FIRST THINGS FIRST

08 November 2006
Chris Dixon, Art Director, Adbusters
Chris Dixon, Art Director, Adbusters



Back in 1964, a small number of British graphic designers lent their names to a quietly radical document. First Things First was a rebuke to their colleagues in the industry for having forgotten their old idealism and having lost sight of the things that really matter. It had the force of a flash of truth, inspiring many ad and design people, and so, by way of remembrance, we published it again in Adbusters last year.


That fall, editor/publisher Kalle Lasn and I were visiting New York City for a branding conference and stopped in to meet the legendary designer Tibor Kalman. Tibor was ill with the cancer that would, less than eight months later, claim his life, yet his eyes were clear. He thumbed through the issue of Adbusters we had brought for him. When he came across the manifesto he paused and gazed out the window. Finally he turned back to us and said, "You know, we should do this again."

So we did. Joined by design critic Rick Poynor, we re-drafted the original manifesto, bringing the language up to date while trying to retain the original spirit. Ken Garland, the driving force behind the 1964 manifesto, visited the Adbusters office from London and gave his nod to the project. With Poynor, as well as Rudy VanderLans of Emigre magazine, we began soliciting endorsements from some of the most prominent designers around the world. Finally, Max Bruinsma, a former editor at Eye magazine, suggested that the manifesto was bigger than a single magazine, and should be launched simultaneously in the design industry's most influential publications. This fall, Adbusters, along with the six magazines shown above, will renew First Things First and, we hope, launch a new debate around the flash that refuses to fade.

First Things First Manifesto
We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators who have been raised in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable use of our talents. Many design teachers and mentors promote this belief; the market rewards it; a tide of books and publications reinforces it. Encouraged in this direction, designers then apply their skill and imagination to sell dog biscuits, designer coffee, diamonds, detergents, hair gel, cigarettes, credit cards, sneakers, butt toners, light beer and heavy-duty recreational vehicles. Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design. The profession's time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best. 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. There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. 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. We propose a reversal of priorities in favor 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. In 1964, 22 visual communicators signed the original call for our skills to be put to worthwhile use. With the explosive growth of global commercial culture, their message has only grown more urgent. Today, we renew their manifesto in expectation that no more decades will pass before it is taken to heart.

Graphic Design is the most ubiquitous of all the arts
It responds to needs at once personal and public, embraces concerns both economic and ergonomic, and is informed by many disciplines including art and architecture, philosophy and ethics, literature and language, science and politics and performance. Graphic design is everywhere, touching everything we do, everything we see, everything we buy: we see it on billboards and in Bibles, on taxi receipts and on web sites, on birth certificates and on gift certificates, on the folded instructions inside jars of aspirin and on the thick pages of childrens' picture books. Graphic design is the boldly directional arrows on street signs and the blurred, frenetic typography on the title sequence to E.R. It is the bright green logo for the New York Jets and the monochromatic front page of The Wall Street Journal. It is hang-tags in clothing stores, postage stamps and food packaging, fascist propaganda posters and brainless junk mail. Graphic design is complex combinations of words and pictures, numbers and charts, photographs and illustrations that, in order to succeed, demand the clear thinking of a particularly thoughtful individual who can orchestrate these elements so that they all add up to something distinctive, or useful, or playful, or surprising, or subversive, or somehow memorable. Graphic design is a popular art and a practical art, an applied art and an ancient art. Simply put, it is the art of visualizing ideas.

-Jessica Helfand




About this article

Reprinted from
Adbusters magazine, with permission.