Last things Last: Contemporary Design Manifesto breakdown

Last things Last: Contemporary Design Manifesto breakdown

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The size and power of large international corporations had become a concern. Western countries were experiencing unprecedented economic growth and record employment levels during the 1990’s.

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The First Things First 2000 Manifesto was launched by Adbusters magazine in 1999, an update to an almost forty year old manifesto by British designer and educator Ken Garland that advocated for a “reversal of priorities” from commercial product promotions to “more useful, lasting, and democratic forms of communication.” Garland wrote of his 1964 manifesto, “Manifestos were in, okay? It was after all, a time to conjure up a cause, be self-righteous, take a stand.”

Adbusters repurposed this manifesto, bring “the language up-to-date while trying to retain the original spirit.” The manifesto was signed by a group of predominate designers from around the world and simultaneously published in several international design publications. Its aim was to generate discussion about the graphic design professions priorities in design press and at design schools, and to open a discussion between the design as a communication tool (providing people necessary information) and design as persuasion (trying to get them to purchase things).

Some designers welcome this attempt to reopen the debate for the need for a set of values in design, claiming “There are pursuits more worthy if our problem solving skills.

However, the manifesto received a large backlash from the design community, who largely rejected the manifesto, calling it everything from “elitist to ‘crap”. Many found the manifesto to be insulting. When we look at contemporary design through the lens of the Adbusters updated manifesto, the manifesto itself begins to unravel and turn into something that “self-righteously.. has its priorities completely crazy.” As delightful as its utopian outlook of the future may sound, it is misdirected and naive of the current world of contemporary design.  It forces its values on designers with an unrealistic, utopian vision and compared to previous modern design movements, this manifesto offers almost no solid advice (or action) for change.

Let us first look at the question of having a set of values in contemporary design.

  1. This question of values in design has been repeatedly contested in the creative design community.
  2. The language of First Things First 2000 is “in complete denial of choice,
  3. Worded in a way that takes all responsibility from the designers – and in turn, insults the people who stand on their own set of values.
  4. It sets graphic design as a form of social production rather than as individual acts of creativity.

Jouke Kleerebezem claims the document is in a “…complete denial of choice, and therefore an insult to those people who choose.” She goes on the describe how it paints a picture of how “the industry made us do it,” and with its alarmist heroism, praises “designer conscience and power to overthrow a social-political consensus agenda, and ultimately install a new kind of meaning.” When we see the design community as individuals, each with their own beliefs and set of values, (and not a poor mindless collective being forced to misuse their skills by an evil industry), can a design manifesto be written that sets a standard for the community?

Today, with ‘craftsman’ tools and skills being replaced by computers and software, the distinction between ‘professional’ and general public is less evident. Like the essay in Metahaven describes, “It seems instead more probable that among those professional designers, a gap will increase between those who design as celebrity, and those who design as labourer. Such a gap has already appeared in the architectural profession.” So who is the manifest for? The rank-and-file graphic designer who must choose between doing dubious design work and paying the bills, or the celebrity designer who can choose what they work on?

The second misgiving with contemporary design, as see through the First Things First Manifesto, is its unrealistic utopian dream with its total dismissal of the fundamental reality of design as a business. A small group of designers in England went as far as to write a manifesto against all future manifestos in the field, titled ‘A call to Arms Against Future Retro-Manifestos From the Disillusioned.’ The ‘anti-manifesto manifesto’ proclaimed “Design is encased in capitalism, and even though there are many brownie points to be won for the individual through the creation of coffee-table books, highbrow exhibitions, and niche magazines, this link will persist.” They recognize that nothing will change if the creative industry refused to work in advertising, instead suggesting that “only by injecting milligrams of what we hold at heart into the very mainstream of popular culture is there any real hope in changing it into something else.”

Several other predominate figures came out against the manifesto, including Nancy Skolos, who stated “I don’t think we can change the world just by deciding that we’re not going into design ads anymore… the only way to have an effect is to somehow be a party of the system.” Advertising is essential to business. Most people hate mass advertising with it appearing everywhere. However, if a company fails to publicly promote itself, it loses business.

Other design movements had a similar utopian outlook, but one that aligned more closely with reality. The Bauhaus movement founded by Walter Gropius in 1919 focused its vision on creating a new designer that was an artist as well as craftsman. Bauhaus also focused on the utopian principle of excellent design that was accessible to all. The difference with our discussed contemporary manifesto and the Bauhaus was the Bauhaus beliefs were actionable through its school and the mass production of its works, which provided cheap furniture to the common public. This shows that one can align their utopian vision within design business. In contrast, todays ‘rank-and-file’ graphic designer doesn’t have the monetary privilege of abandoning clients like the First Things First 2000 signatories – who Michael Bierut quite fairly compares to as “a group of eunuchs (taking) a vow of chastity.

The last point of discussion against the naivety of First Things First 2000 manifesto is the failure to offer solid advice for change. It wants to stop “Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact” and offers nothing in replacement, other than “a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication.”

There is without a doubt about First Things First 2000s sincere intentions, yet none of the signees publicly refrained from well-paid or commercial work after its release. Without any kind or alternative or example put forth, nothing has changed. Why copy an almost forty year old document, that even its creator, Garland, confesses “…it didn’t get us very far.. not only are we no nearer out objectives today than we were in 1946, but we have actually moved backwards.”

When you compare this to previous design movements, it becomes more obvious why this attempt to reboot contemporary design was doomed to fail. With the Bauhaus movement, we saw the philosophy of a oneness between the artist and the craftsman taught in a practical setting with students taught to eliminate the ideas of the individual and instead focus on the productivity of design. It offered its followers the most important lesson: a sound business model that enabled its practitioners to survive in a consumer driven world. Maya Lekach describes the movement as “abolishing the elitist lines between artist and designer in order to build a new future… (now) we can see more clearly than ever the connection between good artistry and good design.” In essence, it has changed the way we perceive and practice design.

The minimalism trend in design and architecture is another example of a modern movement that had a strong conviction that a subject should be reduced to its necessary elements. The motto “Less is more” was used to describe their aesthetic tactic of arranging the necessary components of a building or design to create an impression of extreme simplicity. Here, there was a consumer driven desire for the new style buildings and designs, enabling the designers to profit and even become famous.

Rather than just lay the guilt on Adbusters and their well meaning manifesto, let us look at some other examples of popular declarations made in recent years. A random 43 point program called An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth by Canadian designer Bruce Mau caused a stir when it was published in 1998. The points are chaotic, conflicting, and allows for ‘internal contradictions and ironic deception’. It pursues nights without sleep, messy desks, mistakes, and not being cool as points for designers to think about their design process. By doing so, “it simultaneously taps into Utopian form and Utopian impulse; Mau’s manifesto becomes a programme centered around the transgression of programme”. This shows the First Things First is not the only misguided manifesto that, although had a genuine intention, missed the mark with the professional design community and falls apart on closer scrutiny. In turn, it will not stand a test of time as a turning point in design history.

Despite the negative points listed above, the First Things First 2000 movement raises some very helpful points for debate. We should be examining our values and what we, as designers, are contributing to society. If that was the only goal of the manifesto, it did have the desired effect, proven by this very essays existence: they are creating a discussion in the community. Ken Garland, the signatory of the original First Things First in 1964, now looks back in hindsight, reminiscing that his manifesto now reads “a little self-righteously, but I still stand by every single word of it… whether earnest manifestos are the way to tackle the problem is quite another matter.”

Contemporary design tends to look at the bigger picture, with new issues such as mega corporations, globalisation and sustainability all becoming a larger part of our everyday lives. Yet, because of this ever widening picture of duty, the responsibilities and nuances can not even begin to be described in a one page manifesto. Some of the signatories now recognize this, with Erik Spiekermann confessing “I did write down my reservations down… I think the manifesto is a little naive, because the world isn’t as simple as that anymore.” This view is more grounded in reality, and as British designer Robin Kinross wrote, “‘the days of manifestos are over. In politics, no one much believes in any sharp polarity of left and right. The difficulties of action are immense. Keeping the boat afloat and away from the rocks seems all we can do.”

Design as a discipline is clearly part of a wider picture of consumerism and todays modern society. This is the main point that distinguished contemporary design movements from previous movements such as the Bauhaus or minimalist movement. Designers can now be active participants in debating world issues through their work and discussions, attempting to raise bigger issues to debate. When we are talking about contemporary design and its movements, we are talking about a deeply rooted profession that influences the structure and evolution of society. The problems in society today do not have simple solutions that can be laid out in a short manifesto, scribbled on the back of a napkin.


Michael Bierut put it best with “Manifestos are simple; life is complicated.” Contemporary design, however, attempts to raise some of these issues to peoples conscious make people talk. It tries to shape, and in turn is shaped by the cultural, political economic and social environments from which it services.