/ log / 16th Mar, 2010 /

First Things First

Last Wednesday I turned up in front of a friendly bunch of designers and developers at BathCamp — a regular and excellent monthly event in the city next door. Thanks to Mike Ellis for inviting me at the last minute, and everyone who attended. That day I’d roughly cobbled together a few thoughts about design culture from some old reading, a sprinkle of disquiet, and a bit of dubious optimism. Be warned, here be politics; provocative for some. My thoughts went something like this:

1963–1964

From what I have read, and soaked in by osmosis over the years, the early sixties were a fascinating time. In the early part of the decade UK society was emerging from the austerity following WWII. An impoverished Britain looked across the pond to the booming consumer culture of the USA with envy and ambition. Consumerism was on the rise. Advertising was on the rise. At the same time, there was a revolution going on in music, culture and politics. The baby boomers were about to change the world.

In 1963 70,000 people marched from Aldermaston to London — part of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Test Ban Treaty was signed. Martin Luther-King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. James Meredith became the first ever black student to graduate from the University of Mississippi. The first ever X-Men comic from Marvel was published and Iron Man made his debut. The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast. Coke launched its first ever diet drink, ‘TaB’. The Museo Bodoniano opened in Parma. JFK was assassinated.

On 29th November, 1963, during a meeting of the Society of Industrial Artists (now the Chartered Society of Designers) at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Ken Garland wrote First Things First, A Manifesto (plain text here). He read it out to copious applause. This is what it said:

We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, photographers and students who have been brought up in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents. We have been bombarded with publications devoted to this belief, applauding the work of those who have flogged their skill and imagination to sell such things as: cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste, aftershave lotion, beforeshave lotion, slimming diets, fattening diets, deodorants, fizzy water, cigarettes, roll-ons, pull-ons and slip-ons.

By far the greatest effort of those working in the advertising industry are wasted on these trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity.

In common with an increasing number of the general public, we have reached a saturation point at which the high pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise. We think that there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on. There are signs for streets and buildings, books and periodicals, catalogues, instructional manuals, industrial photography, educational aids, films, television features, scientific and industrial publications and all the other media through which we promote our trade, our education, our culture and our greater awareness of the world.

We do not advocate the abolition of high pressure consumer advertising: this is not feasible. Nor do we want to take any of the fun out of life. But we are proposing a reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication. We hope that our society will tire of gimmick merchants, status salesmen and hidden persuaders, and that the prior call on our skills will be for worthwhile purposes. With this in mind we propose to share our experience and opinions, and to make them available to colleagues, students and others who may be interested.

In January 1964, one hundred copies were printed by Goodwin Press. Twenty-two designers, typographers, and photographers were signatories. That same year, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by Lyndon Jonhson, outlawing segregation in the USA. There were race riots in Harlem, Philadelphia, and Singapore. Terence Conran opened the first Habitat store. The Vietnam War escalated. Mary Poppins was released by Disney. The death penalty was abolished for murder in the UK. Nelson Mandela made his ‘I Am Prepared to Die’ speech in an apartheid courtroom. Jan Tschichold designed Sabon. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl was published (with a wonderful cover illustration). Educationalist and writer, Caroline Benn was passed a copy of First Things First. She passed it to her husband, Labour politician and maverick, Tony Benn, who published it in full in his Guardian column. Following that, Ken Garland was invited to read the manifesto in full on BBC TV. What amazing times.

By the ’80s many people, like me, had grown up with a love of the music of the ’60s, but no memory of the time. The counter-culture of the decade had been absorbed and distorted into mainstream memory: Flower-power; Hippies; Vietnam war protests; Civil Rights; Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The Stones sang Paint it Black as we watched Platoon, going out to buy Zippos right after.

2000

By the late ’90s, the counter-culture I grew up with had been co-opted by corporate consumerism and woven into mainstream brands. From surfers to skateboarders and musicians to DJs, heros were willingly commissioned into endorsing the messages of consumerism. Designers were commissioned along with them. Culture was easy profit. If it was niche (and thus ‘cooler’) so much the better for parting youth from coin.

