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First Things First… Again

By Uncategorized

It seems that many people believe that all it really takes to be a graphic designer is a computer, some basic software, and a client. Graphic design is still a relatively new profession: the first textbook of graphic design, written by Phillip B. Meggs, was not published until 1983. Graphic design is considered by the U.S. Department of Labor to be a trade that does not require a degree or licensing of any kind for the practitioner to be considered a practicing professional. Despite the field’s lack of historic grandeur, graphic designers are in the business of creating a large and very influential part of the visual world that we all live in. Perhaps it is because of its newness and openness that it has so many demons to work out. It is a field that is constantly trying to define what it is and what it isn’t while still being painfully subject to fashion.

There are a tremendous number of people working in the industries of design and advertising, and they employ a remarkable amount of talent and intelligence—as well as an incredible number of bodies. Adding to this every year are the “tens of thousands” of students being trained to join this work force. This massive force of trained professionals, students and academics are engaged in creating the images that we all consume on a daily basis, and some have started to ask questions about their ethical responsibilities in performing that task, most notably with the reissue in 2000 of the First Things First Manifesto.

First Things First (FTF) was written by the British designer Ken Garland in 1963. The conditions that inspired Garland to write his manifesto were similar to those that inspired its reissue. A long period of economic stability had produced a thriving economic market that supported a large number of graphic designers. In essence, graphic design really became the graphic design profession during the late ’50s and early ’60s. However, alongside this economic stability was political upheaval, such as that instigated by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. What Ken Garland was giving voice to was the idea that designers need to dedicate their time and talents to issues beyond the promotion of commercial products, and that designers have the ability and even the responsibility to do much more.Garland initially announced his manifesto at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) during a meeting of the Society of Industrial Artists (SIA). It was received excitedly, and several people added their signatures to the document. After Garland’s delivery of FTF at the ICA, he was invited to make a television appearance by the BBC to discuss the manifesto. This lead to the printing of the document in several prestigious design magazines such as Design, Ark and The Royal College of Art Magazine. The impact of Garland’s FTF can be seen not only by its enthusiastic reception at the SIA meeting by students, teachers and working professionals immediately willing to add their signatures to the document, but also through the escalation in exposure the manifesto was given from the time of its release. Interestingly, Garland lost only one client after appearing on television “wearing a leather jacket and an incendiary expression.” Apparently, even his clients thought the ideas in FTF were valid.

Is it time to change your media diet?

Four years later, Ken Garland gave another extremely important speech at the Vision 67 Design for Survival Conference in New York. Simply titled “Here Are Some Things We Must Do.” It was an inspiring and spirited fleshing out of the ideas of the manifesto. Garland listed four “survival tasks” that he saw as essential to the survival of design and the health of society, the most important being “that we make some attempt to identify, and to identify with, our real clients: the public. They may not be the ones who pay us, nor the ones who give us diplomas and degrees, but if they are to be the final recipients of the results of our work, they’re the ones who matter.”

So what happened? Why did the excitement and idealism stated so boldly in FTF fade out of common design discourse for thirty years only to be carried on by a select few? To name a few, designers like Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Art Chantry, Marlene McCarty, Ed Fella and Martin Venezky have all maintained extremely high levels of craft and experimentation and expressed potent political ideologies—however, I believe that they are the exception and not the norm.

The late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were relatively stable compared to the ’60s, but they saw their share of political and economic events that could have stimulated the design profession as a whole into discussions about design ethics. Perhaps what was keeping designers’ minds so occupied during that time period (particularly in the ’80s) was the advancement of computer technology. For all of us who were raised on computers, Photoshop is something that might be taken for granted, but it revolutionized the design business, process and thought. Many people have made the transition to computers successfully, and when one thinks of trailblazing designers of the digital realm, designers such as April Greiman most certainly come to mind.

