Ken Garland’s 1964 “First Things First” Manifesto

Ken Garland, a British graphic designer, states that graphic designers are being constantly pushed to work for advertising design, as opposed to any other type of design. He states that this is a problem because much of this advertising is for “trivial purposes,” or basically, insignificant products such as “cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste, aftershave lotion, before shave lotion, etc…” As the document is a manifesto, it by definition, is a call to arms for graphic designers to take up Garland’s cause. However, his cause is somewhat contradictory and undefined—I am not quite sure Garland knew what his cause was either.

I suppose I have a few problems with Garland’s argument. First, his argument is based on speculation. He states that designers “have been brought up in a world in which … advertising [has] persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative … and desirable use of [designers’] talents.” He goes on to describe how designers are pushed by all sorts of outside forces into the vein of advertising design. These statements may well be true to his experience as a designer, but he cannot possibly be describing a universal truth, at least, not without some sort of empirical evidence.

Second, Garland states that the majority of adverting that designers create work for are “trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity.” Another bold claim with no factual evidence to actually back it up. As quoted earlier, Garland lists out a series of seemingly-insignificant products, yet, how does he—let alone the reader—know for sure that these trivial products make up the majority of graphic design work?

Third, and most problematic, is the fact that there is no concrete call for action to the undersigned designers made by this manifesto. At the end of the fourth paragraph, Garland lists options for other projects designers can work on rather than advertising, such as: “signs for streets and buildings, books and periodicals, catalogs, instruction manuals, industrial photography, educational aids, film, television, etc…” He concludes this list by stating that designers should focus on means that “promote trade, education, culture, and greater awareness of the world.” Unfortunately, much of which he lists, including “trade, culture, and awareness” can all fall under the umbrella category of “advertising.” Also, not all of the projects he lists can be considered socially-just causes. Are all signs, books, magazines, catalogs, instruction manuals, photographs, films, and television programs socially-just? I think not. Garland does bring up the idea of promoting education, which may be the closest thing to being socially-just in the list, however, even education must be put into the context of what is being taught in order to analyze whether it is promoting a “just cause.”

Garland’s aim, to create a better society through “moral design” suffers from the same problems that the modernists had at the Bauhaus in the early 1900’s. The modernists’ argument was that design was needed in order to create a better society, however, society needed to improve itself before it could embrace socially-conscious design, thus resulting in circular logic. Garland calls designers to choose projects carefully in order to create a better world, yet he hopes “that our society will tire of gimmick merchants …. and that the call on our skills will be for worthwhile purposes;” we have a chicken-and-egg paradox.

-rgm



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