RICK POYNOR  

Great Britain

*1957
 


First Things First 2000

In August 1999, 33 designers, visual communicators and design critics, including myself, put their names to a short text commenting on the current state of graphic design. Some of you may have heard of it, or read it.

(SLIDE – FTF2000 poster)

It's called First Things First 2000 and it was published in a number of design magazines in North America and Europe. Some of those who read it last year, when it first appeared, probably assume that it has long ago run its course and petered out. And some, no doubt, were glad to see the back of it. However, to the surprise of even some of the signatories, ten months later the campaign is still under way. It seems to have struck a chord. It has developed a life of its own and every month it appears in some new publication somewhere in the world. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss the historical background to the manifesto, the thinking that lay behind it, the way it has developed over the last few months, and some of its implications for how we think and talk about design today.

The original First Things First, written by Ken Garland, a British graphic designer, was published in London in 1964. It threw down a challenge to designers and other visual communicators that has only grown more urgent with the passing of the years. It is no longer fanciful to say that designers are engaged in nothing less than the manufacture of contemporary reality. Today, in the world's wealthiest countries, we live and breathe design. Very few of the experiences we value in our homes, at leisure, in the city, or at the shopping mall are free of its alchemical touch. We have absorbed design so deeply into ourselves that we no longer fully recognise the myriad ways in which it prompts, cajoles, disturbs, and excites us. It's completely natural. It's just the way things are.

We imagine we are engaging directly with the "content" of the magazine, the TV commercial, the pasta sauce, or perfume, but the content is always mediated by design and it's design that helps direct how we perceive it and how it makes us feel. The brand-meisters and marketing gurus understand this only too well. The product may be little different in real terms from its rivals. What seduces us is its brand identity – its "image." On the most basic level, this image is a visual entity – shape, colour, picture, type – but if it's to work its effect on us it must become an idea. It's a form of transcendence. This is the tremendous power of design.

The original First Things First was written at a time when the British economy was booming. People of all classes were better off than ever before and jobs were easily had. Consumer goods such as TVs, washing machines, fridges, record players and cars, which North Americans were the first to take for granted, were transforming everyday life in the wealthier European nations – and changing consumer expectations for ever. By the early 1960s, graphic design had emerged from the austerity of the post-war years, when four-colour printing was a rarity, and designers could only dream of American clients' lavish production budgets and visual panache. Young designers were vigorous and optimistic. They organised meetings, debates and exhibitions promoting the value of design. Professional associations were started and many leading figures, still active today, began their careers.

Ken Garland studied design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London in the early 1950s, and for six years he was art editor of Design magazine, official mouthpiece of the Council of Industrial Design. In 1962, he set up his own company, Ken Garland & Associates, and the same year began a fruitful association (a "do-it-for-love consultancy," as he once put it) with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Always outspoken, in person and in print, he was an active member of the socialist Labour Party.

Garland penned his historic statement on 29 November 1963, during a crowded meeting organised by the Society of Industrial Artists at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. At the end he asked the chairman whether he could read it out. "As I warmed to the task I found I wasn't so much reading it as declaiming it," he recalled later; "it had become, we all realized simultaneously, that totally unfashionable device, a Manifesto." There was prolonged applause and many people volunteered their signatures there and then.

First Things First was published by Garland himself in January 1964, in an edition of 400 copies. Some of the 21 other signatories were well-established figures. Edward Wright, in his early forties, and the oldest, taught experimental typography at the Central School; Anthony Froshaug was also a Central typographer and teacher of great influence. Others were teachers, students (some taught by Garland) or just starting out as designers. Several were photographers.

The manifesto received immediate publicity from an unexpected quarter when one of the signatories passed it to the wife of the Labour Member of Parliament, Tony Benn, who reprinted the manifesto in its entirety in 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."

That evening, as a result of the Guardian article, Garland was invited on to a BBC TV news programme to read out a section of First Things First and discuss the manifesto. It was subsequently reprinted in Design, the SIA Journal, the Royal College of Art magazine, Ark, and the yearbook Modern Publicity, where it was also translated into French and German. This degree of publicity meant that many people, not just in Britain but abroad, heard about and read First Things First. Garland has letters in his files from designers, design teachers and other interested parties as far afield as Australia, the United States and the Netherlands requesting copies, affirming support for the manifesto's message, or inviting him to come and speak about it.

