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The First Things First Manifestos

As a soon-to-be graphic design graduate, I’m wondering about where I will work and what kind of design work I will be producing. At the moment, any design job will do. I just need employment!

I've always wanted to do 3 things in my career - work for big companies, work for graphic design agencies and work for myself. This is the typical 3-step career path graphic designers undertake to work out where and who they like to work for. But working for big companies sounds like promoting capitalism and contributing to consumerism.

I've been raised by the internet, so I've seen pictures of landfills as a result of fast fashion, plastic waste in the ocean (does anyone remember the picture of that poor seahorse swimming with an earbud?), micro-fashion trends on TikTok that persuade me to buy buy buy; and the photo-shopping of body images advertising false body representations. Consumerism is also the consumption of content. The more we scroll, the more we are taking in information, pictures, videos...and graphic design plays a key role in this. A product is mediated by its design. It's what attracts us and dictates how it makes us feel and whether we want to buy it.

For all artists, we must consider who we work for and the effects of the work we produce. Will it end up in a landfill? Will it be a logo for a company that promotes slimness?

The First Things First manifestos come to mind. These manifestos are statements against consumer culture, and 3 updated versions have been produced since it came out 58 years ago.

The original manifesto

The original manifesto was published in 1964 by Ken Garland, and it was signed by 22 other artists, photographers and students. The aim of the manifesto is to inspire a more humanistic approach to design rather than designing to promote capitalism. During the 1960s, when the original manifesto was published, consumer society was thriving, resulting in many visual communicators' opportunities in advertising.

The manifesto states instead of designing for and wasting time and effort for “trivial purposes”, our intentions should be redirected to making more useful and permanent forms of communication that help improve society. The original manifesto proposes our efforts should be spent on designing for

"street and buildings, books and periodicals..."

First things first 2000

35 years later, a second version was published in 1999 by Adbusters Magazine. 33 artists signed the manifesto, and it was published internationally. Following the same structure as the original, First Things First 2000 also talked about the effects of marketing and branding. It states that designers who spend their efforts on marketing and branding have left commercial work as to

"how the world perceives design"

and that they

"draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse"

In other words, designers have created an environment drenched with commercial information that is changing the way in which society acts.

First things first 2014

In 2014, a third version was launched online, led by designer Cole Peters. First Things First 2014 acknowledged the consequences of technology on design and society, such as the ownership and authority of privacy and personal information. Unlike the previous manifestos, this one gave not only designers but everybody access to sign it. By doing this, it allowed anyone to openly identify themselves as supporters. This symbolises how society has advanced by becoming more interconnected.

First things first 2020

The latest version of the manifesto released in 2020 addresses the growing and current climate and social issues, such as mass extinction, institutionalised racism and mental health. It acknowledges how design is used to:

extract resources, to fill landfills…to promote colonisation…market unhealthy body images…”

The manifesto includes a checklist of necessary design aims, such as checking the ethics of design, supporting communities and taking non-exploitative actions. It highlights that climate change and social justice go hand-in-hand, and we can’t change the climate crisis without social justice because they are both established in capitalism. The 2020 manifesto was released online and had more than 1700 signatures. Additionally, supporters can even include their thoughts and opinions in a Google doc.

FTF is important because it accentuates the significance of collaboration and using graphic design for social good. The heart of the manifesto is a discussion between designing to inform and designing to persuade. The manifesto encourages design with more efficiency and reminds us to concentrate on improving society and helping people - to place ethics ahead of profit.

In conclusion, the manifesto is a challenge, essentially. It points out that designers can do better. It questions us how we can pursue a working harmony between reality and our values. I’ll be using these manifestos to remember what I do and why I do it during my career.


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