A look at crisis infographics: how information design can help

Our recent win of the Grand Prix award for our ‘keeping warm in the winter’ leaflet has inspired us to delve further into the disaster relief and preparation sector. The leaflet for the charity CARE, utilizes information design techniques to provide Syrian refugees with information on how they can ‘winterise’ their shelters.

An introduction to information design

“Modern life is saturated with complex information and data. For information to have impact, it must be easy to find, simple to use, and instantly understandable. In short, information needs to be designed!”
Information Design Association

Information design is the practice of organising data in a way that facilitates its understanding. Rather than visual appeal, the purpose of information design is effective communication.

How Information Design has aided in Disaster Relief and Preparation

Recent world events have inspired us to create a new division at TDL-London called Crisis Infographics. The purpose of which is to explore possible applications of information design in assisting at-risk individuals in emergency situations.

We believe information design can be crucial in disaster situations. From preparing for the event to coping in the aftermath, information design methods ensure communications are:

  • Inclusive
  • Easily understood
  • Understood quickly
  • Designed for action, rather than purely aesthetic
  • Clear, organised and concise

We’ve divided our research of current crisis infographics into the following categories:

  1. Guides
  2. Geographics
  3. Step by Step
  4. Education

1 – Guides

Example 1.1: Instruction Manual for Syrian Refugees (by TDL-London and CARE)

Information design methods: ‘How to’ illustration + good/bad practice + bilingual

The Middle East can experience severe winter weather, with powerful snowstorms, heavy rainfall, hail, and strong winds. This manual provided clear instructions on how refugees can best maintain their temporary homes and themselves to keep warm. It effectively spans language and cultural gaps as there are both English and Arabic versions.


Syrian Refugees endure Alexa, their first winter storm



Highlighting best practice using simple visuals


Example 1.2: ‘Be Ready!’ Series for Individuals in Natural Disaster Prone Areas (by Center for Disease Control)

Information design methods: Pull out boxes + illustrated scenario

This series of infographics describes how to prepare and keep safe during natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires.


F5 Tornado strikes Elie, Manitoba, Canada


Be Ready! Tornadoes

This poster shows the environment and highlights warnings on key elements. It’s not designed for use in the event, but more of a learning tool to educate before a tornado strikes


Example 1.3: Food Emergency List for Parents and Guardians (by Food Insurance)

Information design methods: editorial infographic

Food Insurance produces meals with up to a 25-year shelf-life so that individuals can readily access stored food in the event of emergency situations. Food Insurance also provides a vast amount of information and products to help families and individuals prepare for disastrous situations.


This infographic lists the necessary types and amounts of food a family of five needs to survive for a year. It might have been useful to find out how to store it all though!


Example 1.4: Community Disaster Recovery Playbook for Sandy Super Storm Victims (by Frog & FEMA)

Information Design Methods: Illustrated information manual + visual story telling

After disaster strikes, survivors can wait days or even weeks before government aid arrives. Frog collaborated with FEMA to create a ‘playbook’ that depicts how communities can address this time and help themselves.


Aftermath of Sandy Super Storm, 2012



In Frog and FEMA’s book, they suggest how to set up a disaster recovery center by collaborating with local businesses and national franchises. This allows the community to sustain itself while it waits for government assistance.


2 – Geographic

Example 2.1: Survival Guide for the Homeless (by Stig Bratvolf)

Information Design Methods: Fold Out Map + Iconography

This pocket-sized booklet includes a detailed map indicating the locations of water fountains, toilets and help centers for the homeless. The booklet also comes with a pair of socks and provides further information on help centers such as phone numbers and transportation to them.


The United Nations estimated that 100 million people were homeless in 2005, because of differences in classifications of homelessness between countries, the number is likely much higher.



Side 1: Provides in depth information on help centers and other services available to the homeless.



Side 2: Informational Map of amenities available to the homeless in the Melbourne, Australia area.


Example 2.2: Seismi, Digital visualization project for individuals in regions prone to earthquakes (by Niko Knappe and Gokce Taskan)

Information Design Methods: Interactive Map

This interactive system allows researchers and the general public to understand past earthquakes in reference to time, location, and scale, thus making more accurate preparations for the future.



2010 Philippine Earthquake



The Seismi website transforms publicly available data provided by USGS into an easily readable interactive site.


