Ideo Rebrands Disaster Preparedness

The end of the world draws nigh. Someone break out the wine and Scrabble.


You’ve just survived a devastating earthquake. Time to take inventory: Flashlight? Check. First aid kit? Check. Bottle of wine and Scrabble. Chec–wait, what?


This is emergency preparedness through the eyes of City 72, a new, customizable website by Ideo that any city can adopt freely. Originally created for San Francisco under the name SF72, the site was designed to prepare local citizens for the first 72 hours after a disaster strikes–the average time you need to get by on your own before any* aid can come to help. Both Ideo and the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management thought it was a good enough idea to share with other cities. And so it’s being unveiled today at the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative Demo Day.

“We established the Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery initiative to bring together the technology and disaster response communities, with the express purpose of leveraging tech platforms and creating tools that can help survivors following a disaster,” said U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. “By enabling and empowering survivors, innovations like these can help communities respond to and recover from large-scale emergencies.”

While disaster preparedness materials are typically shrouded in scary red; the site of SF72 is an inviting yellow. It has a video full of friendly imagery of trolleys and the Golden Gate Bridge. And its preparedness checklist is every bit as appealing as the online Apple store with clean product photos, lots of white space, and the occasional descriptive quip (“You didn’t start the fire. But you can help extinguish it. Stash a fire extinguisher with your supplies so that you can stay safe.”).

It’s casual, it’s approachable, and it’s downright lighthearted–which may lead you to ask, “How dare they?!?”

“People’s perception of a disaster is a Hollywood movie like Armageddon,” explains Kate Lydon, Ideo’s Public Sector Portfolio Director. Certainly, emergencies, like earthquakes, affect some people intensely. But for the broader population, “The actual experience is more like, ‘I BBQ’d all of the food in my freezer because it was melting, and I got to know my neighbors,'” Lydon says.


It was a lesson that Ideo learned following interviews with people who’d been through disasters before, from earthquakes in San Francisco to the East Coast’s Hurricane Sandy. However tragic such events can be, they aren’t actually the end of the world.

Another thing Ideo gleaned: All of that bold text and bright red warning imagery that people typically associate with disasters? It doesn’t work when it comes to motivating people to prepare. “Fear-based messaging doesn’t stick with people. People tend to turn off, and they don’t know how to take the first step,” Lydon says. “It’s the lowest common denominator.”

For Ideo, it was critical that, above all else, they engage their audience. SF72 was all about calling people to action–specifically those who they identified as the “I Shoulds,” which represents a majority of the population. The “I Shoulds” are open to prepping for a disaster but have never really got around to it, and everything about City 72 is designed to pull in the I Shoulds. The lighthearted tone keeps things casual. The city video and imagery contextualize the possibility of a disaster in one’s home town, but in a way that, again, won’t drive you away with fear. The preparedness checklist is arranged by need. Items like water are on top, and all these necessities are bundled in groups of six rather than a long list to appeal to short attention spans.

And then there’s all the stuff that was deleted–namely long-winded text passages–to ensure the audience was engaged.

“We spent a long time stripping text out of the site. A lot of the preparedness stuff is text-heavy. It overwhelms people,” Lydon explains. “We’d bring in users to test what was out there. They’d glaze over. It didn’t capture their attention or their imagination.”


The resulting site is more polished than any government site you’ve probably seen, and it’s more cheerful than a disaster checklist has any right to be. The templates for City 72 are live on Github now, and they’re free for any city to use.

Learn more here.

*Correction: A previous version of this story said it was generally 72 hours until federal aid could help. In reality, 72 hours represents the lead time for any sort of aid in the wake of a disaster, and federal aid will generally take longer.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach