Triangulation Task- First things first manifesto

In 1964, graphic designer, Ken Garland, wrote the First Things First Manifesto. A manifesto calling designers to move away from the commercial work that appeared to be consuming them and instead ‘reverse their priorities’ and focus their talents on work that was more socially and ethically engaged. At the time consumer culture was on the rise, and many of Garlands fellow designers agreed to sign in support of this proposed change to priorities. Seemingly Garland highlights the importance of the difference between design as a tool of communication and tool used purely to

Garland describes time as being ‘wasted on these trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity’ [Gardland 1964, p.154]. It would seem that in the original version of the manifesto Garland is highly concerned with how graphic design in the UK is being perceived from the outside. The use of ‘trivial’ implies it has no importance and little value. Again the use of the phrase ‘national prosperity’ appears to show that the concern here, besides design, is how Britain is being perceived. Ultimately the consumerist culture that was developing was adding to the wealth of the British, but also taking away. Garland states that design should be used to promote ‘our trade, our education, our culture’ [Gardland 1964, p.154] seemingly the use of ‘our’ again refers back to the idea of being concerned with the image of the design industry, but it could be seen as highly persuasive and powerful.

When re written in 2000 the First things First appears as very similar to the original, just more updated to deal with the more contemporary designer. Again design for commercial use is described as ‘trivial’, however it does state that ‘commercial work has always paid the bills’ [AIGA Journal of Graphic Design Vol.17, no.2 1999]. It would seem in this updated version it has been taken into consideration, more so that the original that, without a consumerist culture in Britain design may not have developed in the way it has, would the field be as broad as it is now, and would there be a call for designers so widely? It would appear that here, the writer has made use of persuasive techniques to make the designers feel guilty about the work they are doing, ‘helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse’ [AIGA Journal of Graphic Design Vol.17, no.2 1999]. Describing the consumer culture as ‘harmful’ seems rather powerful, in order for society to function it would seem there has to be some element of buying culture. Cleverly the writer makes the reading designers think the rise and takeover of design for consumerism is entirely their fault, they would begin to think about their past work and what they could change.

Within Rick Poynor’s ‘First Things First: A Brief History’ it states that ‘advertising and design are closer today than at any point since the 1960s’ suggesting that the Manifesto Garland produced, was received well but was unable to change the perceived ‘problem’ with design. This idea again links back to how design is being perceived, it would appear the British design industry has had an obsession with ‘how cool’ something looks, and as a result design for commercial use has derived away from purely informative and instead is persuasive.

‘First things First’ could be viewed as more than an attack on the design industry, it appears to be calling for change in society generally ‘the escalating commercial takeover of everyday life makes democratic resistance more vital than ever’. Seemingly this links to the idea of design being based in politics, a control mechanism used by governments. Katherine McAvoy argues that ‘design is not a neutral, value free process’ although the designers have the ability to sign the manifesto if they want to it is almost again a control mechanism. They feel they should sign it in order to break from the consumerist culture that is booming. Milton Glaser stated that humans often re-evaluate after a period of time and feel that ‘it’s time for a fresh vision of reality’ [Matt Soar 1999, p.10] could the First Things First manifest be viewed as a panic, or possibly a rebellion from what was becoming the norm?

The manifesto is said to be signed by ‘usual suspects’ who are described as the upper classes involved in the AIGA’s membership. Seemingly the proletariat, or lower classes have been skimmed over, which could ultimately be a reason for the ongoing battle with advertising as the main source of design in society. In order for a change to be made the manifesto should have reached out to designers on all levels, those more concerned with design for a wage, or design in order to live are likely to be from lower classes. The political class divide in the design industry may be to blame. There are significantly more people in the lower class groups in society and as a result involving them would be able to increase the power behind an idea. Although those at the top of the class system may be seen as more powerful, the support of tens of thousands could push things in the right direction.

It would appear that at a first glance the First thing First manifesto hasn’t been overly successful due to the remake of the document several years after its first publish. However when remade the document was written in a way which encouraged rather than forced designers. They were asked to consider other options and almost become in touch with the parts of themselves that would be more concerned with ethical and social design. Since 1999 well over a thousand ‘visual communicators’ have joined the original thirty three, surely showing it has had masses of support from people hoping to make a change to the design industry.



Bierut M. Looking Closer 3: Classic Writings on Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press

Bieurut M, Drenttel W and Heller S. (eds) (2002) Looking Closer 4: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press

Bierut M. (2007) Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, New York: Princeton Architectural Press

Garland K. (1964) First Things First Manifesto



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