Why I’m Renewing the First Things First Manifesto

The original First Things First manifesto

In 1964, a designer named Ken Garland published what I consider to be one of the most important historical documents in design: the First Things First manifesto. Now, 50 years later, I’m taking the initiative to renew it — and to open it up to our community at large.

1964

In the original manifesto, Garland, along with 21 other signatories, declared:

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 consistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents. … We think there are other things more worth using our skills and experience on.

The First Things First manifesto rebuked the prominent call of advertising, and instead urged those with creative talent to pursue more socially meaningful causes, from designing signage for streets and buildings, to educational materials. Most importantly, it urged those same people to develop a sharper, more critical and ethically sound mind towards the application of their skills, in a period of time when affluence and luxury were king. Backed by over 400 supporters, the manifesto stated that its goal was not to abolish ‘high pressure consumer advertising’ or ‘take the fun out of life’ — rather, it proposed ‘a reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication.’

2000

In 1999, Adbusters launched a renewal of the manifesto, entitled First Things First 2000. Subsequently published in Eye Magazine, Emigré, and many other publications around the world, the updated text was signed by a group of 33 designers, art directors and visual communicators who took what could be considered a more adversarial stance than was present in the original:

Many of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this view of design. 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.

It also expands the original manifesto’s breadth of concerns:

Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. Many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programs, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help. … Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.

What interests me about these manifestos — aside from their ethical grounding, to which I subscribe — is that many of their principles are as applicable today as they were at the time of their publication.

But yet, there’s also something missing: the web.

2014

This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the original First Things First publication. In the half-century that has passed since then, and especially in the past 15 years, technology has managed to turn industries (as well as societies) upside down, drastically altering the way we do our work, keep in touch, and go about our lives. The design industry of course is no exception — I probably don’t need to state how much the web has transformed the landscape of design.

What does this mean, then, for one of the most important documents in design’s history?

Renewal

I believe the time is right for the First Things First manifesto to be once again renewed; and, as with the previous iteration, I believe there are a few key changes and additions to be made.

The first thing that I feel needs to be added is the inclusion and consideration of the web. Given how much of our lives and work the web touches, I believe it is critical that its presence and myriad implications should inform the next draft of the manifesto — not least because, as revelations over the past 8 months have shown us, the web of today is not quite the web we’ve always thought it was. Privacy, security and free speech on the web have never been more threatened, and I believe it’s important to acknowledge how this affects our industry.

Secondly, I believe it is time for other professions to be included in the scope of the manifesto. The original text was signed by “graphic designers, photographers and students”, while the 2000 renewal reflected somewhat more broadly the views of “graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators”. The essential message of First Things First actually concerns a broad variety of creative professionals; I believe a modern renewal of the manifesto should thusly represent not only designers, but also developers, programmers and other creative technologists — in short, anyone using technology and creativity within the scope of a professional pursuit. If the web is to become a central concern of this renewed manifesto, so too should the people that continue to shape the web itself.

Lastly, I believe First Things First should mirror the spirit of how open and collaborative the web has made so much of our work — anyone should be able to become a signatory of the manifesto (rather than a select group of individuals as in previous iterations), and everyone should have the opportunity to contribute to the manifesto itself.

With these three key points in mind (and if it wasn’t clear already), I am at once both excited and terribly anxious to announce that I am currently working to formally renew the First Things First manifesto this year.

The Plan

First Things First 2014 will be going live on 11 February 3 March.

Thus far, I have registered a domain name and a Twitter handle for the initiative, and am currently working on what will become the initial rewrite of the manifesto.

Thereafter, I will be working to implement the manifesto as a website, where anyone will be able to add themselves as a signatory (my plan is to enable this through a social login to keep things simple, but other options may be presented as well).

Finally, I will be open sourcing the website and manifesto on Git Hub, in order to open up the possibility of collaboration amongst its supporters. I haven’t completely worked out the limits and logistics of this yet, but I believe it will be a critical step in keeping things transparent, accountable and communally agreeable.

This is an important time for those of us who work in design, on the web and in technology; my ardent hope is that First Things First 2014 will become one small, meaningful part of where we go from here.

To keep up with developments, please follow @firstthings2014 on Twitter.

Update, 25 January: The launch date has been rescheduled to 3 March.