most effective means of mobilizing voter turnout. Earlier this month in Washington, the Democratic National Party printed 750,000 door hangers (a good six months in advance of mid-term elections) and on the retail front, they've become as popular as bumper stickers, offering everything from goofy sayings to sports slogans to quotations of biblical scripture.
And then, well, there's pizza.
Former pizzeria owner Kamron Karington wrote the "black book" on pizza marketing, and agrees. He sees door hangers as an enchanted sales device. "The offers on a door hanger should be a little more aggressive than in other advertising," he exults. "You need to put offers on there that make the phone ring ... things like a two-pizza deal with wings, or a pizza and a free 2-liter."
Arguably, selling pizza is a bit of a leap from saving people, and a door hanger as an evacuation measure just seems wrong on a safety level, on a practical level, and as function of basic communication. (The question of language and literacy falls squarely in that last category somewhere.) Historically, design has risen to such communcative challenges and ably demonstrated its power for the public good consider the extraordinary range of public health posters which have been used over the past century to educate and effect change. But door hangers in a hurricane? At the end of the day, even the cockeyed optimists among us don't really expect design to save the world. But when a design decision gets in the way of the world being saved, well, that's when you begin to really wonder.