Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

First Things First?

March 17, 2010

Jon Tan recently published an essay wherein he harkens back to important cultural events over the last 50 years and ties his resultant worldview to those expressed in “First Things First,” a manifesto first published in 1963 and then reworked in 2000. In both versions of this essay, and in Jon’s post, it seems that those involved have confused their clear anti-capitalist notions for their professed pro-design culture concerns.

I’m troubled by what I’ve read and I’m left wondering what it is that these folks think we designers should be doing. I hope that after reading my assessment here someone will take up my challenge to explain this in a more precise and meaningful way for all of us designers to read or hear. Apparently, it’s important (so they say).

The original “First Things First” was a largely meaningless essay (many words to say almost nothing) that cavalierly denied capitalism’s value to society (“…which contribute nothing to our national prosperity…”) and urged designers to exchange working for certain commercial interests for working with certain other commercial interests and, of course, government interests. Anti-capitalist? Surely. Profound? Hardly.

The reworked “First Things First” is no less meaningless; filled with vacuous statements like, “…in favor of more lasting and democratic forms of communication…” and “The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand.” If you can tell me what this even means, I’ll give you a nickel. What is clear, however, is revealed by the part that goes, “Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed…” So consumerism is a threat that must be contested. Why? Consumerism is driven by what people want. In other words, it’s about choices. Where’s the problem? How are commercial messages undemocratic? What does that even mean?

I think that the problem here is with the assumed definition of “democratic.” Socialists and Statists believe that democracy is best achieved by mandating policies that destroy democracy; they mistake equality of result for democratic choice or equality of opportunity. I guess that “democratic forms of communication” refers to mandating marketing messages that are crafted to counter the promotional messages offered by commercial companies. Communication that takes place in the capitalist marketplace must be balanced by anti-capitalist communication in order to achieve equity (read: democracy). Right? Did I get it wrong here?

Are those companies that sell products wrong to market them? Are we designers wrong to help communicate these messages and to accept payment for our work in doing so? To what alternative? Should we simply eschew commercial work and be honorably poor (and wholly dependent on our government) so that we meet the fuzzy standards laid down in these ridiculous manifestos? Please tell me, what is it that you are suggesting we do here.

The views expressed in Jon’s essay and in these manifestos either ignores or holds as irrelevant the fact that we designers have businesses that are open to any entity that wishes to enlist our services (while meeting with our standards). There is nothing about our commercial activities that prevents our taking on a government street sign project or a government tax form redesign project or an environmental awareness project…should those needing our services choose to inquire after them. Yet some seem to believe it’s an either/or situation: either you do marketing work (bad) or you do social/government work (good). Someone has created a straw man here, when it is quite clear that the real target of their ire is capitalism, democracy, and private endeavor.

Tell me, why should (invariably liberal/socialist) government work be honorable designer work while work for private endeavor (those things that actually contribute to prosperity and individual success) is so dishonorable for designers? Seriously, the only logical conclusion of such sentiments, and that of the “First Things First” manifesto, is that capitalism must be destroyed so that we achieve “…more democratic forms of communication…” whatever that means.

Jon and the drafters of the “First Things First” manifestos have used a lot of words to say something, yet if it is not simply a rage against capitalism I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is. Can you enlighten me? Can you, perhaps, dispense with the vacuous rhetoric of these manifestos to concisely and precisely say what is so wrong, what harm is being done, and what we designers should all be doing and working to change? I’m sincerely interested. I hope you take up my challenge.

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