Friday, 12:00am
20 August 2004

Need to know? (Web only)

If the Government can't make a simple, effective document, what will happen in the event of an actual emergency?

Preparing for Emergencies By Rick Poynor

Written exclusively for

The Royal Mail started delivering the British Government’s ‘Preparing for Emergencies’ leaflet in early August and my household received one almost immediately, though no one noticed it had come. The envelope sat unopened in a pile of junk mail for several days and I was about to throw it away when I realised what it contained. On the front it says only: ‘To the occupier. Important information from HM Government’. Next to this is a graphic device consisting of six heavy black circles containing the letter ‘i’, 999, an arrow, a keyhole, a circle with a nick out of it, and a plus sign. Each of these circular elements is a different colour.

The campaign will cost around £8.3 million and copies of the leaflet are being delivered to more than 25 million households in the UK. Yet, despite the importance of its message, there is barely a hint of emergency in the design – only the 999. Not until you open the envelope do you discover that the leaflet’s theme, spelt out under the same bland string of circles, is ‘Preparing for Emergencies: what you need to know’. The assumption seems to be that you will know what the envelope contains before you open it.

It’s not often that a piece of graphic design is aimed at the entire adult population. Assessed in design terms, though, the job has been badly botched by the Central Office of Information and advertising agency WCRS. While the Government doesn’t want to cause unnecessary alarm, it clearly believes that there is a need for such information. It must be vital, then, that people take notice. Before this can happen a communication must compete with the deluge of unsolicited print rammed through the letterbox and it must announce clearly what it’s about.

The leaflet seems far from sure exactly what it’s about. What are these ‘emergencies’ it expects and why does so much money need to be spent to tell the British public about them right now? Bombs aren’t mentioned until page 7, followed by a brief section on chemical, biological or radiological incidents. The subject of terrorism isn’t discussed until the final pages. On the 'Preparing for Emergencies' website [] we gather that the leaflet’s ‘focus’ isn’t on terrorism and that it hasn’t been produced in response to any specific threat. There is also a reminder of the sort of previous misfire the Government would like to avoid. The leaflet is not, they insist, an update of the notorious ‘Protect and Survive’ publication, which in 1980 told the public how to make home and family ‘as safe as possible under nuclear attack’. There should be no comparison between the two campaigns. It’s unfortunate that the earlier leaflet also made use of a bold circular device – as a protective wall around two parents and their children.

Where ‘Protect and Survive’ must have unnerved, if not terrified, many a householder with its matter-of-fact line drawings showing how to prepare a fall-out room and its advice to stockpile prodigious quantities of food and water to sit out the weeks after the disaster, the new leaflet keeps specifics to a minimum. It’s good to learn that burns should be wrapped in cling film, but its main purpose seems to be to offer reassurance that the authorities, shown in little photos smiling like bank managers, are busy working on the problem and that, if anything unpleasant occurs, the relevant services will provide us with the concrete information the leaflet mostly prefers to withhold.

‘Preparing for Emergencies’ fails to instil much confidence because, above all, it is so poorly designed. The informal graphic tone is more appropriate to a cable company touting for new subscribers than Her Majesty’s Government. The typography and layout are a mess. Some of the text is ranged left while other sections are justified with unsightly gaps over short measures. The all-lowercase headings, better suited to a mobile phone promotion, are placed inconsistently and the COI seems to think a hyphen can serve as a dash. The circular devices have been sprinkled around to liven things up, with no sense of structure. The friendly, round-cornered panels are just patronising.

This is one type of communication where the appearance of authority might have been welcome, but the leaflet lacks authority and this leads to the inevitable question. If the Government with its long list of advisers, running from the Security Service and the Ministry of Defence to the Red Cross, cannot marshal the expertise to produce a simple, effective document, what will happen in the event of an actual emergency?