First Things First 2000 manifesto

David Quay
Grafik Magazine blog
February 2010


First Things First 2000 manifesto — an outdated concept

I have just been watching a documentry on the Belgium tv channel Canvas about the multi-national seed company Monsanto. If you believe the documentry the company is out to control food production globally with it’s genetically modified seeds. The documentry is very unsettling, so I looked up the web-site of Monsanto and on the surface everything seems perfectly in order. The web-site is reasonable well designed in that seamless corporate manner that invites confidence. Even the logo has a nice homely bio feeling. I started to wonder who designed this web-site and all the printed matter the goes with it.

That brings me to the second thought, I came across by chance The First Things First 2000 manifesto that Ken Garland had first organised in 1964. I was too young and to have signed the first version but was asked, I think by Nick Bell to sign the second. I refused to sign it, I felt that it discriminated against many good designers that do their very best often under difficult and strict commercial conditions.

All the signatories have to buy wc paper, toothpast, detergent, and soap, Do they not buy these things because they are aestetically challenged? Or do they buy only from Muji which is just another very clever marketing excersise?

What is the difference between designing a superstore poster and poster for a cultural event? Shops are open on Sundays. Shopping is now a cultural and social activity. Museums have to compete for your leasure time and now also contain cafés, restaurants, retail outlets and bookshops. A blockbuster exhibition is a big marketing and franchising bonanza. Star Wars or Chinese Army have marketing managers who see success in terms of pounds, dollars and euros. So when we design for a an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum we are also trying to attract the visitors not only to the exhibition but also to have lunch or coffee and cake and visit the bookshop and buy the catalogue and on the way out in the ‘gallery shop’ buy the artist branded unbrella, scarf, bag or tie! That is all part of the marketing package. What is the difference with that and designing a poster for Bluewater? Who are we to decide what people should do with their leasure hours, many people who have never or rarely visit a museum or gallery enjoy window shopping or buying the latest flat screen tv or mobile phone. Many designers think we are above it all, but we are also seduced by the latest Mac laptop, iphone and designer clothes.

We can ask our students to try to make responsible choices in what they design. Maybe we could introduce into our design schools short courses in moral theology! A better idea would be to make required reading for all design students the recent book written by Adrian Shaughnessy ‘How To Be a Graphic Designer Without Loosing Your Soul’. This is helpful book for young designers setting out on their carriers, it does not preach and does not discrimate against commercial work in the way the First Things First 2000 design manifesto does. Hopefully we will see more books of this calibre in the future which can open up more discussion about the ethical dilemmas often faced in our profesion.

Back to Monsanto and my search to put those two strands of thoughts together. I expect that the designer who designed Monsanto’s work was convinced he was doing it for a reputable and responsible company. Wim Crouwel was excited when having to design an exhibition for nuclear energy, only later did he have misgivings but it was still a great design.

Sainsbury the supermarket chain, here the dividing line between culture and commerce is totally blurred. As designers, according to the manifesto, we are not supposed to fritter our time away on trivial work, so are we not to work for Sainsbury? But we would love to design an art catalogue or poster for the Sainsbury art collection which is supported with money earned from selling dog food and wc paper! Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?

Which brings me back again to First Things First 2000 design manifesto. I now think the manifesto is outdated. What we can do is make moral choices but that is only on the infomation we are given or allowed to see. We are being naive if we think we can think that we can make a choice between doing only good moral works. Below is a paragraph from the original manifesto.

‘We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, photographers and students who have been brought up in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents. We have been bombarded with publications devoted to this belief, applauding the work of those who have flogged their skill and imagination to sell such things as: Cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste, aftershave lotion, before shave lotion, slimming diets, fattening diets, deodorants, fizzy water, cigarettes, roll-ons, pull-ons, and slip-ons. By far the greatest time and effort of those working in the advertising industry are wasted on these trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity.’

But why can’t cat food, stomach powders, detergent, be well designed? The consumers deserve better than what is presented to them now. Isn’t a challenge for designers to be able to design a great cat food wrapper and at the same time for it to be a commercial success—what a challenge!