The late Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto, written in 1963 on the spur of the moment during a public meeting, has become a tradition of enduring protest that its originator could never have predicted. Last year, the fourth version of the text arrived and it’s the most urgent and powerful iteration to date. In the nearly 60 years since Garland self-published his broadside, the stakes for society and design have spiralled skywards. Despite the British designer’s proud self-declaration as a socialist, the politics of the original were always fuzzy. In the latest FTF, the critique of the damage wrought by the excesses of capitalism—which was merely implicit in the first version—is fully articulated. That makes the manifesto more challenging and potentially more divisive than ever. It asks designers to consider which side of the argument they are on.
Garland’s FTF, co-signed by 21 colleagues, including some photographers, calls for a “reversal of priorities” among graphic designers. It proposes that less design effort should go into advertising—1960s consumer society was booming—and more should go into “worthwhile purposes,” such as “signs for streets and buildings, books and periodicals, catalogues, instruction manuals, industrial photography, educational aids, films, television features, science and industrial publications.” Ian McLaren, the only surviving signatory I could find, had been an intern at an advertising agency as a design student and hated it because the opportunities for designers were so limited. When Garland offered him the chance to sign FTF, he agreed. “It was more a feeling that it was just ‘the right thing to do,’” he says today. “In my case it was more a reaction to a frustration. My political philosophy was pretty hazy then.”
It took 35 years for the second version, First Things First 2000, to appear, in fall 1999. Kalle Lasn of Adbusters had seen the original in Eye magazine and reprinted it. This led to a plan to create an updated version written by Adbusters with input from other interested parties (I was one of them). While the original FTF found its way on to British television, where Garland read it live on a national news program, its dissemination outside the country was limited at the time. FTF 2000 was conceived from the outset as an international initiative, and it was launched simultaneously in Adbusters, AIGA Journal and Emigre in North America, Eye and Blueprint in Britain, and Items in the Netherlands; Form magazine in Germany followed later.
Garland visited Adbusters in Vancouver and agreed to add his signature to the revised document. Other signatories—making 33 total—were approached by Adbusters, Rudy VanderLans of Emigre magazine, and me. They included some famous names: Milton Glaser, Ellen Lupton, Steven Heller, Erik Spiekermann, and Gert Dumbar of Studio Dumbar in the Netherlands. This was meant to attract attention to the message and it succeeded, but the alleged hypocrisy of a few signatories caused intense annoyance with some readers. “Isn’t it embarrassing to see a handful of self-appointed design practitioners and educators, totally vested in the security of the stock market, privilege, and the tenure system, speak as prophets for such a complicated and complex world?” wrote Dietmar Winkler, director of the school of art and design at the University of Illinois, in a reply to Adbusters.
The 2000 version had a similar structure to the original, while broadening its target from advertising to marketing and brand development. Its language and argument brandish the fiery worldview Adbusters had spent a decade cultivating. By their actions, designers were supporting “a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that is changing the way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact.” Graphic design had helped to construct “a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.” Consumerism was “running uncontested” and designers should help to challenge it.
The response was unprecedented. Adbusters, Emigre and other magazines published dozens of letters for and against. Pentagram partner Michael Bierut crafted an elaborate visual riposte for I.D. Magazine, “A Manifesto with Ten Footnotes,” which channeled the irritation of many in the industry at being called to account. “It pays to maintain the status quo,” VanderLans snapped back in a letter to I.D. Many other magazines reprinted and debated FTF 2000, and translations—French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Polish, Croatian, Slovenian, Norwegian—reached legions of new readers. The worldwide web was in its infancy and FTF 2000 was devised as a print-based campaign. Adbusters posted it online and it attracted hundreds of extra signatures, including Bierut’s. Then they reprinted the manifesto plus the new signatures as a double-sided folding poster designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, a signatory and fervent supporter.
FTF 2000 gave Garland’s original a reboot and the two documents remained visible for years—see, for instance, the book Looking Closer 4—and prompted countless student FTF projects and redesigns. “Every year I introduce FTF and its versions to my design students,’ says design educator Elizabeth Resnick, who signed FTF 2000, FTF 2014, and FTF 2020 online. “It bears repeating with each new class and each new generation of students.” Garland became a hero of the design school lecture circuit. FTF 2000’s critics demanded to know what had changed as a result of the manifesto, but the point of both documents was to provoke thought and discussion. It was up to individual designers to decide what path to take and how to apply their convictions.