That First Things First struck a nerve is clear. It arrived at a moment when design was taking off as a confident, professionalised activity. The rapid growth of the affluent consumer society meant there were many opportunities for talented visual communicators in advertising, promotion and packaging. It was a glamorous, well-paid, exciting line of work. From the late 1950s onwards, a few sceptical designers began to ask publicly what this non-stop tide of froth had to do with the wider needs and problems of society. To some, it seemed that the awards with which their colleagues liked to flatter themselves attracted and celebrated only the shallowest and most ephemeral forms of design. For Garland and the other concerned signatories of First Things First, design was in danger of forgetting its responsibility to struggle for a better life for all.

The critical distinction drawn by the original manifesto was between design as communication (giving people necessary information) and design as persuasion (trying to get them to buy things). In the signatories' view, a disproportionate amount of designers' talents and effort was being expended on advertising trivial items such as cat food, fizzy water, slimming diets and hair restorer, while more "useful and lasting" tasks took second place: street signs, books and periodicals, catalogues, instruction manuals, educational aids, and so on.

If the original First Things First perhaps looks naive to us today, it's not because it misunderstood the problem, but because the situation, thirty-six years later, is incalculably more extreme. The signatories were absolutely correct in their assessment of the way that design was developing. In the years that followed, similar misgivings were sometimes voiced by other designers, but most preferred to keep their heads down and concentrate on questions of form and craft. Lubricated by design, the juggernaut rolled on. In the gentler, much less invasive commercial climate of the early 1960s, it was still possible to imagine that if a few more designers would only move across to the other side of the vehicle balance would be restored. In its wording, the manifesto did not acknowledge the extent to which this might, in reality, be a political issue, and Ken Garland himself made a point of explaining that the underlying political and economic system was not being called into question. "We do not advocate the abolition of high pressure consumer advertising," he wrote, "this is not feasible."

But the decision to concentrate one's efforts as a designer on corporate projects, or advertising, or any other kind of design, is a political choice, whether the designer realises it or not. "Design is not a neutral value-free process," argues the American design educator Katherine McCoy, in an essay titled "Countering the tradition of the apolitical designer." McCoy contends that corporate work of even the most innocuous content is never devoid of political bias. Today, the imbalance identified by First Things First is greater than ever. The vast majority of design projects, and certainly the most lavishly funded and widely disseminated, address corporate needs, a massive over-emphasis on the commercial/economic sector of society, which consumes most of graphic designers' time, skills and creativity. As McCoy points out, this is a decisive vote for economic considerations over other potential concerns, including society's social, educational, cultural, spiritual, and political needs. In other words, it's a political statement in support of the status quo.

Design's love affair with form to the exclusion of almost everything else lies at the heart of the problem.

(SLIDE – Fosters ad)

In the 1990s, advertisers were quick to co-opt the supposedly "radical" graphic and typographic gestures of the new digital typography. Design styles lab-tested in youth magazines and music videos became the stuff of sneaker, soft drink and bank ads. Advertising and design are closer today than at any point since the 1960s. For many young designers emerging from design schools in the 1990s, they now appear to be one and the same.

Meanwhile, in the sensation-hungry design press, in the judging of design competitions, in policy statements from design organisations, in the words of design's senior figures and spokespeople (on the few occasions they have a chance to address the public) and even, it has to be confessed, in large sections of design education, we learn about very little these days other than the commercial uses of design. It's rare to hear any strong point of view expressed, by most of these sources, beyond the unremarkable news that design really can help to make your business more competitive. When the possibility is tentatively raised that design might have broader purposes, potential and meanings, designers who have grown up in a commercial climate often find this hard to believe. "We have trained a profession," says Katherine McCoy, "that feels political or social concerns are either extraneous to our work or inappropriate."

What's at stake in contemporary design, the artist and critic Johanna Drucker has suggested, isn't so much the look or form of design practice as the life and consciousness of the designer (and everybody else, for that matter). The critical process of unlocking and exposing the underlying ideological basis of commercial culture boils down to a simple question, she argues, that we need to ask, and keep on asking: "In whose interest and to what ends? Who gains by this construction of reality, by this representation of this condition as 'natural'?"

And this is the concern of the designer or visual communicator in at least two senses. First, like all of us, as a member of society, as a citizen, as a punchdrunk viewer on the receiving end of the barrage of commercial images. Second, as someone whose sphere of expertise is precisely that of representation, of two-dimensional appearances, and the construction of reality's shifting visual surface, interface and expression. If thinking individuals have a responsibility to withstand the proliferating technologies of persuasion, then the designer, as a skilled professional manipulator of those technologies, carries a double responsibility. At root, this is about democracy. The escalating commercial take-over of everyday life makes democratic resistance more vital than ever.

Which brings us back to the decision to update and revive Ken Garland's manifesto.

(SLIDE - Adbusters cover)

In 1998, Adbusters, the Canadian anti-advertising magazine, published Garland's original text in its pages. They had seen it in Eye magazine and felt it was still relevant. They showed it to the American designer Tibor Kalman (who died in 1999) and he suggested it was time to launch it again. Ken Garland visited Adbusters in Vancouver and gave his support to the idea of updating the manifesto for a new generation of design students and designers who wouldn't know the original. He didn't, however, want to have a hand in writing the text. I became involved early last year, offering editorial feedback on the many drafts that First Things First 2000 went through before it was finalised. Rudy VanderLans of Emigre and Max Bruinsma, the Dutch design critic, also gave advice. There was much discussion between the organisers about who we should approach to sign it. Adbusters gathered roughly half of the signatures, and I gathered the others, with help from Nick Bell, art director of Eye. Most people we asked agreed to join us, though perhaps 25 per cent of them said no. With one or two exceptions, the designers come from Britain, America and the Netherlands. Several other magazines agreed to join Adbusters in a simultaneous publication of the manifesto. Each magazine presented the text in its own way.

(2 SLIDES) Adbusters included it in a special issue devoted to "graphic agitation".

(SLIDE) Emigre put it on its front cover.

(SLIDE) Blueprint in London published it as a poster in the style of Ken Garland's original.

(2 SLIDES) Eye.

(2 SLIDES) AIGA Journal of Graphic Design.

(2 SLIDES) Items.

Before going any further, I would like to read you First Things First 2000:

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.
Many of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this view of design. Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. Many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programmes, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help.

We propose a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication - a mindshift away from product marketing and towards the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.

In 1964, 22 visual communicators signed the original call for our skills to be put to worthwhile use. With the explosive growth of global commercial culture, their message has only grown more urgent. Today, we renew their manifesto in expectation that no more decades will pass before it is taken to heart.

The reaction exceeded all our expectations. Letters poured into the magazines. Adbusters produced a First Things First poster carrying the text (I showed it at the start of this talk) and mailed it to design schools around the world. The new manifesto was debated in college classes and became the subject of student projects. Other magazines in Europe, America and Japan began to take notice, publishing the complete text and running articles responding to it.

(2 SLIDES) Design Week. This is Britain's weekly design paper. I couldn't have found a better image to express design's commercial imperatives.

(2 SLIDES) Creative Review.

(2 SLIDES) Form.

(2 SLIDES) I.D. This was a particularly interesting response. It was described on the cover as a "rebuttal" and inside contentious phrases from the manifesto were pulled out, using these coloured bars, and analysed.

(2 SLIDES) Communication Arts.

This process continues to this day. Some people complained at what seemed to be the "closed" nature of the list, with just 33 signatories. But it was never the intention to keep anyone out. Earlier this year, Adbusters put the manifesto on its website, with an invitation for people to add their signatures. Several hundred have done so to date.

It goes without saying that reaction from designers was mixed. There were heartfelt expressions of support:

"I received a message in your manifesto and it inspired me – fuelled my inner fire . . . I saw designers who care very deeply about integrity, truth and the opposing agendas of capitalism and the environment." (Adbusters)

Others took the opportunity to present their own angry critiques of graphic design as a profession:

"The graphic designers of today are as pretentious as any artist has ever been – worse than two-year-olds when asked to accept responsibility for their actions, blithely selling out to the highest bidder. Many graphic designers whore their creativity for money, then act like it isn't their fault when they infect the world with vicious mental diseases called 'want' and 'greed'." (Adbusters)

Another, cooler-headed designer wrote:

"Perhaps increasingly graphic design is less the solution and more the problem. This is the squeamish possibility graphic designers avoid confronting, because in so doing the profession risks undoing itself. This is the threat proposed by any rigorous discursive critique. And graphic designers are as seduced as their clients and publics by design's hype." (Adbusters)

Some thought the manifesto was misguided, arguing that the only way to change anything was by working within the commercial system:

"The definition of design will never be changed by individuals turning away from the discipline, but rather by choices and negotiations they enter into when creating commercial art. It is our belief that only by injecting milligrams of what we hold at heart into the very mainstream of popular culture is there any real hope of changing it into something else." (Emigre)

And there were others who threw up their hands in disbelief at what they claimed was a completely outdated way of thinking about these issues:

"[W]hat a pompous and outdated stab at awareness-raising it is. It coats itself in the language of intelligent debate but its content belongs back in the rigid structures of unimaginative Seventies college campus Marxism . . . This is 1999, I thought we'd evolved beyond such simplistic social and political perspectives. I thought this kind of guilt about capitalism had been replaced by an acknowledgement that an individual can produce and consume within the contemporary world without necessarily being one of Lucifer's Legion." (Design Week)

And another scathing article underlined the same point:

"When every other aspect of political and social life has changed so dramatically [in recent years], how is it that anticonsumerist arguments have such longevity?" (AIGA Journal)

It was noticeable, though, that in all of the criticisms levelled at the manifesto, few seemed to address what it actually said. Instead, people found other reasons for refusing to take it seriously, or heed its call. In casual conversations with designers, it became clear that many seemed to resent the fact that the manifesto existed at all. They questioned the right of their colleagues to voice these views. They rejected First Things First as "naive" or "elitist", without explaining what they meant by these terms. They claimed it was "dogmatic" and "authoritarian" when, in fact, it is entirely democratic in its desire for an open, participatory debate. Some said – not unreasonably – that they would have preferred the manifesto to have appeared without any signatures. But had First Things First been anonymous, it would have been much easier for the design profession to ignore. The manifesto is about taking responsibility, so it is only right that those who support it put their names to it.

The problem for some designers, I think, is that they had been so lulled by the complacent political atmosphere of the 1980s and early 1990s that they really didn't understand where this note of protest was coming from. The old ideological enemy, communism, had been vanquished and, after 1989, capitalism was triumphant.

(SLIDE – American Sellout cover of Utne Reader).

In Britain and America, right-wing governments enjoyed long, unbroken periods of power. This was the era of the free market and the rise of globalisation. Socialism became a dirty word. The Left seemed to lose hope and evaporated. It was a period when political philosophers could seriously declare that history had "ended", as though ideological struggle had come to an end once and for all, and everything was now resolved. It was no wonder that, to designers who took all this for granted, First Things First looked like the feeble, last gasp of a moribund way of thinking by a group of privileged people who ought to know better. Throughout this period, many of the designers who eventually signed the manifesto had felt a nagging sense that something was wrong, and this had become stronger as the 1990s progressed. But it was increasingly difficult to say such things confidently in public because of the prevailing mood that we – that is to say, the capitalists of the West – had "won".

In the first week of December 1999, however, the terms of debate experienced a seismic shock.

(SLIDE – Observer story about Seattle battle)

The remarkable strength of international, anti-corporate feeling revealed in the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization still took WTO officials, media commentators, government, business leaders, and the public by surprise. As if from nowhere, Seattle displayed, for all to see, a highly motivated, sincere, well-organised coalition of consumer groups, trade unions, farmers, aid agencies, indigenous peoples, churches, environmentalists, anti-poverty campaigners and animal rights activists determined to challenge the forces of unrestrained globalisation. A petition, signed by 1200 of these groups, was submitted in advance to the WTO meeting. They couldn't all be dismissed as lunatics and anarchists – the usual way of denigrating well-meaning protesters and avoiding issues we would prefer not to face.

First Things First 2000 doesn't profess to deal with the WTO's activities, but it does question a commercial culture – the culture of globalisation – that elevates economics above all else. It issues from the recognition, seen in Seattle, that balance must be restored; that in a just world the rights and needs of people should take precedence over the insatiable, destructive demands of corporate entities for expansion and profit; that this, far from being passé, as we have liked to believe in our paradise of plenty, is one of the most pressing issues we face. In the West and in the wealthy Far East, we live in a consumer culture that makes a fetish of choice (of things to buy, of lifestyles to pick). But when it comes to larger political questions (globalisation, the knowledge economy) we are blithely told by business gurus, economists, and politicians, and seem willing to believe, that we have no choice, that their scenario is our future, that it is all "inevitable". To claim inevitability in this way and offer "no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise", as the writer John Berger puts it, is a totalitarian tactic. Our democratic sensibilities, if we still have them, should be outraged.