The product developers, public relations consultants, brand gurus, ad agencies and design teams were so slick that most people seemed not to notice. After all, their heros lead the way. If people did notice, it seemed they quickly muscled past any twinge of loss and welcomed it, feeling validated. It didn’t seem to matter that it was to brand-build and sell gadgets or khakis. They barely noticed that their culture had become a lifestyle, or that their symbols were now just another transient fashion — one that would eventually be discarded by the new corporate curators they’d sold the rights to, who would then try to suck them away and onto to the next trend.

I know this. That was me. I was there.

In 1999, the superb Adbusters initiated a re-write of First Things First. Co-ordinated by Rick Poynor, it was signed by luminaries like Erik Spiekermann (amongst many others, including the original author, Ken Garland) and published in Emigre 51.

Read the re-aligned First Things First 2000.

(You may have to zoom Emigre’s squint-inducing 10px type.)

Also, see the text of the Emigre article by Rick Poynor (PDF). It supplied many of the incidental facts here, and Rick Poynor illuminates the First Things First Manifestos of 1964 and 2000 much better than I ever could.

2010

It just so happened that I stumbled across First Things First as 2009 was about to become 2010. It was also just after Analog launched. Preceded by much navel-gazing on my part about what kind of work I wanted to do, for who, and why.

When I read it, the first thing I thought is what about web design and development? How does First Things First fit? Rick Poynor’s comments on the 1964 original were thought-provoking:

The critical distinction drawn by the 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, from fizzy water to slimming diets, while more ‘useful and lasting’ tasks took second place: street signs, books and periodicals, catalogues, instruction manuals, educational aids, and so on.

Poynor goes on to say:

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 sector of society, which consumes most of graphic designers’ time, skills and creativity.

I agree with Poynor who suggests that, ‘Design’s love affair with form to the exclusion of almost everything else lies at the heart of the problem.’ If there’s a legacy the ’60s left for me, it’s that everything we do is political and value-driven, from the products we buy to the jobs we take. Web design is no exception. If it is, where do we draw the line? At producing material for the intelligent design movement? Or perhaps designing insignia and making uniforms for the Nazis?

I veer from accepting the political and economic status quo as the 1964 manifesto did. After all, it’s almost 46 years later, and the commercialisation doesn’t seem any less to me. In fact, to my mind, the barrage is ascendant.

In Pynor’s article, author and book artist Johanna Drucker urges us to ask, ‘in whose interest and to what ends? Who gains by this construction of reality, by this representation of this condition as “natural”?’ In light of the current furore surrounding the Digital Economy Bill, that seems very close to what Tony Benn urged us to ask in 2005:

What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interest do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you? Only democracy gives us that right. That is why no-one with power likes democracy. And that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it — including you and me here and now.

We already apply our morality, politics, and sensibilities to our work in a multitude of ways. All the designers I know are subtle, thoughtful, detailed, scrupulous people by nature. It seems odd somehow that any of them would think their work as being apolitical. Or, to put it another way, that form matters more than content and the agenda behind it.

1964 seemed like a much simpler time where the lines were much more clearly drawn between differing agendas. Culture had not been co-opted by commerce so ubiquitously. Advertising was not synonymous with design. The latter still seems somewhat true to me on the Web, too. But, with the increasing concern over commoditising relationships through ‘monetising’ everything, especially social networks, I wonder for how long will it remain so. Already the rather obvious message that design can improve profitability is at the core of how many people represent our craft; a step up from being seen as frivolous stylists, perhaps, but is it genuinely enough?

Everyone needs to earn a living; me included. However, at the risk of being called naive, much like the signatories of the 1964 manifesto, I definitely see the need for a debate. Without being too precious about this profession I hold with great regard, web design (with development) is the filter between content and people. As designers and developers we have great power to solve problems, provide amenity and guidance, educate and enthuse. Surely we also have a responsibility, too. So, where is our own First Things First, 2010, the web manifesto?

