Graphic Design for Emergency and Disaster Relief

You might not think that a graphic design career has anything to do with emergencies and disaster relief, but I do! During the recent Thomas Fire in California I evacuated and worked from a safe distance. The power outages and toxic smoke were motivation enough for me to relocate during the 14 days this fire was going strong. 

I worked on two projects related to the Thomas Fire. I published announcements in social media for the Sandbox Coffeehouse, launched a website VenturaFire.Info, and created a Facebook page and group for the Ventura area. We wanted to let people know what was going on and where to find official information during and after the fire.

Photos by Jeanne Hughes

Photos by Jeanne Hughes


  • People
  • Printed Signs
  • Phones
  • Radio
  • TV
  • Email
  • Social Media
  • Websites

The more, the better

I lost my home in a firestorm, and I was eight years old. The experience impacted my drive to create a mobile sustainable lifestyle. Thanks to laptops and mobile devices it’s possible for people to zip around and work from anywhere with electricity and cell phone reception. I’m not the only person who is doing this. An event like the Thomas Fire highlights the extensive collaboration possible. All forms of communication technology were used and needed in response from both volunteer, amateur, official, and professional sources. The public incident report lists the following agencies: 

CAL FIRE, Ventura County Fire, Ventura County Sheriff, Santa Barbara County Fire, Santa Barbara County Sheriff, City of Ventura Fire Department, City of Ventura Police Department, USFS/Los Padres National Forest, CAL OES, Red Cross, Southern California Edison, CHP, California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation, SoCaGas, Crimson Pipeline, Wildfire Defense Systems, CA Resources Group, Santa Paula Police, Santa Paula Fire, Ventura County OES, Santa Barbara OEM

Group Genius

In my studies on innovation, it is clear that group genius is where it is at. Witnessing the spontaneous community mobilization during an emergency is nothing short of numinous. Emergency situations like the Thomas Fire are not desired, they can and do lead to amazing innovation. 

After decades of disaster research, we know that improvisational groups are often the fastest and most efficient in the uncertain and rapidly changing conditions caused by natural disaster. (P.23) Sawyer, K. (2008). Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Basic Books.

Everyday Creativity

We don’t need to wait for a natural disaster to benefit from the creative potential of groups. Sawyer lists out the elements for us to follow. The seven key characteristics of effective creative teams are: 

  1. Innovation emerges overtime
  2. Successful collaborative teams practice deep listening
  3. Team members build on their collaborators ideas
  4. Only afterwards does the meaning of each idea become clear
  5. Surprising questions emerge
  6. Innovation is inefficient
  7. innovation emerges from the bottom up

We don’t know yet what the Thomas Fire will mean for our community. It’s still burning today and 100% containment is not predicted for another few weeks. Whatever it means, it is big! The Thomas Fire is already the third largest fire in California history and the largest mobilization of firefighters in history. Hopefully the outcome will include better innovation in fighting wildfires in California.

If you would like to help with the recovery in the community, consider getting involved with a Facebook group. There are many: