· First Things First ·

The purpose of this lecture was to discuss about the social responsibility of the designer and the social purpose of design. In order to talk about this, we were introduced the ‘First Things First’ Manifesto written by the British designer and photographer Ken Garland in 1964 and supported for over 400 designers and artists. The manifesto claims that “We” -designers undersigned- “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.

Ken Garland (1964) ‘First Things First’ Manifesto

The manifesto gained a great popularity and it is still supported by many colleagues nowadays as it was certainly a big step upfront after so many years trying to handle the requests from clients and companies.

It all began with the industrial era back in the second half of the 19th century which brought with it so many improvements at first and a revolution in the advertising and design fields as well. The revolution was mainly based on the mass production: producing more goods in a faster way in factories rather than unique craft goods that took longer to be made by craftsmen. This changes on the economical system led to the need of making the product out stand from others. This competitive behaviour between brands could only be solved by the designers who promote and differentiate the products through posters all over the cities.

The cities turned to be the hot spots where all the people from the countryside wanted to work. However, all that glitters is not gold and people worked for so much time in terrible conditions in hazardous factories and with too long working schedules yet earning miserable salaries. This bad side of the story is illustrated in the Charlie Chaplin’s movie ‘Modern Times’ (1936).

Charlie Chaplin (1936) frame from the movie ‘Modern Times’

Contrary to that and as a reaction to the consumerism and the mass production, it appeared the Arts and Crafts Movement in 1880 in the UK. What the British designer William Morris (1834-1896) and his colleagues wanted to do is to improve the society through well designed products, furniture, buildings and household. These products followed a beautiful medieval aesthetic and were all handmade which increased their price so much. But, unfortunately this utopia was not easy to achieve as those high quality craft products were not affordable.

One of the patterns from the ‘Arts & Crafts’ Movement, recalling the Middle Age designs.

Nevertheless, in 1919 another movement took place: the Bauhaus, a German design school based on functionalism and a good design but making it affordable for everyone. Despite their good intentions, the school had to close due to the Second World War in 1931. The design was used no more to advertise products but to promote war and governments’ decisions. That was called propaganda and put so many designers in a questionable position. Should they promote some ideas even thought they were against them? When does their job finish and starts morality? What is their duty as designers?

The dadaist German artist John Heartfield (1891-1968) took the lead and started to create stunning images against war and fascism with a new technique from the avant-grades : the collage and photomontage. He was one of the first ones who was brave enough to publish his own ideas and visions but not the last one. Since then so many others followed his steps and started to publish and create designs to promote messages and criticise what they didn’t like about the society.

John Heartfield’s collage against the nazis fascism.

By the end of the 20th century design became a corporate profession and designers were already working for companies. Nonetheless, there were (and still are) some designers more inclined to design stuff against consumerism rather than stuff to persuade it. A great example is the conceptual American artist Barbara Kruger (1945) who designed very provocative and ironic images against the throw-away society and capitalism. Similarly, the activists collective Gran Fury did some other campaigns against drug companies, homophobia and AIDS. In fact, all these not so usual campaigns became very striking an iconic images.

Barbara Kruger’s posters against consumerism and supporting feminism (left and middle images) & Gran Fury’s poster to support AIDS and make it a noticeable issue. 

All in all, the “First Things First” manifesto is still a current subject of debate that was actually updated in 2000. How is it possible, then, that designers from all around are still thinking about it? Are they still feeling too exposed to the multinational desires?

Apparently, the ethic part that designers play in this world is still a controversial topic and that manifesto presents the ideas of their utopia in a very straight-away and accessible language that kind of invite you to think and discuss about it. That’s why it is still relevant more than 50 years after it was originally written.

Personally speaking, designers play an essential role in society. They have the power and the tools to decide what people is going to like, thing and believe. They can unintentionally manipulate society. So that’s why they have to be ethic with their work and never forget to morality.


Reference List

Charlie Chaplin (1936) Modern Times

Garland, Ken et all (1964). First Things First – A Manifesto. Availabe at: http://www.designishistory.com/1960/first-things-first/

Glavey, P. & Eysler, ¡A. (2016). First Things First. [Lecture to GMD1] T303: Contextual and Theoretical Studies. UAL

John Heartfield Exhibition. (2016). John Heartfield Biography by Grandson, John J Heartfield. [online] Available at: http://www.johnheartfield.com/John-Heartfield-Exhibition/helmut-herzfeld-john-heartfield/biography-german-artist-heartfield [Accessed 6 May 2016].

Kruger, B. and Mariani, P. (1998). Remaking history. New York: New Press.