First Things First was a manifesto created in 1964 by Ken Garland, a British graphic designer. During a meeting of the Society of Industrial Artists in January of that year, Garland, also a photographer, writer and educator, asked to read out the manifesto he had come up with, hoping to change the outlook of designers worldwide. In Looking Closer, Bierut calls the manifesto “a plea for a shift in designers’ priorities” (1999, p154). Garland hoped that designers would reassess the commercial work that they do and put more of their valuable time into pro bono work. Garland was countering the consumerist culture that had been established during the 1960s through Britain becoming more wealthy and affluent. His call to arms managed to gain 21 signatures from his colleagues and fellow designers. In 2000, almost 40 years after the initial publishing of the manifesto, Adbusters (a Canadian magazine) republished the manifesto. 33 signatures were gained from designers who agreed with the original sentiments of the manifesto and who also felt that the issues Garland had discussed had gained significant relevance in today’s society.
An important issue regarding both the 1964 and 2000 publishing is how necessary the manifesto was. In 1964, Britain was flourishing economically and so people were generally living more luxurious and consumerist lifestyles. This meant that advertising campaigns were battling to grab the attention of everyday shoppers through bill board signs, newspaper magazines and, as televisions became widely available, televised adverts and promotions. With newspapers, magazines and the product packaging itself being the main ways messages were put across, graphic designers were being snapped up to create the most eye catching adverts possible. In 2000, society had become even more materialistic and so the re-issue of the manifesto had become ever more necessary to make designers realise that in the advanced era we are in, money should not be the ultimate goal when there are so many other issues to address and promote. It is possible that the manifesto is even more relevant for the more recent societies who are subconsciously affected by advertising almost every minute of their day. In Looking Closer 4, Rick Poyner states that the situation is ‘incalculably more extreme’ than 50 years ago as so many designers ‘are engaged in nothing less than the manufacture of contemporary reality’ (1999, p6). As an extreme a statement that is, it is impossible to deny that advertising surrounds our every movement and so it can be fair to say that more time could be spent carrying out non-profit, charitable work without the advertising agencies falling to their knees.
Another important issue is the advancement of technology since the first issue of the manifesto. In 1964, technology was starting to take off for mass-production however it was nowhere near the scale that it was at in 2000. Mass-produced consumer goods were becoming increasingly available and popular but the capability for fast, widely-distributed advertising was not anywhere near to the level the recent millennium has seen. Computers and lightning-fast software have allowed graphic designers to be able to create effective work in minutes, with seemingly no increase in the amount of pro bono work carried out. This is another reason that the 2000 re-issue of the manifesto was so relevant.
The 1964 publishing came at a very important time in the world of design. Design had only recently begun to be seen as ‘a confident, professionalized activity’, meaning that it was now a more than acceptable career path and was a respected profession. This is one of the reasons why it is such a shame that the manifesto did not cause more of a shake up amongst the new brigade of creatives. The manifesto was intended to change not only their mind-set, but also their actions which it did not seem to do.
However, this is where another issue arises: how is it possible to judge to successes and pitfalls of each publishing of the manifesto? There is no certain way to judge how many people read the article and were prompted into giving a portion of their time to pro bono work, especially not when it comes to smaller, unknown designers. Although the advertising industry was not negatively affected, there is no definitive evidence that more designers did not pick up their pens or go to their computers and help a local charity or advertise a charitable auction for example.
The manifesto also seems to focus heavily upon what each designer should not be doing and work they should be avoiding rather than giving ideas and specific, helpful guidance on issues which they could spend their time addressing. Garland advises designers to ignore the ‘high-pitched scream of consumer selling’ (1999, p154) but there is little to help them gain understanding of what is classed as work with a positive social outcome.
It is impossible to disagree with the idea that people should do things to help society and not conform to the consumer society, however, society would not function in the same manner if designers were not willing to work for advertising agencies. Advertising may often be a tempting image of an overpriced, inessential product, but, it frequently advertises things that are not essentials but may be extremely important. Another possibility is that an advert could be for a cheaper alternative to a household product, which would thus give the poorest of society the chance to save money on goods. Although ‘detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste, aftershave lotion… pull-ons and slip-ons’ are not necessities in life, they do make many people’s lives slightly better or easier.
One of the main issues with the manifesto is that it expects designers to have to comfort, luxury and financial stability to be able to pick and choose the work that they accept. Consumer advertising is often well-paid and provides job stability so that designers can afford to live. Charitable work is more often than not expected to be done for little to no money as the charities aim to make as much revenue from a campaign. Although there will usually always be a graphic designer ready to accept the occasional unpaid job to boost their CV, many designers cannot choose to work for free when rent and bills need to be paid. This brings up another point surrounding both manifestoes: they were both signed by very middle-class designers. It would have been possible for them to take time out for unpaid work and it could be argued that the manifestoes seem elitist and shun the lower classes of designers.
Although both issues of the manifesto were created with the best intentions of changing the way society and designers work, it seems as though neither had a very large impact on the way they think and approach projects. Although social design is becoming an increasingly popular field of design, the advertising world still seems to be thriving, despite Ken Garland and the original 21 signatories’ efforts.
Bierut, M. (1999). Looking Closer 3: Classic Writings on Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press
Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., and Heller, S. (eds.) (2002), Looking Closer 4: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press
Bierut, M. (2007), Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, New York: Princeton Architectural Press