Example 2.3: Tsunami evacuation map for residents of Northern Japan (by Tomoko Y. Furukawa)

Design Methods: Heat Map + Iconography + Time Measures + Contour Lines

The map provides residents with the relevant information necessary to evacuate the city. Shelters and escape routes are clearly identified. Because cars lead to traffic jams, distance is marked in reference to time so that individuals can plan out the quickest path to safety.

Tomoko Tsunami Map 1

Evacuation map of Miyako, Japan. Of Japan’s east coast, the area was one of the most severely affected after being hit by a Tsunami on March 11, 2011.


Tomoko Tsunami Map 2

Zoomed in view of central Miyako area.


3 – Step by Step

Example 3.1: Inflight safety measures for passengers (by FirstChoice Airways)

Information Design Methods: Iconography + Illustration + Cutaways

Airlines aim to maximize passenger safety by providing procedural instructions on take off for emergencies such as unexpected landings, low cabin pressure and turbulence.


This step by step provides passengers with clear instructions on how to exit the aircraft in an emergency. Much of the information is shown pictorially due to the different languages of readers.



Example 3.2: Battlefield Casualty Drills for Soldiers in Action (by Broadlands Squadron)

Information Design Methods: Decision Tree

This is a detailed step-by-step that explains to soldiers how to handle injuries and casualties on the battlefield. It aims to improve soldier safety and survival.


Casualty Drill 1

This example gives soldiers valuable information on how to handle multiple casualties, the full manual provides instructions on various situations. Communication must be clear and concise due to the environment in which these diagrams are used.


Example 3.3: CPR First Aid, ‘How To’ for CPR Certified (by Indigo Medical Training)

Information Design Methods: Illustration + directional arrows +numbered process + cutaway elements

According to the American Heart Association, CPR can triple a victim’s chance of survival, but only 32% of cardiac arrest victims receive CPR from a bystander. This manual aims to prevent unnecessary death by explaining the process of CPR.



Numbers and illustrations show how to perform CPR. Arrows are used to show pressure, with cutaways to highlight airways.

4 – Education

Example 4.1: Malaria Life Cycle for Disease Stricken Areas (by the CDC)

Information Design Methods: Illustration (real life rather than schematic) + steps + colour coding of various cycles

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were 207 million cases of malaria worldwide and 627,000 deaths in 2012. This diagram assists the understanding of how Malaria is transmitted and thus provides insight on how individuals can avoid contraction.


Diagram shows the stages of malaria transmission in both humans and mosquitos. The language used might be more applicable to people educated in the matter of malaria – A diagram for the actual people at risk may be designed completely differently.

Example 4.2: Tuberculosis Diagram for Nepal Citizens (by Ane Haaland and Diana Fussell)

Information Design Methods: Hand drawn illustration

Used as a teaching tool to communicate the person-to-person transmission of Tuberculosis. TB spreads easily from a cough or sneeze so it is important that those infected cover their mouths and noses to prevent infecting others.


Diagram was used in Nepal to explain Tuberculosis.

To summarise

There are a number of examples of crisis infographics we have found, that utilise information design techniques and design methods to enable clear understanding.

However, we have found it difficult to find examples that have been provided to at-risk people within developing countries. These communications would be a great challenge to any designer as traditional approaches may not be understood, and meanings misinterpreted. We predict the following challenges would need to be addressed:

  • Design speed and rapid design development
  • User testing and working with the readers
  • Interpretation, e.g. icons Vs illustration
  • Cost of deployment – printing on site in disaster zones
  • Language barriers
  • Understanding of common design layouts, e.g. timelines and step-by-step

Due to the extreme situations when these crisis infographics would be required, we think developments in this area could have a profound effect on the people reading the information. It is pure information design, where branding and ‘look & feel’ take a back seat, whereas clear understanding and user-centric design are at the forefront of graphic communication solutions.


Photo credits

Syrian Refugees in Winter. BBC News Middle East. 12 December 2013.

Canada Tornado. Justin Hobson. June 2007.

Sandy Super Storm. Major John Adams. Army.

Frog Design FEMA book.

Homeless Man and Dog. Marc the Vet. November 2011.

Road After Earthquake. Lego Engineering. June 2013.