In December 1963 a manifesto called First Things First was written by a group of designers, photographers, students and educators frustrated at the trivial nature and proliferation of products such as diet aids, toothpaste, cereal, and deodorants, suggesting they add little value to the economy, and as such greater good could be achieved utilizing their talents on more worthy projects such as signs, books and catalogues etc. The manifesto also takes issue with publications which have applauded the work of those who have created these trivial projects, largely created by advertising agencies, and by graphic designers as well.
To gain a better understanding of the FTF manifesto it’s important to note that graphic designers and ad men come from two very difference backgrounds and hence very different philosophical roots. Designers generally have different goals than ad agencies. Where design is often concerned with the big picture, and applying systems and identities throughout the whole of an organization, advertising is generally more concerned with selling at the moment and sometimes disparagingly referred to by designers as a knock knock joke (Subplot).
Much of modern graphic design is rooted in the work of the state-sponsored workshops of German, Belgian and Dutch designers near the end of the 19th century. “Functionalism was increasingly the watchword among forward-thinking practitioners. Born of an impulse to social reform, formed by artistic enterprise, and ready to cooperate with industry, the modern graphic designer of 1910 was fully equipped with a critical foundation for professional practise.” (Drucker, McVarish 181, 182).
Advertising is rooted in sales. A man named Volney Palmer opened the first advertising agency in Philadelphia in 1843, and acted as an agent selling ad space in newspapers. ”By the 1880s, full-service ad agencies were buying and selling space in newspapers and journals, and as brokers could conveniently coordinate the use of their service at the same time” (155).
It should come as no surprise, then, that graphic design’s historical left-leaning bias continues to stir within both the academic design institutions and the design community. It represents both a strength and a weakness over their counterparts in advertising. This strength is reflected in the empathy many designers feel for small business, the underdog and not-for-profit organizations, and a willingness to contribute to a variety of social causes, often at their own expense. But this same social empathy can cause designers to exhibit a sense of self-doubt on one hand and moral superiority on the other. Advertising plays a very vital, if not equally important role in the economy, selling products and services and in the process creating jobs. It is often loved for its cleverness and humour when done well, and hated at the same time for its pervasiveness.
In 2000, the First Things First Manifesto was reissued with the hope of creating a greater sense of urgency. “It suggested that the current practises are disastrously affecting the profession of design, endorsing a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think and feel, respond and interact” (F Newsmagazine).
While some saw the manifesto as a call to action, other called it pompous, with a group in England writing their own manifesto against all future manifestos. However, designers should be aware that they, like ad agencies, are in the persuasion business, whether we are designing a rock poster, cereal box, or environmental brochure. And the freedom we enjoy and use to express ourselves, our opinions, and our ideas, should not be denied to others who are not on the same page. It’s interesting to note that many of the original signatories of the manifesto built their reputations doing “cultural work” on the fringes of commercial graphic design practise as critics, curators, and academics” (Bierut, 26).
If the role of a manifesto is to raise social consciousness, how do we avoid censorship and unfairly determining what types of projects are more worthwhile that others? While I may personally find it more enjoyable and meaningful to design a book or catalogue, a single mom, who has a toddler, may find information gathered from a Pampers commercial much more necessary and meaningful. “
What makes dog-bisquit packaging an unworthy object of our attention, as opposed to say, a museum catalog or some other cultural project (Bierut, 28)?
There’s no question that the general public and even designers themselves feel overwhelmed with the amount of messages thrown our way, yet design and advertising continues to surprise, shock, inform, educate, and make us laugh, all the while selling a lot of merchandise and supporting our economy.
The frustration felt in the 60’s and expressed through the FTF manifesto has largely continued yet, unlike the booming wealth of the 60’s that offered unlimited opportunities for clients, designers and photographers alike, new challenges face us unlike any we have experienced before. Global warming, the economic melt down, further exacerbated by various Ponzi schemes has sent shock waves throughout the world, and in the cross fire, consumers are being taken to task for out of control spending. If anything, we should remind ourselves that its very easy to overreact, and jump to polarized or binary conclusions. In fact we are reminded by the New York Times that consumer spending accounts for 70% of the economy (Segal). It further suggested that while consumer spending may have to some degree got us into the mess, it will take consumer spending to get us out, enough to the point where consumers can become better at saving.
So what can we take away from the manifesto?
Designers should remind themselves that we do play a vital role in the economy, and have the ability, if we so choose, to shape and influence the world around us by our actions.
> We can help good products differentiate themselves
> We can help good organizations get noticed
> We can help promote worthy causes
> We can help simplify & explain complicated services or products
> We can minimize the use of plastics and over packaging
> We can promote green products and processes
> We can be daring
> We can educate ourselves continually
> We can question everything and avoid dogma
> We can be empathetic
> We can try and make all we touch better
Casey Hrynkow is a partner in Herrainco Brand Strategy+ Design Inc. a design firm based in Vancouver British Columbia
Must Designers Do Good? by Casey Hrynkow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at blog.herrainco.ca.