First Things First

The first things first manifesto was written by Ken Garland and backed by over 400 designers. Published in 1964, and signed by 22 photographers, designers and students, the manifesto brought to light the social responsibility of the designer. First Things First was published in design magazines in order to gain the attention of other practitioners.

The manifesto questioned the social purpose of design. In early 19th century, during the industrial revolution mass production started, taking away the need of craftsmen and artists. This lead to a demand for graphic design and advertising. This was the birth of consumerism and therefore capitalism.

First Things First Manifesto, 1964

The Arts and Crafts movement, which started in the UK before spreading to Europe, America and Japan, was a direct reaction to industrial design. They believed in well designed buildings, furniture and household goods, which would improve society. As well as this, they believed in the ideal of connected workers making beautiful objects as opposed to a production line, mass produced product.

William Morris was a key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. He linked fine art and the production of commercial design together and was a main factor in shaping the way design exists today. Morris believed “a designer should have a working knowledge of any media that he used”. (William Morris- The Arts and Crafts Movement, 2016).

Another reaction to Industrial Design was Industrial Modernism. The Bauhaus, a German school of art and design, who believed in making use of modern technology within Art and Design. Although they made use of modern technology they rejected fast production and mass consumption.  In 1933, while declaring most avant guard art as degenerate, Nazi Germany closed the school. Many practitioners moved to the U.S and taught, the Bauhaus ideals were discarded. Their styles remained and were mostly used in commercial design, prevalent in the U.S.

Movements in the early decades of the 20th century were believed to have the power to make social change.

During World War 2, Illustrators, Designers and Artists were involved in the production of war propaganda. They used familiar poster styles which allowed the transition from everyday life to war to hold continuity rather than causing disruption.

Leni Riefenstahl, an actor and film maker, after meeting Hitler was given the opportunity to direct ‘Der Sieg des Glaubens’ – a Nazi propaganda film. She later denied being a Nazi as well as the social and ethical responsibility of her work.

The Dada movement was “repelled by the slaughterhouses of the world war” (Jean Arp, the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, 1916). It was an anti-art-art-movement, it didn’t agree with art and its use in the promotion of war. Today, the U.S election and Donald Trump’s presidency has been protested through art and design somewhat similarly to Dadaism.

The author of the “First Things First” manifesto Ken Garland, was aware of the social and ethical impacts design holds and chose who and what he designed for compassionately. He designed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament March poster and his use of the peace symbol made it synonymous with anti war.

Ken Garland Poster for CND

In 1980/1990 activist design comes forth. The simplicity and bold colours used in cooperate and commercial design is used similarly to the way it was within war propaganda, using simple messages and familiar styles of which the public knew how to react with. For example the aids campaign “Act Up”. Which featured the described simple message reading “SILENCE = DEATH” after an absence of a meaningful response from the government.

The development of photoshop lead to “culture jamming”. An example of this is the Nike- anti sweatshop, “just do it, just sew it” culture jamming. It was an opportunity to talk back to and expose brands.

Another example of culture jamming was the Green Peace BP campaign, it took an activist perspective and delivered it in a mainstream way. This was done by manipulating their misleading branding, of a flower and showing it dipped in oil bringing forth the truth of the company.

In the millennium, First Things First 2000 was published- an updated version of the manifesto. This time signed by 33 practitioners, it included factors like climate change and continued to question the social responsibilities of design and whether the designers values should hold president over what work they produce and if they concern themselves with political issues.

The manifesto is still greatly relevant today, with unethical and commercial design saturating the world. The question of if designers should be practicing with a social responsibility is more relevant than ever.




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