The First Things First manifesto was written by Ken Garland and published in 1964. Regarded as one of the most important pieces of writing in design, it rallied against a consumerist culture and aimed to radicalise designers. ‘We have reached a saturation point at which the high-pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise,’ it read. ‘We think that there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on.’ Signatories included Brian Grimbly, Ken Briggs and Gerry Cinamon and the manifesto was also published in its entirety in the Guardian.
In 2000 the manifesto was updated by Adbusters magazine, and signed by 33 designers including Jonathan Barnbrook, Irma Boom and Milton Glaser.
Now Cole Peters, a Canadian-born designer based in the UK, has updated the manifesto for 2014, aiming to reflect the influence of the Internet on communications and design, and also to open it up to any signatories. We spoke to Peters about his update and the rationale behind it.
Design Week: What does the original First Things First manifesto mean to you and why do you think it became so influential?
Cole Peters: The First Things First manifestos are, to me, a challenge: to seek out meaningful, human-centred uses for our abilities as creative professionals, and to put people and ethics before profit and corporations. Others might gravitate more towards the political nature of the manifestos, but for myself what’s important is to seek a working harmony between reality and ideals. I’m not an anti-capitalist and I think buying and selling have a place, but I also think we, who participate in shaping and serving culture and humans, can do better than we are. The FTF manifestos carry an important and weighty message, and between their signatories and the outlets who published the manifestos, it’s not hard to understand how their influence (as well as rejection) spread so widely.
DW: Why did you decide that First Things First needed to be updated?
CP: It’s been 50 years since Ken Garland’s original manifesto was published, and a lot has changed in that time. Advertising isn’t quite the so-called threat it once was, I don’t think. There are more prominent (and also less spoken-of but equally important) concerns that designers and all creative professionals need to address today. Many of these have come about as a result of the democratisation and wide spread of technology in our day and age (particularly the Web), which neither of the previous manifestos really address. I felt the message should be brought up-to-date with contemporary concerns; 2014 being the original manifesto’s 50th anniversary made the timing even more meaningful.
DW: What specific influences of the Web on design are you hoping to tackle?
CP: The challenges and opportunities of the Web extend beyond just designers, which is part of the reason I’m rewriting the manifesto to address creative technologists of all kinds. The Web has introduced lots of new ethical questions (and exacerbated previous concerns) around the ownership and jurisdiction of personal data, privacy and security, particularly. We all need to actively work at keeping the Web open and safe, as it was intended to be.
DW: You’re also opening the manifesto up so that anyone can become a signatory – why have you decided to do this?
The main reason for doing this was simply that, for a manifesto that will live on (and is in part motivated by) the Web, there was no reason not to allow anyone on the Web to participate. I wanted to make this something that people could actively support and publicly identify themselves with, rather than limiting its formal supporters to a special group.
DW: Will you be opening up the manifesto for editing or suggestions – and if so how will this work?
CP: This is the plan once the dust of the launch settles, yes. As to the specifics or degree of modification possible, there’s a lot to consider. Where do you draw the line at updates? Do you allow the core message to go up for debate? And if not, then what changes are and are not acceptable? How do you avoid pushing changes that signatories of previous versions might disagree with? And who has the final say on what is allowed to change? Needless to say, a lot of conversations need to happen before this part of the project is implemented.I’ve also had a group of six diverse colleagues providing me with ongoing feedback on the new manifesto since I began writing it, so while I’ve been the director so to speak, the text will already have gone through multiple people by the time it launches.
DW: Do you think that having a select group of signatories was a disadvantage for the initial manifesto in that it made it exclusive – or an advantage in that it meant it could be backed by influential advocates?
CP: I wouldn’t call it an advantage or a disadvantage, merely a different approach; the Web allows us to open the manifesto up to a scale that just wouldn’t have been feasible in 1964. The weight of influential backers isn’t lessened by having the manifesto open to any signatory, either — they amplify the collective voice.
DW: Have you been in contact with Ken Garland about your update – and if so what is his opinion on it?
CP: I have been in touch with Ken over email. He’s been very supportive of me taking this on — although he’s also told me that he personally feels the 2014 draft might not add much to its earlier iterations. I’m naturally not of the same mind on that issue, but in the end it will be up to the community at large to make that call, not me. Ken’s also put some distance between himself and the manifestos recently (see his article Last Things Last in Eye Magazine), so who knows — perhaps the message has moved beyond the scope its creator intended!
The updated First Things First manifesto can be seen at firstthingsfirst2014.org