Greiman’s book Something from Nothing expresses the passion that exists behind the early days of experimentation with computer technology. As technical restraints were removed and designers could have more freedom (within client constraints, of course), designers even started to ask, “What is the difference between art and design?” As designers started to liken themselves more and more to fine artists, it is my opinion that they started to lose sight of some of the most essential components of what design is and must be—it must communicate, it must be functional, and it must be worth making. “Initially, this work seemed genuinely innovative, but within a short space of time most of it was proved to be no more than stylistic imitation; typically, readers were asked to wade through long paragraphs of barely legible type that they quickly tired of. Even by the mid ’90s, this approach was already looking dated … Designers grew obsessed with innovation to the extent that their computers seemed to become more important than themselves.”

I want you to curb your consumptionEspecially with the development of the internet, websites and new media, the computer and its hold on the designer started to become unbearable. What was originally liberating became another constraint, as designers started to produce work exclusively on the computer. Many designers felt frustrated when they found themselves sitting behind a computer for ten hours a day as “pixel pushers,” when they felt that they were capable of so much more.

Thirty-six years after Ken Garland wrote First Things First, a new version was drafted by Chris Dixon and Kalle Lasn of Adbusters, with assistance from design critic and writer Rick Poynor. Dixon and Lasn were inspired to redraft the manifesto after they had paid a visit to designer Tibor Kalman, who upon seeing the original manifesto printed in Adbusters made a comment to them that they should do it again. They certainly followed through. Dixon and Lasn sought the help of Rudy Vanderlans of Emigre, and Max Bruinsma of Eye, as well as Rick Poynor to promote the manifesto and gain signatures from prominent designers and members of the design community. The manifesto was printed in seven key American design magazines and several other European magazines in the hopes of reaching as many members of the design community as possible.

Adbusters magazine took up the issue of FTF as one of their campaigns that fit in squarely with their other “culture jamming” topics such as “TV Turn-Off Day” or “Unbrand America.” After showing the autumn 1998 “Blueprint For A Revolution” issue of Adbusters to Tibor Kalman, which contained the re-issued 1963 FTF manifesto, and seeing how well he responded to it, Lasn and Dixon were inspired to take it further and created FTF 2000. The text of FTF 2000 (printed in Graphic Agitation as well as the aforementioned periodicals) differs from the original FTF in several ways, yet still has some fundamental similarities and common language.

To begin with, the people who signed the 1963 and the 2000 documents are fundamentally different. Many of the people who signed the original 1963 document were students, photographers and your average working-professional graphic designer. The signatories of FTF 2000 are some of the most famous designers, design critics, design educators, advertising executives and art directors working today. The effect of their signatures upon the document is critical, and gives the manifesto more gravity. Conversely, it is exactly who most of the people are that has left FTF 2000 open to so much criticism. However, I believe that the signatories used their status to its best advantage.

I sent out a questionnaire to several of the designers who signed FTF 2000, and when asked what one reason motivated them to sign the document more than anything else, most responded, as did Steven Heller, that it was a desire “to see some kind of activism rekindled.” Katherine McCoy made the comment that “it couldn’t hurt, and it was at least a sign that some designers had refocused on concerns that we had shared in the late ’60s and early ’70s.” From the comments I received and from the research I have done on this subject, I believe most of the signatories of FTF 2000 wanted design professionals to think more critically about what they are doing, and about the far-reaching effects of design and advertising. Both Katherine McCoy and Kalle Lasn felt that the 2003 AIGA conference in Vancouver, which focused on issues of sustainability, could be traced back to the influence of First Things First. To paraphrase comments made by Kalle Lasn during an interview: “AIGA conferences used to be about getting together and having a good time … in Vancouver, we discussed making meaning, not just form; specifically the interface between design and the environment.”

It is not just the profile of the individuals who signed the document that has gone up, but the sense of urgency and the severity of the message has dramatically increased in FTF 2000. Both Garland’s manifesto and the 2000 version share the concern that designers’ talents are wasted on “trivial purposes” which are constantly being “presented to them as the most lucrative, effective and desirable use of our talents.” However, in Garland’s manifesto, the reaction does not go beyond stating much other than that this is a waste of talent and the end products “contribute little” to society.

FTF 2000 makes the more alarming statement that it seems most designers and most of society have become extremely comfortable with this equation, and even let it define them. “Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design.” Not only does FTF 2000 make a statement of how current practices are disastrously affecting the profession of design, it goes on to express that the actions of the design profession are “supporting (and) endorsing a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond, and interact.”

