Here in Los Angeles, we live with the certainty that at any given time the ground will shift dramatically. What has been famously coined a “coast of dreams,” is also one riddled with a web of faults that could rupture any day and without any warning, to produce an earthquake of catastrophic consequences. We live in earthquake country and this post-election November, we are about to experience an unprecedented call to action for earthquake preparedness throughout the region with the [Great Southern California ShakeOut]. It’s our future, a major earthquake occurring along the San Andreas Fault. The questions are not if it will happen, but when, and will we be ready?

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Stefan Sagmeister designed the identity for Art Center College of Design's The L.A. Earthquake: Get Ready project.
Image courtesy Designmatters at Art Center College of Design

Aligned with ShakeOut, The Los Angeles Earthquake: Get Ready is a multifaceted communication project led by Designmatters at Art Center College of Design that has allowed us to investigate the contributing role of design in disaster mitigation and public awareness. Our point of departure three years ago when we launched the research phase of the project was to ask ourselves, what would it take for our creative community to anticipate a natural disaster of catastrophic scale, instead of responding to one? Essentially, we wanted to be ahead of the destructive quake that all experts agree is inevitable. Our key questions were: How do we act now, before the big earthquake? What can we do to lessen the impact after it occurs?

Canvassing the Expertise

When we conceived the project with Art Center former President Richard Koshalek, our first step was to embark on an intense research phase that produced conversations with and among many extraordinary individuals in scientific and academic institutions, government, community and nonprofit agencies, as well as leading corporate circles. The tremendous insight we gained from this multidisciplinary group of scientists, scholars, and practitioners proved fundamental in shaping our early understanding of the topics of earthquake science, public health messaging, and disaster readiness. This inquisitive process also enabled us to progressively identify a space of opportunity for design’s intervention: time and again we heard that there is a weak link between scientific understanding of damaging quakes and the ability of the public to pay attention to readiness and become empowered to change their behavior. What we did next – as we invariably do with all Designmatters projects at the College – was to convene a unique consortium of partners of complementary expertise who are constantly considering the implications of a major earthquake, in order to address the challenge of this fundamental gap from a 360-degree perspective.

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An illustration by Everett Ching as part of student work included in The LA Earthquake Sourcebook, from a studio led by the Art Center's Illustration Department.
Image courtesy Designmatters at Art Center College of Design

Preparing for the Unthinkable

Dennis S. Mileti is professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he served as chair of the Department of Sociology and as director of the nation’s clearinghouse for natural hazards in the social and behavior sciences. He says, “a shift in strategy is needed to cope with the complex factors that contribute to disasters in today’s — and especially tomorrow’s — world.”

The Los Angeles Earthquake project provided us with the impetus to explore and imagine what that this paradigm shift might look like. We seized what we consider to be a powerful opportunity to make a lasting contribution through design: devising a multimedia communication strategy to make people more aware of what could actually happen and how they could be better prepared. We viewed this project as an invitation to explore new communication vehicles to disseminate important messages. The diverse mosaic that is the City of Los Angeles challenged us to search for culturally appropriate means of outreach that would resonate at a grassroots level with some of the most underserved populations, who will be at great risk during and after a catastrophic event. Our contemporary digital context and explosion of participatory media platforms and social networks are powerful channels for learning and civic engagement. We tapped into these with the conviction that we can foster an unprecedented level of receptiveness to ideas that may galvanize the public to engage in preparedness as a matter of lifestyle and informed choice. With a series of three interrelated components — a visual Sourcebook designed by Stefan Sagmeister with illustrations by Art Center alumni, students and faculty (to be released in Spring 2009 by Distributed Art Publishers), a public awareness campaign centered in its first phase around the launch on November 13th of “After Shock,” an online simulation created in partnership with the Institute for the Future, and a civic event, “The Get Ready Rally” on November 14th at the LA LIVE Nokia Plaza — The Los Angeles Earthquake: Get Ready project launches during ShakeOut week with the promise of starting an important new conversation.

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A film still from the short film Preparedness Now by Art Center alumnus Theo Alexopoulos.
Image courtesy Designmatters at Art Center College of Design

Designing the Experience

The Great Southern California ShakeOut will feature the largest public preparedness drill in the U.S. history, and an unparalleled number of activities organized to inspire Southern Californians to get ready for the potentially enormous earthquake in our future. The basis for this effort is the ShakeOut Scenario, which models a probable 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the southernmost segment of the San Andreas Fault, identifying physical damages and estimating in great detail the cascading social and economic consequences of such an event. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this comprehensive scientific study, led by Dr. Lucile Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey with over 300 contributors, is that it depicts an earthquake the likes of which no Californians (except the handful survivors from the San Francisco 1906 quake) have ever experienced — a disaster causing widespread regional damage, and precipitating a level of systemic disruption that our communities are ill-prepared to face. USGS commissioned film director and motion graphic designer Theo Alexopoulos, an Art Center alumnus from the Graduate Media Design program, to bring the ShakeOut Scenario to life in Preparedness Now, a short film that draws viewers into a visceral journey that also amounts to a potent call to action.

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A screen from the AfterShock online game.
Image courtesy Designmatters at Art Center College of Design

Basically taking at face value that people have no concept of the catastrophe that is possible, After Shock (for registration to play go to http://www.aftershock.net/) is the first massively collaborative online simulation of the individual and social impacts of a major earthquake on the communities of Southern California. After Shock takes as its framework and master narrative the USGS ShakeOut Scenario as well, and will engage the public in an interactive experience for roughly four weeks immediately following the drill. During this time, participants in the simulation (by the way, you do not necessarily need to be an Angelino to play) will receive daily missions that provoke them to think about how they would respond to effects of a major earthquake and to submit original media — emails, blog posts, photos, text messages, videos — documenting their responses.

Jason Tester, Research and Design Manager at the Institute for the Future and the Lead Storyteller for After Shock, which was designed by Art Center Graphic Design student Ryan D’Orazi, points to the innovation at the heart of this collaborative simulation-meets-alternate reality game structure: “Improving earthquake preparedness among Southern Californians is a fundamental goal of the game. At the same time, we need to trust the power of the game as a simulation experience. Simulations are powerful tools because they force participants to practice behaviors and prototype strategies in what attempts to feel real time. As opposed to the lack of urgency one may react to when confronted with the hypothetical tense of a traditional disaster preparedness campaign, here, all learning’s occur through the implicit experience of making a decision and seeing how future events are impacted by previous choices.”

What Happens Next is up to You

This is also After Shock’s tagline and the call to action overall that stems from the Los Angeles Earthquake: Get Ready project. It will be exciting to find out the impact of this comprehensive design effort in overcoming barriers to preparedness and hopefully moving us from a society in denial to a culture of possibility and individual responsibility.

Mariana Amatullo runs Designmatters at Art Center College of Design and is Director of The Los Angeles Earthquake: Get Ready project.

Homepage & top image: A still from Preparedness Now, a short film designed by Art Center alumnus Theo Alexopoulos. Image courtesy Designmatters at Art Center College of Design

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3. Stefan Sagmeister's identity design (front and cover) for The L.A. Earthquake Sourcebook, to be released by Distributed Arts Publishers D.A.P. in Spring 2009.
Image courtesy Designmatters at Art Center College of Design

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Posted November 06, 2008