What excites me, at this point, both as someone involved in design and communication, and as a citizen, is that these issues are back on the agenda. We can talk about them again. We will hear much more from protesters like those on the streets in Seattle in the coming years. While those with vested interests continue to claim that our current political and economic reality is the way it must be, dissenting voices are increasingly heard. In a short talk like this, I can only give a few examples to suggest how the wider mood is changing.

(SLIDE – Blueprint cover) This is a cover of Blueprint magazine, published last year. Five years, ago such a message would have been unthinkable, embarrassingly misjudged, almost in bad taste. Even if you see this image as tongue in cheek, it reflects a growing awareness that there are vigorous alternatives to the status quo.

(SLIDE – DIY Culture cover) This is the cover of a recent book that showed how, despite the indifference or hostility of mainstream media, alternative forms of social organisation and resistance to capitalist society continued to flourish in the "underground" throughout the 1990s. This was a street-based, do-it-yourself culture of self-empowerment and protest.

(SLIDE – Asian Dub Foundation CD) One of Britain's most critically acclaimed young Asian bands recently released this album, with the title Community Music – a pointed choice of words that insisted – contrary to what right-wing ideologues liked to claim in the 1980s – that there is such a thing as society. It's amazing that people are singing about politics again. These young musicians reject postmodern cynicism. They hunger for commitment and meaning. They demand racial equality and social justice.

(SLIDE – No Logo cover) Earlier this year, the Canadian journalist, Naomi Klein, published this book, No Logo, a blistering attack on the way that the forces of corporate globalisation – epitomised by brands like Marlboro, Calvin Klein, McDonald's, Nike and MTV – invade every corner of our lives, exploiting the marketing opportunities of every last centimetre of cultural space. It was an extremely timely survey, the fruit of four years of international research, and it was widely and sympathetically reviewed in the press.

For me, the issues addressed by Klein's book form one of the most significant aspects of First Things First, and one that has received little attention in the discussion generated by the manifesto. If I may, I'd like to remind you of the words of the third paragraph:

"Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse."

It is clear from some of the responses that designers either didn't understand what the manifesto was saying in this paragraph, or felt that it overstated the influence of design, as a mediating force, and that it couldn't, therefore, be true. This is certainly one of the ideas that I believe the organisers and signatories could develop and clarify in any future follow-up to last year's campaign.

One of the signatories, reflecting on why he had signed the manifesto, expressed the issue like this:

"We live in a commercial world. Advertising is communication. It's unrealistic to think there will be no advertising. I think there should be limits, though. I'm opposed to their being so much marketing and advertising and design in every aspect of our life. The cumulative effect is that you have stuff in your face all the time, and I think it's terrible. I don't think it treats people with respect." (Bill Drenttel, Communication Arts)

And for me, too, this is what it's about: the urgent need to preserve a space for other kinds of feeling, other forms of thinking, and other ways of being, free from the insistent, routine, unceasing dazzle and clamour of the commercial sphere. It seems incredible to say it, but we are slowly losing the sense that there could anything more profound or meaningful to human life than shopping.

Perhaps in retrospect, after the protests in Seattle, the impulse that underlies First Things First 2000 will be clearer to some. It's aim is actually quite modest. It hoped to provoke discussion about the priorities of graphic design – and this, I think, is what it has done. It asks designers to think about where they stand in this system, and if they don't like what they see, to adjust their position. It contributes to an atmosphere of openness, within the design profession, in which these questions can once again be raised. My biggest hope is that it will give support to young designers, just starting out, whose ideas and attitudes are still in flux, who haven't yet made commitments, and who could choose to explore and develop other ways of being in design than serving what Adbusters calls the "corporate cool machine".

Of all the responses to First Things First published in the press, the one that seemed to understand this best appeared in Emigre a few months ago:

"The First Things First manifesto is . . . a call for graphic designers to look at where they stand in the scheme of things. It's not asking you to quit designing ads, but asking you to put as much effort into finding other outlets for your skills . . . First Things First asks us only to examine our motivations, our complicity, and to take responsibility for the outcome of these."

(SLIDE - Jon Barnbrook's Las Vegas billboard with Kalman quote)

Or as the late Tibor Kalman put it: "Designers . . . stay away from corporations that want you to lie for them."First Things First 2000