The Day After: First Things First

By November 10, 2016 January 4th, 2017 Ideas

November 10, 2016

Bigotry, climate-change denial, dishonesty, and gross inequity have seized the day. And Acme is taking sides. As before this day and evermore Acme sides with feminists, queers, people of colour, people with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, the transgendered, the poor, the artists, the activists, and the left-wing bike-riding commie pinkos. There can be no more business as usual. but there’s plenty of hard work to do. There’s ignorance and fear to unravel from their tight binds. There’s hate to stand up to. There’s love to spread.

Much of contemporary design discourse seems to focus almost entirely on the role of design and “design thinking” in supporting corporate and commercial aspirations. The value of design is frequently positioned by its practitioners as measured by its role as a strategic partner to business. Discussion of the other role design might play—that of an agent in the service of the public good rather than solely that of private profit—has been sidelined. But that hasn’t always been the case. In 1964 Ken Garland—a designer and active member of the Labour Party—penned the First Things First manifesto—a reaction to the design world’s celebration of the Mad Men-era “gimmick merchants, status salesmen, and hidden persuaders” and a plea for designers to prioritize instead the promotion of “our education, our culture and our greater awareness of the world.”

“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. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.”

— First Things First, Ken Garland, 1964

In 1993 educator and graphic designer Katherine McCoy observed that little had changed since the 1960s: “Commerce is where we are investing our assets of time, budgets, skills, and creativity. This is a decisive vote for economics over other potential concerns, including social educational, cultural, spiritual, and political needs.” And, by the end of the twentieth century, the centricity of commercial concerns in public life and design practice spurred Adbusters magazine to publish an updated version of the First Things First manifesto in 1999, with 33 signatories (including design luminaries Irma Boom, Tibor Kalman, Steven Heller, Erik Spiekermann, and Milton Glaser) reiterating the stance of the original manifesto:

“We propose a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication—a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.”

First Things First 2000: A Design Manifesto. Manifesto published jointly by 33 signatories in Adbusters

Of the 2000 manifesto, British author and journalist Rick Poynor wrote, “If thinking individuals have a responsibility to withstand the proliferating technologies of persuasion, then the designer, as a skilled professional manipulator of those technologies, carries a double responsibility. …The escalating commercial take-over of everyday life makes democratic resistance more vital than ever.”

But as the recent elections of right-wing cartoon capitalist demagogues Rob Ford and Donald Trump demonstrate, the commercial takeover of everyday life has become the status quo, abetted by fear-mongering and dishonest agents of persuasion, and has laid the foundation for the normalization of extreme rightwing ideology. Democratic resistance continues to be, in Poyner’s words, “more vital then ever.”

In 2014, on the fiftieth anniversary of the original First Things First manifesto, designer Cole Peters published an independent reboot of the manifesto—First Things First 2014—that included new text addressing the ethical failings of the intersection of design and technology in our new digital landscape. He called for the same shift in priorities, but with new wording, advocating a move “away from profit-over-people business models and the placing of corporations before individuals, toward the exploration and production of humble, meaningful work, and beneficial cultural impact” with the goal of “of catalysing a meaningful revolution in both our industry and the world at large.”

This is not a manifesto, nor a Ulysses pact, but Acme is taking an ideological position, one in opposition to the dangerous ideological swing to the right that the recent election in the U.S. exemplifies. With the counsel of the First Things First manifestos in mind, Acme’s design practice will consciously explore moving beyond ‘business as usual’ to find transformative strategies for a sustainable and humane world. The challenges we face are complex, and democratic resistance requires embracing that complexity. That means avoiding reductive arguments and instead promoting democratic dialogue, critical thinking, and a holistic thoughtfulness about our actions and intentions.

As a card-carrying professional member of the Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD)—I will keep Milton Glaser’s counsel in mind when he states:

“…When you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is clear why professionalism is not enough. After all, what is required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous transgression. Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal.”

— “Ten Things I have Learned,” Milton Glaser

I am ready to put aside any limiting notions of professionalism, any ideas of professionalism that fear transgression. And I am willing to risk failure and ready to apologize for missteps, to find remedies. Part of the personal reward of following my curiosity, and in collaborating with others, is uncovering my own biases and presumptions, and potentially growing beyond them. My professionalism will be in my respect for the clients, collaborators, and vendors I work with, as well as other designers, by following the ethical guidelines for design practice as set forward by RGD.

I will place educational, cultural, ecological, and political needs ahead of commercial considerations. I will critique the corporatization of public discourse and culture. I want to provide professional, innovative creative design and strategy to under-resourced cultural institutions, activists, arts, literature, and performance projects, independent filmmakers, educational institutions, and non-profits. All underserved sectors should have access to good design.

I want to work hard for good people working towards accomplishing good things in the world. I am ready to listen and compromise, to carefully root out any self-righteousness, narcissism, or rigidity of thinking I might harbour. I’m ready to get to work. I humbly and respectful offer my expertise and experience in the service of those who believe, as I do, in democratic resistance and meaningful revolution. Whatever the scale of your need, whatever your budget, get in touch, you have an ally in Acme.

— Michael Barker, Acme Art & Design