Ideas before manifestos

First Things First raises some important questions for designers, but Tim Rich isn’t sure if the manifesto is the most effective way to improve society

There are some positive things to be said about the First Things First manifesto published in Design Week (DW 17 September) and other design magazines. It’s good that people have got off their arses to try to make a difference, and the flaccid response it has produced serves as an important indicator of just how unquestioning UK designers are.

Yet what a pompous and outdated stab at awareness-raising it is. It coats itself in the language of intelligent debate but its content belongs back in the rigid structures of unimaginative Seventies college campus Marxism. What does it actually say? Commercial activity is inherently damaging to the world, while seeking more democratic forms of communication is inherently more valuable.

Causes first, commerce second. This is 1999, I thought we’d evolved beyond such simplistic social and political perspectives. I thought this kind of guilt about capitalism had been replaced by an acknowledgement that an individual can produce and consume within the contemporary world without necessarily being one of Lucifer’s Legion.

The problem is that First Things First forgets that social and cultural change can be achieved from within the commercial world, particularly when that positive change is made to benefit the commercial organisation involved. Who is more likely to reduce the harmful effects of car pollution – a designer who creates a website for Reclaim the Streets or a heavy-duty recreational vehicle designer who reduces emissions and increases fuel efficiency? Who is contributing more to society – a designer whose work helps a dog biscuit manufacturer thrive, and so employs hundreds of staff and contractors, or a designer who creates posters for a local job club? The positive effects of commerce should not be overlooked.

With impeccable timing, a paper company has announced an initiative intended to help designers have a greater impact on the world. Sappi’s Ideas That Matter campaign will award grants to non-profit organisations to enable them to implement creative work. Designers, in association with a cause, will be invited to submit a proposal for a campaign, together with an indication of the intended creative approach. Applications will be judged by three selection committees – in Europe, North America and South Africa. The makeup of the committees is still to be decided, but they are likely to include designers, business people and not-for-profit experts. They will adjudicate on which projects receive funding. The monies given will be used to turn the designers’ concepts into applied materials, such as paying for printing costs, media space or distribution. In the first year, grants worth £0.6m will be awarded, and Sappi intends to continue or increase this level of funding annually.

The project raises many issues. Which causes are most deserving? Will creatively modest but potentially effective work be overlooked in favour of an eye-catching item with modest potential for effectiveness? What causes will be unacceptable to Sappi? Pro-abortion? Kurdish literacy? Serbian urban regeneration? Should the judges be from different political camps? Will small, local charities be favoured over the big charity brands – even if the latter’s work is more beneficial?

The grants will be contentious, but that’s no reason not to do this. It is a bold initiative that will help make a positive difference to all sorts of people in all sorts of places. The rewards for £2.7bn-turnover Sappi are clear: designers and other specifiers of paper will begin to associate the company with both “good causes” and great creativity. Should we be cynical about its use of causes to sell paper? No, we should applaud its initiative and be thankful for the commercial logic behind the project, because if it’s good for Sappi’s business then the funding is likely to continue (or grow).

In fact, Ideas That Matter is an excellent example of how design, commercialism and positive change can be brought together. Sappi wouldn’t be able to do this if the company wasn’t commercially successful – with much of its money made by selling its products via designers and printers engaged in commercial work – and its £0.6m investment will probably increase its sales, which should mean continued funding. A virtuous circle, of the Nineties variety.

First Things First states that the scope of debate must be broadened. Here’s an interesting question: what is likely to have a more positive and longer-lasting impact: this commerce-fuelled project from a multinational paper company or a manifesto printed in design magazines calling for a reprioritisation of designers’ values away from commerce?

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