Design for life—50 years after First Things First


If you are not a designer you are unlikely to have heard of the First Things First manifesto, and why should you? And on reading it for the first time you may think it is navel-gazing of the worthiest order—and it would be hard to disagree. First written and published in 1964 by designer Ken Garland, it basically questions the the overly commercial aspect of a graphic designer’s output, and asks why our time and services can’t be put to better use for a wider societal gain, citing cultural and educational areas as key places that could benefit from our skills. Signed by various designers of the day, it is fair to say that a modernist ideology is at its core with more than a little left leaning.

The manifesto was updated for a contemporary age in 2000, published across various design related magazines as Eye, Blueprint, Emigré, and maybe more famously in the agit-prop polemic Adbusters. This time around, the text was slightly more aggressive and denouncing of advertising than the original version, which tended to appease ‘high pressure consumer advertising’ in its last paragraph claiming it wanted to reverse the priority of graphic design rather than abolish commercial activity. The latter, while still claiming its intent was to reverse the priorities, it makes no such sop to mammon’s mouthpiece—

“We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators who have been raised in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable use of our talents. Many design teachers and mentors promote this belief; the market rewards it; a tide of books and publications reinforces it.
     Encouraged in this direction, designers then apply their skill and imagination to sell dog biscuits, designer coffee, diamonds, detergents, hair gel, cigarettes, credit cards, sneakers, butt toners, light beer and heavy-duty recreational vehicles. 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. The profession’s time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best.”

So why post about this now, in 2014? Well, because on the eve of the 1964 manifesto’s 50th anniversary, one designer has decided it is time to update the manifesto, and he could have a point. Cole Peters published on his blog on 15 January that he was going to update the manifesto to add: “…the inclusion and consideration of the web. Given how much of our lives and work the web touches, I believe it is critical that its presence and myriad implications should inform the next draft of the manifesto — not least because, as revelations over the past 8 months have shown us, the web of today is not quite the web we’ve always thought it was. Privacy, security and free speech on the web have never been more threatened, and I believe it’s important to acknowledge how this affects our industry.”

He goes on to say: “I believe it is time for other professions to be included in the scope of the manifesto. The original text was signed by “graphic designers, photographers and students”, while the 2000 renewal reflected somewhat more broadly the views of “graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators”. The essential message of First Things First actually concerns a broad variety of creative professionals; I believe a modern renewal of the manifesto should thusly represent not only designers, but also developers, programmers and other creative technologists — in short, anyone using technology and creativity within the scope of a professional pursuit. If the web is to become a central concern of this renewed manifesto, so too should the people that continue to shape the web itself.”

It will undoubtedly come in for a slating from many quarters, as the 2000 version did. In his 2001 book, Obey The Giant, design critic Rick Poyner said: “Naive. Elitist. Arrogant. Hypocritical. Pompous. Outdated. Cynically exploitative. Flawed. Rigid. Unimaginative. Pathetic. Like witnessing a group of eunuchs take a vow of chastity—no doubt about it, the First Things First 2000 manifesto…got right under some people’s skins. These are just a few of the barbs and catcalls hurled at the 400 word text and its signatories by individuals who may have rejected its every line and sentiment, but apparently felt sufficiently rattled by its arrival to fire off a public response. In 15 years as a design writer, I have never observed anything in the design press to compare with the scale, intensity and duration of international reaction to First Things First.” And that was in the days before comments sections and Twitter, so imagine what verbal shit-storm might occur this time around.

That said, I believe the time is right for a renewal, and I think that there will potentially be more traction for it than in previous years. For a start, 2000 wasn’t a good time to gain momentum with an update, as turning a corner in historical dates, and living in a relative economic boom time, there were lots of designers doing alright, thank you very much. While Reclaim The Streets might have been gaining some momentum in protest movement circles, (all too rapidly bought to its knees by the shooting of a black block protester in Genoa and 9/11 legitimising an unbridled clampdown on any form of protect), generally, the modernist social agenda was buried long ago and there was little appetite for it outside of the pages of magazines and debating societies.

But things are very different now.

For a start we have several generations of designers who undoubtedly have been exposed to the 2000 First Things First manifesto in critical studies sessions on their degrees. I expect that this wasn’t the case 14 years after the 1964 version. On top of this, we have a batch of current students who have studied under surrounding discussions about the Occupy movement while an austerity programme is actually taking place, something Reclaim The Streets didn’t have the luxury of. Build into this discussion student fees protests, university occupations and #copsoffcampus and you have an ongoing critical dialogue unfolding over several years worth of undergraduates and graduates entering the industry. Top this off with commentators like Adrian Shaughnessy asking if designers have any responsibility towards the 2011 London riots, and fronting a publishing house, in Unit Editions, that is releasing retrospective monographs of left leaning designers such as FHK Henrion and Ken Garland himself, and it doesn’t take much to propose that this time around, First Things First may have a stronger foundation on which to build a critical mass that wash’t necessarily there within the industry and its feeder universities at the end of the last century. We even have a Government department under GDS that is proudly taking design principle inspiration from socially driven projects such as Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinear‘s road transportation signage system of the 1950s. Double up an historical understanding of ideologically principled design and a current critical thinking that recognises the massive gap between ‘must have’ consumption and imposed austerity, and you have a potential for (re) new (ed) ideological critiques to catch imaginations.

As I said at the beginning, if you aren’t a designer and have only just heard of the First things First manifesto, then you may think it navel-gazing of the worthiest order, which sounds like a put down. But consider if other professions decided to do something similar that was self-initiated. I’m thinking; banking, politicians, the newspaper industry, arms dealers, fast food purveyors, payday loan vendors, bookmakers… etc. Maybe we could see critical self-reflection actually put a human social face on services that really should be there for the benefit of all. All power to First Things First 2014, where do I sign?

First Things First manifesto 2014


Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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