The Second ‘First Things First’

Following is part of an interesting article about designers’ responsibility to do work that is worth it, work that benefits society and the environment rather than grinding away to manufacture wants for things.

I’m lucky to spend much of my time working with people who protect and restore the environment. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoy helping business people develop logos and sales materials that will help them make a living doing what they love. My creativity is sharpened by diverse projects, and commercial projects help me make a living doing what I love.

First Things First Revisited
By Rick Poynor

It is no exaggeration to say that designers are engaged in nothing less than the manufacture of contemporary reality. Today, we live and breathe design. Few of the experiences we value at home, at leisure, in the city or the mall are free of its alchemical touch. We have absorbed design so deeply into ourselves that we no longer recognize the myriad ways in which it prompts, cajoles, disturbs, and excites us. It’s completely natural. It’s just the way things are.

When Ken Garland published his First Things First manifesto in London thirty-five years ago, he threw down a challenge to graphic designers and other visual communicators that refuses to go away…

That First Things First struck a nerve is clear. It arrived at a moment when design was taking off as a confident, professionalized activity. The rapid growth of the affluent consumer society meant there were many opportunities for talented visual communicators in advertising, promotion and packaging.

The advertising business itself had experienced a so-called “creative revolution” in New York, and several influential American exponents of the new ideas-based graphic design were working for London agencies in the early 1960s. A sense of glamour and excitement surrounded this well-paid line of work.

From the late 1950s onwards, a few skeptical designers began to ask publicly what this non-stop tide of froth had to do with the wider needs and problems of society. To some, it seemed that the awards with which their colleagues liked to flatter themselves attracted and celebrated only the shallowest and most ephemeral forms of design.

For Garland and the other concerned signatories of First Things First, design was in danger of forgetting its responsibility to struggle for a better life for all. The critical distinction drawn by the manifesto was between design as communication (giving people necessary information) and design as persuasion (trying to get them to buy things).

In the signatories’ view, a disproportionate amount of designers’ talents and effort was being expended on advertising trivial items, from fizzy water to slimming diets, while more “useful and lasting” tasks took second place: street signs, books and periodicals, catalogues, instruction manuals, educational aids, and so on.

The British designer Jock Kinneir (not a signatory) agreed: “Designers oriented in this direction are concerned less with persuasion and more with information, less with income brackets and more with physiology, less with taste and more with efficiency, less with fashion and more with amenity. They are concerned in helping people to find their way, to understand what is required of them, to grasp new processes and to use instruments and machines more easily.” more…

This article was first published in 1999 in Emigre 51.

Gaia Graphics & Associates… creative by nature ~