Two things stand out for me, re-reading this post:

  1. There is an imbalance in how we value design: Too much emphasis is placed on commercial work in publications, lauding style over substance. Content, presentation and interaction are interwoven and shouldn’t be examined separately. To do so infers that the substance can be ignored as long as the æsthetic is good.
  2. We must somehow help to open up the opportunity of public work to designers, and redefine the value of design away from either pure style, or profit. That’s the tricky one. The way public work is commissioned often seems constipated and self-destructive to me. I don’t have a solution but I have a feeling the large agency dominance is part of the problem, and co-ops part of the solution.

At the end of my talk at Bathcamp, there was only one question that mattered, really:

Given the choice, what work would you choose to do?

The answer to that is, perhaps, all one needs to know.

For those masochistically interested in the Bathcamp material: the rough slides with even rougher notes are available as a PDF.

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13 Comments

  1. 1. By Jeff Byrnes on 16th Mar ’10 at 07:52am

    A great read, and, as always, lovingly laid out. I’m not a designer, but I am part of the implementation process for web design (being a web developer), so I, too, am part of this, albeit in a smaller way.

  2. 2. By Chris on 16th Mar ’10 at 14:36pm

    I agree with the sentiments of this article whole-heartedly Jon, however having completed quite a few public wayfinding projects recently I’m not sure I agree that the process is still “constipated and self-destructive”, although can appreciate that’s been the case in the past.

    I’ve actually found the process of working with the numerous universities we do to be fairly expedient, but one has to wonder if this is a result of the people we’re working with, not the institution.

  3. 3. By Ben Dunlap on 16th Mar ’10 at 17:46pm

    Reminds me of a passage that has stuck with me from Pope John Paul II’s 1999 "Letter to Artists":

    Society needs artists … they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good. … Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves.

    When was the last time your writing was compared to that of a pope? ;-)

    At any rate my question for you, Jon, is this: Is it necessary that there be only two options: commercialism on the one hand, and public works on the other?

    In this age of the blog it seems like we have an unprecedented opportunity for web designers especially to work unconstrained. This site, for example, is neither pure style nor profit. And yet it’s got plenty of style, and I don’t suppose it exactly drives potential customers away, either.

  4. Jon 陳’s profile 4. By Jon 陳 on 17th Mar ’10 at 02:43am

    Not a smaller way at all, Jeff! In fact, I’d say this is applicable just as much to developers as designers. We’re parts of the same whole.

    Chris, I’m heartened that you’re having such a positive experience. I’m drawing on my experience of the tendering process itself: spec work and pre-tender submission, etc. which inevitably favour those who wish to spend a significant chunk of time on speculative work.

    I agree with your point, Ben. It is not binary I don’t think. I hope the article doesn’t imply that. There is imbalance though in perception which does not correlate to what many actually wish to do as designers. Thanks for the quote too; I’d never read that before, and was glad to have chance to. Designers are obviously not artists (being much more technical and directional) but I think the cultural contribution comparison is very apt (but not the one with my own hairy prose). Thank you, regardless!

    Thanks for the comments, guys. I was stoked to wake up and read your insights and opinions this morning!

  5. 5. By kevadamson on 17th Mar ’10 at 03:19am

    Fantastic read Jon. That is the first time I have actually read the manifestos - really quite powerful :)

  6. 6. By Chris on 17th Mar ’10 at 09:36am

    Indeed, the tendering process is often a thorny issue and one which still needs to evolve.

    On the one hand, the process is there to ensure the appropriate spending of public money and that what’s delivered is in the interest of the public, not simply lining the pocket’s of a few dominant agencies (an issue the Bristol media community seems to be particularly plagued by). Realistically, these processes should enforce much of what you’ve covered in the article.

    However, we all know what a detrimental effect spec work has on the wider industry and all have horror stories associated with the process, no doubt. I don’t see why, if a company has a solid portfolio and references, they need to supply any speculative work. A commissioning client, if provided with a full picture of an organisations capabilities, should be able to make a decision on this basis.

    I definitely find your thoughts on the place for co-operatives (and small studios for the sake of inclusion) quite pivotal, there’s definitely a place for such formations in modern business. The recent Birmingham City Council website has more than highlighted the need to put an end to the raping our industry is receiving from irrelevant bodies like C®apita.

