The First Things First manifesto was written in 1963 and published in 1964 by Ken Garland along with twenty other designers, photographers and students. It rallied against the consumerist culture that was only concerned with the marketing aspect of design and called for a return to a humanist one. Drawing on ideas shared by critical theory, the Frankfurt School, and the counter-culture of the time, the manifesto explicitly reaffirmed the belief that design is not a neutral, value-free process. Garland's solution was to focus efforts of design on education and public service tasks that promoted the betterment of society. Furthermore, it discusses the importance of ethics in relation to consumerism and loss of culture. The aim of this essay is to explore the importance of ethics in design and the deterioration of culture and humanism.
Garland's manifesto identifies the use of talent in consumerism as resulting in a warped perception of the ability and capability of graphic design. He emphasizes how designers are offered little alternative to the prostitution of talent in the consumer arena, allowing the reader to recognize falling into this unethical thought pattern not a personal failing, but a downfall of the design profession. Garland uses a high frequency of triplets such as, “graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators” and “lucrative, effective and desirable”, to effectively convey a large amount of information crisply in order to persuade his readers. His use of short and impactful sentences further help in doing the same. The inclusion of personal pronouns make the readers feel part of his community, driving them to have similar views on ethics as him and the rest of the republication of the manifesto. Hence, the manifesto itself is a form of persuasive communication which aims to make designers think about their priorities in their role of making the community more ethical. Garland's humorous list of insignificant commodities designers promote such as, “dog biscuits, designer coffee, diamonds, detergents, hair gel, cigarettes, credit cards, sneakers, butt toners, light beer and heavy-duty recreational vehicles”, demonstrates his views on unethical products and how these trivial products are ridiculing the state of the profession. Garland argues that there are other media such as signage, books, catalogues, manuals, photography or educational aids which promote design trade, education, culture and world awareness.
Rick Poynor responded to the First Things First manifesto and reiterated the persisting importance of the designer to take responsibility for their influence. The importance of Poynor's impact in the field of ethics within graphic design is wide-reaching; as a continued activist, he helps students and professionals to consider the consequences of their actions, the effects they possess and to respect their skill by utilizing it in an ethically conscious manner. Building on the manifestos, Poynor alerts the audience to the imperative of acting now, fundamental for a redistribution of talent and an awareness of influence. Unlike the Manifesto, however, Poynor considers the result to the profession if all graphic designers rejected unethical campaigns. In the manifesto, Garland states, “By far the greatest time and effort of those working in the advertising industry are wasted on these trivial purposes…” Michael Bierut argues that the graphic designers in mid-century America were passionate about the idea of good design not only being aesthetically pleasing but also constructive in enriching society, including commercial aspects of everyday life. Therefore, advertising industry is a crucial field of design which is highly demanded and appreciated within society. In Malcolm Barnard's opinion, graphic design as a whole is unnoticed, but advertising design is the only form of graphic design known to everybody. The content of visual communication, whether informative or persuasive, is always mediated by the design, which directs how audience perceives and feels the message. Designers are in a “weak position in regard to what they do” . Designers do not decide what is to be sold, the strategy or objectives. They are the part of the process where such ethical decisions have been made by someone else and they assume the creative role of a mediator between clients and the audience.
At the end of the manifesto, Garland proposes “a reversal of priorities in favored of more useful and more lasting forms of communication.” He stresses the importance of sticking to ethical beliefs and moral values in a society with such an explosive growth of global commercial culture. Designing consumer-based design as an unethical utilization of design skill, Garland's manifesto highlights relevant issues, and generates within the reader, an empathetic understanding of the situation before suggesting that there must be a better use of skill and influence. By avoiding blame and identifying with designers using their talent for consumption-based projects, Garland offers a chance for all designers to consider their position without feeling accountable.
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