First Things First Manifesto
Ken Garland’s 1964 First Things First Manifesto takes a particularly blunt approach to the work of graphic designers who are pumping consumer driven advertisements out at an alarming rate. He finds the bombardment of adverts for items barely necessary for everyday life such as fizzy water and hair restorer to be an insulting waste if talented designers time and resources. Garland states ‘techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents.’ This means that even in 1964 a majority of emphasis towards designers was placed on the sale of insignificant items as opposed to working on valuable commodities such as educational aids and vital information leaflets. This gained 21 signatures from Garlands colleagues at the time, some of the most well known names in the industry. One of the most prominent sentences of the manifesto is the need for a ‘reversal of priorities’ working on things which will benefit our own culture, preserve our knowledge and expand the knowledge of future generations is far more important than the sales statistics of cat food.
An updated version of the manifesto was produced in 2000, there were a lot of changes made but the straight forward, hard lined undertone was ever prominent. The additions made to the new manifesto were vital, they created far more relevance for the designers of this era, students in particular. In the original statement those addressed were graphic designers, photographers and students this was edited to graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators, for visual communication students, this inclusion for their desired career is a monumental step in the right direction, for their futures in the design world. It didn’t state who exactly were the people force feeding this consumerist ideology but the 2000 version states the belief that it is coming directly from design teachers and mentors. If in fact there is any truth in what was written the reversal of priorities is direly important for the educators of young graphic designers, as designer after designer pass through their door, if the manifesto’s message is not offered to them, they may feel that the consumer driven careers which have been repeatedly presented to them as their only option are just that, without knowing the truly beneficial causes their talents could be channelled towards. If there is no cooperation from educators towards “useful and lasting forms of communication” (1964) important issues which could be completely transformed through the keen eye, skill and dedication of just one or a group of graphic designers who otherwise would have only been aware of the difference their talents could make to shampoo sales, could be completely ignored. The updated version states graphic designers should ‘be encouraged in this direction’ this adaptation reverses the sense of forced moral obligation the original seemed to portray and instead allows the designers to continue to fabricate a reality which many citizens financially and psychologically are finding crippling, or to consider serious cutting edge design work which could potentially reach the farthest corners of the globe and benefit the lives of many.
The 1964 manifesto itself did have some flaws, one of which continued into the second edition. When generations of designers have experienced nothing but the presentation of commercial design as their futures and moulded many of their own techniques to benefit the market, they often struggle to see the exact benefits of more issue directed work, the impacts of this kind of work are notoriously difficult to measure and this is one of the biggest issues visual communicators face. If a job in commercial advertising is what people feel is ‘paying the bills’ then do the emotional pro’s of work for worthwhile purposes outweigh the need for financial stability and constant statistical satisfaction? Unlikely, but this is why the manifesto specifically states ‘We do not advocate the abolition of high pressure consumer advertising: this is not feasible.’ It is the balance which must be addressed, the balance of designs involvement in consumerist culture as we stand today far outweighs the work being produced to conserve, the impact of which is that design is seen as largely commercial work as stated by the 2000 manifesto “commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphics designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design.”
Criticisms of the manifesto’s were not scarce, though some sceptics chose not to voice their opinions and instead ignore the existence of the manifesto and continue with their craft. Firstly, it was seen to be naïve, naïve in the expectation of people to suddenly have a miraculous epiphany on the amount of work they produce for the adverts and large companies, which puts a roof over their heads and a new shiny computer on which to produce such work, graphic designers were never going to read the 1964 manifesto and suddenly become designers for the next revolution, but is it so naïve to ask that they consider even a fraction of their valuable time and resources is taken to contribute towards something which may assist a person in understanding something vital in healthcare or a poster to show a struggling individual a helpline. The manifesto states ‘we do not advocate the abolition of high pressure consumer advertising: this is not feasible…But we are proposing a reversal of priorities’ (1964) the naivety would lie in the expectance of people to change everything about their working lives but this is not the case. Additionally Katherine McCoy, an American design educator said ‘we have a trained profession that feels political or social concerns are either extraneous to our work or inappropriate” (pg 9 First Things First A Brief History) it is likely that the same kind of people who agree with statements like this are those same people who turn over the channel when the news shows a hint of something negative so’s not to ruin their blissful sense of ignorance with ‘extraneous’ problems whilst they meticulously deliberate which colour they can use for the next cat food brand in order to gain the attention of the lone woman who only has the company of her feline army to while away her days. These individuals being the same whom poison our youth to believe their bodies, personalities and possessions are worthless without the same logos they sat and designed whilst children starve and men work themselves to death to care for a family they can’t cope with because they had no education on or access to proper contraception. The sheer power graphic design has in the advertising world is what makes the manifesto’s point so important for people to hear, and to quote the 2000 manifesto adaptation ‘it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond, and interact’ this must be a real confidence boost to graphic designers, reiterated in Michael Bieruts 2007 Ten Footnotes to a Manifesto. Many would find the statement made by Katherine McCoy rather ignorant, to say that any social problems are not appropriate to any work done in the world is morally repugnant, people should be taking the things going on around themselves into every aspect of their lives, especially graphic designers, having the power to do good and not using it can be argued to be more evil than the thing happening itself.
The manifesto raises very important key points and questions to those who have the upper hand in the audiences their work is able to reach. Adbusters who poke fun at the commercial world did something which many people wouldn’t have even considered to be acceptable and yet their work has made a huge dent in the art world. It shed a whole new light on the consumer advertisement sector and caused people to look at this kind of work differently, the untouchable consumerist culture which is fast becoming the sole driving force behind our society suddenly became susceptive to ridicule, like the beginning of the downfall of a silent yet ever present dictator. It may be that many graphic designers prefer to remain ignorant so’s not to undo the generations of hard work that has gone into creating this fabricated reality the human race has become accustomed/conditioned to. As powerful as the manifestos message may be, when faced with a criticism of their livelihood along with a suggestion on how to do things ‘correctly’ naturally the target population, here the case being graphic designers, are going to begin to pick at each detail of the proposal, in some cases this is about the social class of the writer and the manifesto’s signatories ‘the usual suspects might be understood as the “upper class” or professional elite, perhaps speaking above the heads of, or merely down to the rank and file.’ (pg 11, First Things First: Now More Than Ever) It then goes on to say ‘the tens of thousands of anonymous designers whose efforts we implicitly choose to demarcate as uninspired or, worse, uninformed’, yet nowhere does it say anything about the tens of thousands of anonymous citizens who have come to rely on the ‘bombardment’of these tens of thousands of anonymous designers work to get them through each day, let alone the 8 million adults in Britain who don’t even reach the basics of reading levels. Using their abilities for individuals like these should be ‘appropriate’ and pertinent enough to drag someone away from the next celebrity perfume ad. The manifesto is a seed, an idea, and in the right mind could grow into a concept for a side project, for a new information book, etc. By all means there are graphic designers who are contributing towards education and the future, one example being the FDA nutritional guide which has appeared across the globe and is assisting in health knowledge, nobody could ever dispute that being a great achievement. Ken Garlands 1964 manifesto gave weight to an unspoken need that had been festering in an ever developing and crippling reality. Whether a revolution which is lead by art as Adbusters Kalle Lasn predicted or the next big idea for valuable commodities society culturally will benefit from, there needs to be some balance restored in the design world, without which only a spiral into an unrecognisable, completely unrealistic adaptation of where the world stands now.