The welcome reception that First Things First received in 1963 was equally matched by the controversy that was stirred up by FTF 2000. Every magazine that printed it received both letters of anger and of praise, and the range of responses was dramatic. One letter that was printed in the editorial section of Adbusters said in regard to FTF: “Adbusters is nothing more than a decoration in the abodes of the design class, serving to announce their ‘awareness’ of what’s wrong with the world.”

In his article “First Things Next,” Rick Poynor notes that the manifesto was called “Pompous. Outdated. Cynically exploitative. Flawed. Rigid. Unimaginative. Pathetic. Like witnessing a group of eunuchs take a vow of chastity.” Still, others saw the manifesto as a call to action, and found it incredibly inspiring. “Your first things first manifesto gives me a great push. It’s good to know that there are more creatives out there who don’t accept the status quo.” Obviously many others share the same viewpoint as this young designer whose letter appeared in the Adbusters editorial section, since more than a thousand people have added their signature to the manifesto on the Adbusters web-site. But the people who are opposed to the manifesto are opposed to it vehemently.

In her article about the responses to FTF 2000, Carolyn McCarron cites “a small group of designers in England who even went so far as to write a manifesto against all future manifesto in the field, titled A Call to Arms Against Future Retro-Manifestos From the Disillu-sioned. They write, ‘Design is encased in capitalism, and even though there are many brownie points to be won for the individual through the creation of coffee-table books, high-brow exhibitions and niche magazines, this link will persist.’”

The Adbusters site with a thousand signatures of support and the “anti-manifesto manifesto” are examples of the two extremes in reactions to FTF 2000. But there is a lot of middle ground. Many designers don’t seem to feel that things are as dire as some of the signatories of FTF. Michael Beirut, the president of the AIGA, wrote an essay titled “A Manifesto With Ten Footnotes,” which is a statement that expresses all of the same concerns as the manifesto but does not stir up as much fire against the advertising profession. Beirut believes that simple, well-designed things are something that people deserve, and it is our duty as designers to do our best, while maintaining “common decency.”

He admits that we all have a right to be alarmed by the “idiotic claims of marketing mavens,” and that design is indeed a “potent tool” with which to fight those things. However, Beirut also believes that we all have a desire and even a right to have beautiful things in our lives. I don’t believe that there will ever be an end to advertising, or that we will ever be able to eliminate desire from a capitalistic society, but I do believe that we can incorporate a stronger sense of ethical responsibility into the profession of design.

Quite delightfully, in response to the question, “What are the roles and responsibilities of a designer in this day and age?” each of the signatories I wrote to responded that “being a good citizen” or “doing the best we can … and being active, engaged citizens” are essential. To quote Jessica Helfand, “It’s still a service business; we still need to honor craft and pay attention to details. And that can mean everything from good kerning to sustainable eco-systems. And should. But at the end of the day, if design is going to mean anything, it’s going to be because we think about and engage in the ideas affecting the world beyond our profession. Participating as thoughtful designers in the real world is our greatest challenge—but also, some might argue (I might argue!) our greatest opportunity.”

Discovering the range of reactions to First Things First 2000 and really researching the motivations that people gave for their statements made me evaluate my own values about design. When I first read FTF 2000, I jumped on the Adbusters bandwagon one hundred percent. I was ready to swear to never design anything but educational books for disadvantaged children, and in my spare time create anti-war posters. While I certainly haven’t changed my mind that these things are worthwhile pursuits, I have come around to the opinion that just about anything is worthwhile if you do it well, make it useful, beautiful, and produce it in a way that is both environmentally and ethically sound.

So how do we do this? It is probably best that we take the advice of Ken Garland and remember whom we are really working for. If we are going to produce designs of quality that having lasting value and significance to society, then we need to be more aware of what society needs. While graphic design will probably always remain subject to the whims of fashion in certain domains, it surely can create its own distinct codes of ethics by which all designers adhere and operate, which would only serve to better the craft and meet the needs of society.

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