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Disaster Preparedness by Design

Noun Project
Symbols transcend cultural and language barriers. An effective symbol should quickly convey the correct information back to the user.

This weekend, a group of volunteers met at the American Red Cross headquarters to take on a new kind of disaster challenge. Designers, disaster preparedness experts, and community members spent the day participating in an Iconathon co-hosted by the newly launched Global Disaster Preparedness Center and The Noun Project in honor of Disaster Risk Reduction Day. The goal of an Iconathon is to add to the public domain symbols that visually convey concepts frequently needed in civic design.

The day kicked off with a presentation on urban disaster preparedness by the Global Disaster Preparedness Center’s Senior Information Architect, Ian O’Donnell, highlighting the increased worldwide disaster risk as more people move from rural to urban settings. This was followed by Robert Banick, Geographic Information Systems Coordinator for the American Red Cross, sharing a selection of maps and explaining how having a greater range of icons to work with will make the maps more useful to disaster preparedness workers and to communities who are striving to reduce risk locally.

“Visual communication is incredibly powerful,” said Edward Boatman, co-founder and Creative Director of The Noun Project. “Symbols transcend cultural and language barriers. An effective symbol should quickly convey the correct information back to the user.”

Saturday’s Iconathon focused on creating new symbols to help convey disaster preparedness in an urban setting in a clear, concise format. Ideas like earthquake preparedness, community mapping, high ground, and internet connection were all, literally, on the table.

Teams of volunteers chose words and phrases and began the process of designing symbols that reflect those ideas. Each team had artists and graphic designers paired with subject matter experts and community members to ensure a mix of design skill and disaster management expertise were utilized in the process. 

Andy Stites, a graphic designer from a Washington, D.C., firm, participated in the event. He hoped that by designing a library of symbols open to public access, ultimately the speed of communication would be increased during a disaster. When asked why he gave up his Saturday to help, he replied “to be able to do what I love for something good.”

At the end of a long day of creative energy and focus the teams presented their sketches and shared their ideas and thinking. The Noun Project will take these symbols and make them accessible for the public to use. The symbols created during this Iconathon will help the American Red Cross, the Global Disaster Preparedness Center, and the rest of the humanitarian community communicate important disaster preparedness ideas graphically.

The Global Disaster Preparedness Center is a joint initiative between the American Red Cross and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. As a globally focused resource center, it supports learning and knowledge sharing for disaster preparedness practitioners in the Red Cross and Red Crescent network as well as the wider humanitarian community.

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About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.