First Things First

A call to action for the design community.

“Design is not art…Art is made to be appreciated, design is made with a clear purpose.”

This credo has always been at the core of the design community. Our endeavour has always been to solve problems, whether they are mechanical, socio-political or cultural. Design in every sense, whether graphic, architectural or product, provides answers to questions.

© Adbusters

However, in an age of avid consumerism, building brands pays the bills. Designers have become an extension of a brand’s marketing team, using their skills to drive consumers into desiring products that are, more often than not, inessential. Rather than becoming partners with our clients, working together to design a better world, we have become vendors that follow the catch-phrase ‘the customer is always right’.

While this debate might seem more relevant now in the 21st century, it is in actuality an ongoing dialogue spanning decades. Ken Garland, a luminary in the industry, was the first to articulate it coherently in 1963. In a passionate speech before the Society of Industrial Artists in the UK, he lamented that designers had become no more than salesmen. According to him, the visual incontinence had reached a ‘saturation point’ and that ‘the high-pitched scream of consumer selling’ had become no more than ‘sheer noise’.

The original manifesto that shook the design community. © Goodwin Press Ltd.

The speech was later crafted into a manifesto, “First Things First” and was signed by visual artists, designers and educators. Four hundred copies of First Things First were published in January 1964. Some of the other signatories were well-established figures. Edward Wright, the ‘oldest’ of the various signatories, taught experimental typography at the Central School; Anthony Froshaug was also a Central typographer of great influence. Others were teachers, students, or design initiates. Several were photographers.

The manifesto received immediate backing from an unexpected quarter. One of the signatories passed it to Caroline Wedgwood Benn, wife of the Labour Member of Parliament, Anthony Wedgwood Benn (now Tony Benn). On 24th January, Benn reprinted the manifesto in its entirety as part of his weekly Guardian newspaper column. “The responsibility for the waste of talent which they have denounced is one we must all share,“ he wrote. “The evidence for it is all around us in the ugliness with which we have to live. It could so easily be replaced if only we consciously decided as a community to engage some of the skill which now goes into the frills of an affluent society.”

© Adbusters

The manifesto had sealed a place for itself within the cultural, political and design community consciousness of the time. However, as Garland himself would have said, design and ideas must remain pertinent to the context of the times. Over the last 20 years, the manifesto has been republished and edited 3 times, the first in 2000, then again in 2014 and now in 2020. Each time, the core message remained the same, simply recontextualised for the era.

The first iteration in 2000 was crafted by the Canadian magazine ‘Adbusters’. Its editor-in-chief, Kalle Lasn and design legend Tibor Kalman both felt that Garland’s words were even more relevant at the cusp of the new millennium, with the rise of the internet and the growth of capitalism.

Its aim was to stimulate discussion in all areas of visual communication — in education, practice and organisations that represent design’s aspirations and purpose. The new signatories‘ enthusiastic support for Adbusters‘ updated First Things First, reasserted its continuing validity, and provided a much needed opportunity to debate these issues.

In 2014, the manifesto was updated by Canadian born — U.K. residing designer, Cole Peters, for the democratisation and wide spread use of technology, something he felt the previous two versions did not address. The manifesto shifted away from the ‘perils of advertising’ to discuss more pertinent concerns of ethics that technology had created within the creative community and urged Techies to prioritise Meaningful Work’. This updated manifesto was the first to be made open to new signatories.

© www.occupy.com

Now, in 2020, our society is more polarised than ever before. The COVID crisis has amplified the fear that plagues people’s lives. The latest iteration of the manifesto, created by the Frost Collective, inspires members of the design community to come together and work towards creating solutions to these problems. To combat climate change and social injustice with the power of clear communication.

It calls for us ‘to create useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication’.

A call that has remained unchanged since 1964. The manifesto has always been a rallying point for designers in the community that believe design has the ability to solve problems beyond merely sustaining business endeavours. It has the power to educate, inform and shape social consciousness in order to address the problems that plague it.

We at two have already pledged our support and signed on to the manifesto. ‘2 Degrees of Separation’ is our initiative towards combating the injustice we see in our society. We hope that it inspires other members of our community to take up the cause, start a conversation, and rediscover the power of design to create a better world.

a picture speaks a thousand words, your brand only needs two.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store