“Both manifestos made a lasting impression on me, and greatly informed the direction of my career in design and technology,” says Canadian web designer Cole Peters. In 2014, FTF’s 50th anniversary, Peters decided to launch a third version focused on design in the digital realm. “Edward Snowden’s disclosures, especially those where technology companies were concerned, gave many of us pause,” he recalls. “Technology companies had become a huge source of employment for designers and creative technologists in the 2010s. How culpable were we in this machine that was feasting on personal data and surveillance—a machine that was often made to feel chic and essential through design?”
In keeping with its aims, First Things First 2014 was launched online and there were no famous names waving the flag this time around. Anyone in sympathy with the manifesto’s imperatives could sign and more than 1,600 people seized the opportunity. As before, the text follows Garland’s structure and some of his original phrasing, including his wish “not to take the fun out of life.”
Garland declared FTF 2014 “admirably concise” when Peters asked for his thoughts before the launch, but he didn’t feel that it added much to the previous versions. “For myself, I have no wish to engage in any more manifestos,” he replied. By that time, Garland was weary of being painted as the ethically-driven author of an “anti-advertising” manifesto. “I say: ‘Read it again please!’ It’s not anti-advertising,” he told Eye, although its progeny, FTF 2000, which he had endorsed, most certainly was. In an article he titled “Last Things Last”, Garland’s overriding concern was to express his appreciation for the clients he had neglected to acknowledge in the manifesto 48 years earlier.
First Things First has escaped and outgrown its creator, and it’s possible that it will continue to mutate. FTF 2000 predates full global awareness of the climate crisis, and systemic racism went unmentioned. Published online, FTF 2020, the first American version, blasts the reader with these issues: “Our time and energy are increasingly used to manufacture demand, to exploit populations, to extract resources, to fill landfills, to pollute the air, to promote colonization, and to propel our planet’s sixth mass extinction.” The manifesto responds with a checklist of urgent design goals, covering the histories and ethics of design, community-based initiatives, non-exploitative social relations, nature as a complex system, and reconnecting design and manufacturing to the Earth and its people.
“Climate change and racial justice work are often represented as two different concerns, but in fact they are interlinked issues due to their roots in capitalism.”
“Climate change and racial justice work are often represented as two different concerns, but in fact they are interlinked issues due to their roots in capitalism,” says Namita Dharia, one of FTF 2020’s organizers. “They are produced and perpetuated together, and climate change vulnerability falls on the backs of racially and ethnically marginalized populations across the globe. It was important for us to add the social justice component as there can be no solution to climate change without social justice.”
Dharia is an architect and her FTF colleagues, Marc O’Brien and Ben Gaydos, were educated as graphic designers. “We knew we needed to broaden the definition of design for FTF 2020. We recognized that every design discipline has contributed directly or indirectly to our climate crisis,” says O’Brien. Why not devise an entirely new manifesto with no connection to FTF’s history? “Publishing a new manifesto would have tossed our hard work into a sea of overcrowded thought-pieces and opinions,” he says. “There’s lots of noise on the Internet. Continuing the legacy of FTF meant bringing the history of the manifesto to a new audience with a new call-to-action.”
To date, FTF 2020 has attracted more than 1,700 supporters. “A designer should never feel like they are too late to add their name to something this important,” notes signatory Rick Griffith of Matter studio in Denver. “As a Black-led, minority-owned, and LGBT+ business, signing this petition felt like an extension of our values in statement form,” says Silas Munro of Polymode, a bi-coastal studio. The organizers encourage translations, and FTF 2020 is available in 21 languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Turkish, and Vietnamese. Designers who want a platform for action can follow a link to climatedesigners.org, founded by O’Brien. The organizers present FTF as a “living document,” and supporters have been adding their thoughts in a Google doc. An update of the manifesto will follow.
“Our goal was to decentralize the process, to open it up to anyone,” says Gaydos. “The three of us wrote a manifesto, but with the help of many other sets of eyes, and in dialogue with the previous iterations of First Things First. It’s a love letter to, and even a debate with Ken Garland and many others about what we need to do to change. It’s exciting that FTF 2020 is a living document. It can adapt and change just as we are forced to adapt and change if we want to survive.”