A century of panic prevention instructed via design

After the past couple of years, it’d be easy to assume that the last thing anyone’s interested in poring over is ‘panic prevention’ posters, advising us around those now all-too-familiar-territories of handwashing, mask-wearing, the correct ways to sneeze, and so on.

But rather than put such warnings out of sight and out of mind, a beautiful new book from Thames and Hudson does a great job of placing the health and disaster messaging of today into a lineage of designs for disasters stretching back more than 100 years. Graphically, at least, there’s still a hell of a lot more we can take from these images, which range from photographs of masks that are as strangely hilarious as they are terrifying, to cartoonish depictions of tornados, to advice on how best to identify aliens and much, much more.

Weekly Bulletin of the Department of Health, New York, 1918. c/o Municipal Library, City of New York

Titled Apocalypse Ready: The manual of manuals; a century of panic prevention, the book by Taras Young (author of 2019’s Nuclear War in the UK and of the blog Communicating the Unthinkable) brings together government-published step-by-step guides dealing with disasters from around the world, from the 1910s to the present day. The book is split into four main sections each based around a different ‘disaster-themed scenario’, as the publisher puts it: Pandemics, Natural Disasters, Nuclear War and Alien Invasion.

What becomes clear  – from the section titles alone – is that the advice, while frequently brilliantly designed, has historically often leaned on scare tactics as much as practical advice. For every poster offering up tips on what to do in an earthquake, there’s a French independent magazine apparently taking the threat of UFOs very seriously indeed. The images in these pages aren’t just about events that have occurred, but those that have been imagined.

Arctic Survival (1953) The cover of Arctic Survival a life-saving manual issued to UK airmen in the early 1950s.Cover of Arctic Survival (1953), a manual issued to UK airmen

Among the other ephemera within Apocalypse Ready is a leaflet showing readers how to build an earthquake shelter; step-by-step tips for nuclear war situations around how to protect your family; and in rather more familiar modern day territory, a look back on the advice given out on how to prevent the spread of Spanish flu.

Broadly speaking, these documents – presented together and grouped thematically rather than chronologically – show the shifts in how governments have communicated dangers and how the public can protect themselves, but what’s just as clear is how little has changed.

The debut issue of the French UFO magazine INFO OVNI, 1975

Survival in Likely Target Areas (1962), Canada Department of National Defence

National Széchényi Library, Collection of Small Prints and Posters This Hungarian poster from the 1960s says that it is patriotic to carry out civil defence duties.

Hungarian poster, 1960s, ‘it is patriotic to carry out civil defence duties.’

Bold colours, limited palettes and strong typography are a mainstay across the decades, showing the punchy communication design holds the same things dear in the internet age as during the early 20th century.

What also becomes strikingly apparent is humanity’s age old preoccupation with global apocalypse: at every point in history, there seems to have been something that threatened earthly survival as we know it. All that’s changed is what those potential threats are; how governments deal with them; and how the public is told to behave around them.

Twister! Tornado Tips to Save Your Life (1983) Twister! Tornado Tips to Save Your Life, Illinois Emergency Services and Disaster Agency, USA, 1983Twister! Tornado Tips to Save Your Life, Illinois Emergency Services and Disaster Agency, USA, 1983
Civil Defence Manual of Basic Training: Basic Chemical Warfare (1949) Helmet respirator, showing the wearer operating the bellowsCivil Defence Manual of Basic Training: Basic Chemical Warfare (1949)


Apocalypse Ready: The Manual of Manuals; a Century of Panic Prevention is published by Thames and Hudson