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:
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.