  7. 7. By Ryan on 18th Mar ’10 at 01:58am

    Thanks for this article Jon and the resources you’ve linked to. Definitely some food for thought here…

  8. 8. By Ben Dunlap on 19th Mar ’10 at 15:28pm

    Jon, thanks for the clarification. I think, though, that there’s a danger in supposing — as it seems you may have, and as the 1964 manifesto certainly did — that public work is inherently nobler than private commercial work, and thus that a greater emphasis on public work in the design profession will somehow rescue it from free-market excesses.

    Sure, some public projects are more worth doing than some private projects, but the reverse is true as well. And leave it to government to really come up with the doozies: state lotteries, anyone? Or, for a thoroughly uncontroversial example that you used as well: the National Socialist Party had plenty of design work to hire out back in 1930s Germany.

    I’d say that the basic problem that you and the manifestos are pointing at is simply the basic human one: We’re all tempted to lie, cheat, and steal, and thus any organization that’s staffed by humans is as likely as any other to enlist the aid of designers in lying, cheating, and stealing.

    The thing for designers to do is to hold themselves accountable for the ethical implications of their work, no matter what arena they’re working in.

    And even when there’s no intentional malice involved, it’s possible for well-intentioned people to seriously disagree about the value of a given product, or service, or public initiative, or piece of legislation. So again it behooves the responsible designer to steer clear of work that he doesn’t think valuable. And to be sure to think about it, every time.

    If the manifestos inspire designers to be more thoughtful about their work and about its various implications, then I suppose in that respect they’re of benefit. But in other respects there seem to be some fundamentally erroneous assumptions at work in the documents.

  9. 9. By Patrick on 24th Mar ’10 at 18:49pm

    Fantastic post - I actually found it by way of Andy Rutledge’s predictably shallow and hyperbolic critique of it. As a longtime fan of FTF, I couldn’t help but post a rejoinder on my blog.

  10. 10. By Julietta Cheung on 29th Mar ’10 at 14:14pm

    It’s more than what types of projects we might lend our talents to; it’s what kind of social system in which design participates and fuels. So that, in order to move beyond consumption as the chief driver of our “service”, we’d have to be more active in looking at what designers can do about social structures (the supply-and-demand economics that supports people’s psychology and habits of consumption.) Are there ways to construct a different design studio/practice model? Can design be proactive regarding the direction and dynamics of consumption? How can such models be funded? From the non-profit design sector, examples like Project H and Catapult come to mind. From the business end, how Zip Cars have changed the trajectory of transportation culture; and the social impact of the Smart Grid and the new crop of products around it are cases for study.

    We’re looking at a language system in which brands, products, network environments, social structures and human behavior all coalesce into a dynamic. This system is as much about how design is defined as it is about how the whole dynamic plays out. It’s more than communication vs. persuasion. As you alluded to it, it’s about the intent behind them and so the whole social and economic system that gave way to these intents. The point at which design enters the big picture might be pivotal to the future of design.

    We are complicit in this “construction of reality” that Drucker described. So how might we redefine “representation” in today’s cultural landscape? What type of re-imagined model would satisfy economic and social needs? How might design revenue be generated and how does that economic model play out in the social realm? How do we rethink our practice as vital rather than service-oriented?

    A recent post by Thomas Fischer in the Design Observer, urging for a more proactive approach to design in disaster situations, is especially apt:

    “Public-health professionals do more than respond to disasters. In contrast to medicine, which, like design, tends to react to the problems that others present, public health puts much more emphasis on prevention, on changing the conditions that lead to problems in the first place.”

    Jon, thanks so much for generating this conversation!

  11. 11. By Ben Stokes on 11th Apr ’10 at 14:43pm

    Nice read Jon, I have been on this site a few times now . . . . Works out to be an excellent Sunday night read.

    “As designers and developers we have great power to solve problems, provide amenity and guidance, educate and enthuse. Surely we also have a responsibility, too. So, where is our own First Things First, 2010, the web manifesto?”

    I think more people should take heed.

  12. 12. By Shane on 22nd Apr ’10 at 03:54am

    Nice post Jon, you have linked some really great resources.

    Thanks, keep up the good work.

  13. 13. By Martin Lapietra on 19th Nov ’10 at 17:27pm

    In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and actual effort to make a good post… but what can I say

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