Jessica Helfand | Essays

Disaster Relief 101: No Door Hanger Left Behind

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Politics, Social Good, Technology

Comments [10]

This from the same administration that gave us duct tape and plastic sheeting as protection from biological warfare.

I like the idea. Let's use it to canvas Mississippi and Louisiana with "Bush Failed!" and "Impeachment Now!" door hangers. We can throw in a free order of wings to convince the undecided.

There are a great many failings to observe in the aftermath of Katrina, but chastising an outreach effort such as "door hangers" is a bit of a stretch. Now I understand door hangers are one of the lowest form of advertising and that may be part of your angst, not using a more lofty advertising medium. But I seem to recall the same form of information distribution used in San Francisco on an aids awareness outreach with little of the same protest. Me thinks your political bias is showing. Had this been the effort of a group with more liberal persuasion some how I doubt notice of it would have found its way to this blog. May I suggest saving your cynicism for more worthy subject.
Michael Swaine

I'm led to agree with Michael; attacking the use of doorhangers (and the much maligned agency who put them there) seems like a great deal of misplaced frustration. If your issue is with the plight of the functionally illiterate, then I'd be curious to know if you have any suggestions for ways that design could help spread the necessary information.

Vital information like "if you do not evacuate and the floodwaters come racing, you will die." I wonder if there's an ISO 7001 for that.
Nikhil Bhat

Your post reads like a shrill local newscast exposing the stupidity of FEMA complete with seering footage of trees bent low by hurricane force winds and irrelevant over-the-shoulder-graphics (show us the actual door hangers, please.)--uh--wouldn't these go out well before a storm, like the hurricane tracking charts we get on the sides of paper grocery bags as storm season opens?

As one who lives in the hurricane zone, and having lived through at least three severe ones, door hangers seem a perfectly reasonable format (one of many) to inform people, in advance, what number to call to be evacuated: they're cheap, small enough to fit on the fridge next to pizza coupons, unavoidable--you can't enter your house with without interacting with them (unlike a poster at the-wherever-they-still-allow-posters, or a wad of junkmail)--and, they still convey the information once the power's out.

The cited literacy statistics only reinforce the fact that the format is not the problem. Regardless of how well (or poorly) designed, this message is not about an evacuation number but about reminding those of us that can understand when danger is approaching to help those that don't. That can't be said enough.
Dimitry Saïd Chamy

This article was a long trip to the bank to find it closed. The little point this piece had - outside the rather arch exercise in condescension, which I suspect was it's rasison d'etre - could have been dispatched in a couple of paragraphs.

as someone who grew up in LA during the days of Betsy and Camille (e.g. Hurricanes), i agree with the idiocy of the idea. most folks know WHAT to do if A BAD HURRICANE is approaching. They either hunker down to wait it out or they leave. What the door hangers cannot do is to compel people to make the right decision for their circumstances. in that instance it just seems like a waste of effort.

the other thing the hangers fail to do is to help disaster planners. There may be a number for transportation out in an emergency, but there is no incentive to make the recipient call ahead and let the planners know that a ride could be needed. If the planners don't know how many folks need transport and if they undercount, the illusion of egress becomes really cruel as people become stranded in the storm.

You'd better tell the NY Times to stop the presses because there may be some people who won't be able to read it.

They could mail them the info, but that would cost more and people would junk it. They could phone them, but people would hang up thinking they are telemarketers. They could hand-deliver them, and make a small presentation, but that would cost too much. Yes, there are other ways I'm sure to get out the info, but if they used modern media, you'd say they were spending way too much taxpayer money.

If you're illiterate, not being able to read a door hanger is the least of your worries. It's MEMA, not FEMA, who had the idea, so bashing FEMA for it seems misplaced. I don't think they'll be toting them out during a hurricane, but before hand, so at least there's a number to call (assuming you have a phone and can read the numbers on it and it works).

The reality is that there's not much government can do in the first few days after a major event for anyone, but there are many things WE can do NOW, the least of which is to be prepared on a personal and family level (72 hour kit)? I guess this is what happens when Design tries to save everyone.

I haven't necessarily agreed with previous critiques of Jessica's writing. Perhaps because I generally agreed with her. But this piece was just bad. And contradictory.

In a number of paragraphs you've just stated that door hangers are one of the most effective forms of communication (for getting people motivated politically and/or to buy pizza) and at the same time concluded that this is an ineffective form of communication for disaster preparedness. Huh?

If a pizza place can communicate a basic message about pizza -- a picture, a phone number -- I think a well designed (and pictorial) door hanger can also get out basic information about what to do, who to contact in the event of an hurricane. The emergency instructions for an airplane assume that you are only visually literate and one can assume that door hanger for MEMA would and could assume the same. In fact, based purely on your other arguments about door hangers -- I'd say this is might be the most effective and cost-efficient means of public education.

Now, if the door hangers (which you have not showed us) were book-length and written in lawyer-speak perhaps you'd have an argument that they need to be re-thought. But at present your supporting details do not support your thesis.

Avoiding the matter at hand, "[T]his was a long trip to the bank to find it closed" is perhaps the most perfect trope I have read in a long, long time. Thank you, JDS.
the Brightside

The link to Harvard's Kennedy School of Business faculty paper archive is a real treat--thanks for the excellent source of information. However, saying that "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" just isn't accurate. The paper actually "evaluated the cost effectiveness of three mobilization technologies utilized by the Michigan Democratic Party's Youth Coordinated Campaign: door hangers, volunteer phone calls, and face-to-face visits. The results indicate that all three GOTV strategies possess similar cost-effectiveness." (from the abstract).

It didn't find that those techniques are most effective; it compared their relative effectiveness (door hangers did better than expected, but not best). The authors even concede, "The paper also only concerns three technologies a campaign may seek to employ. Experiments on partisan radio and TV advertisements, professional phone banks, and rallies would help to fill in the gaps in the cost effectiveness of campaign strategies."

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