Monday, 27 October 2014

Against 'First Things First'

Ten Footnotes to a Manifesto
Micheal Beirut 


These footnotes are a critique of the first things first manifesto 2000, not the original manifesto of 1964. 

Micheal Beirut is a well established designer, who works for Pentagram, his work is mainly commercial. Before becoming partners with Pentagram in 1990 he worked for ten years at Vignelli Associates, as a vice president.


I think in the first footnote, the point Beirut is making is that the re-edited version of the manifesto was initialised and supported by some very well known and respected designers including Tibor Kalman. And so with his name to it of course others would sign it to in amongst the one of the most well-known and respected designers of the time. Really it would be silly not to, if you had been asked. Almost like you couldn't really refuse. As well as this Beirut says that the commercial work that was shown in contrast to the cause-related graphics, where 'presented without comment' meaning they had no context or description, and so they weren't fairly represented, which made the other graphics look even better.


'In short, with some exceptions... the First Things First thirty-three have specialised in extraordinary beautiful things for the cultural elite.' the second foot note describes the fact that all of the signatories are well known in their own field by people who are only in the know, so maybe other designers, or academics, they are not known by the public, and do not design for general society. And so the manifesto really only circulates within the circle of designers. It is also a comment upon the finical position of the signatories, it is easier to be ethical when you're in a good place, when you have the money and support. 


In the third footnote, is the explanation of the perceived differences between design and advertising, how the manifesto makes it appear that advertising 'does work that persuades' and 'graphic designers do work that inform.' Which Beirut describes as the first being bad and the second good, but he then goes on to point out that persuasive communication is not always 'bad'  'Gran Fury's work in the fight against HIV, or the Guerrilla Girls' agitation for gender equality in the fine arts.' And so really this is not a valid critique upon the persuasive techniques of advertising / or design, and really designers 'have long dwelled at the bottom of the pond.' Just used for making things look good. 


Again this footnote relates back to a point made in footnote 2, about how the normality the manifesto is so against. In this argument Beirut stated that all of the products mentioned, in the the list of 'no's', are in fact normal, that normal people come into contact with everyday. And why is any commercial product unworthy of attention, products deserve the same 'measure of beauty, wit, or intelligence', and the public also should see this. 
Beirut also points out a large contradiction within Tibor Kalmans avid support in the fact that he himself has done a lot of commercial work that many people are not aware is his, Beirut also seems to mock that is this okay as long as its anonymous, and in a third world country, which to me is an extremely good argument for many reasons. 


'The First Things First vision of consumer capitalism is a stark one. Human beings have little or no critical faculties.' Again a valid point suggesting that society is not aware of the tricks of design or advertising, when in fact we are more aware than ever, the manifesto goes onto say 'designer puppetmasters have hypnotised them with things like colours and typefaces.' To me means that this statement suggests that people who aren't designers are tricked by basics like colour and type, it again suggests people are simple and easy to trick , they do not possess inquisitiveness.


What would we do instead ? 'What will happen when the best designers withdraw from that space ... if they decline to fill it with passion ... who will fill the vacuum ? Who benefits ? And what exactly are we supposed to do instead ?' I think this is Beiruts way of saying the grass isn't always greener on the other side, what would fill the void, could it be worse. As well as this is it possible to just say no, and unless everyone drops out there will not be a significant change.


This paragraph discusses that design that has a really beneficial impact upon society often does not look overly attractive and is overlooked due to this fact, and so 'good' design is functional and practical, but it won't win awards, like the nutritional label. The work of Adbusters is interesting (visually) and it will win awards for this, it also will be noticed, yet it is not in particular helpful to society. 
(However in reflection of this point the designer of the food label, did win an award for his design.)


Is any cause a good cause ? 'Yet, like many cultural institutions, they are supported by philanthropy from many large corporations, including the generous Phillip Morris Companies.' (Phillip Morris is one of the largest cigarette companies in the world) ' So am I supporting an admirable effort to bring the arts to new audience ? Am I helping to buff the public image of a corporation that sells thing that cause cancer ? Come to think of it, don't I know a lot of graphic designers who smoke ?' What I think Beirut is saying is that its a little contradictive, and that although it originally starts as being something deemed as good they are usually endorsed by large corporations to be able to exist, and does that mean if you do work for a smaller institution supported by the larger is it really any good at all ? There is no real absolute 'good' cause. 


This paragraph is a comment upon the fact that the choice is not black or white, 'The greatest designers have always found ways to align the aims of their corporate clients with their own personal interests and, ultimately, with the public good.' I think that this is a positive statement from Beirut it shows that he isn't against the idea but he is realistic. And the phrase 'a new kind of meaning' from the manifesto is very ambiguous , and designers do this anyway. 


'What a disappointment to learn that this revolution is aimed at replacing mass manipulation for commercial ends with mass manipulation for cultural and political ends.' There is no better, and no clear choice. Beirut goes on to make his final point, he quotes Bill Golden (the creator of CBS eye) ' I happen to believe that the visual environment... improves each time a designer produces a good design- and in no other way.' He believes and supports this quote, saying that commercial work is not easy and not unworthy of attention and respect (from other designers) it is not a lesser form of design. 'Lasn, Dixon, Poynor, and the signers of First Things First are right that graphic design can be a potent tool to battle these trends.' Meaning other uncommercial work can be done, and be different to the norm, but 'in the end, the promise of design is about a simple thing: common decency.' And that fours years after writing the original manifesto Ken Garland wrote that the real clients are the public, and they are the 'recipients of our work, they're the ones who matter.' Quoting this Beirut argues that 'they [the public] deserve at the very least the simple, civic minded gift of  well-designed dog biscuit package.' And that those who judge must think that this is an easy, unworthy , untalented thing but in fact its not, that is why is why any design created by a designer etc is not unworthy of admiration and respect.

From reading and analysing this piece of writing I feel that my views have changed slightly and I feel that these footnotes put the manifesto into real world perspective, I now feel that the second First Things First manifesto written is too unrealistic, I support the original manifesto by Garland but some of the points in Beirut's piece reside with me as well, in particular the last comment upon how all design should valued. However I do still believe there are some immoral choices a designer can be faced with and it should be the duty of the designer to not endorse them to the public if it could harm them, but it is not solely the designers responsibility, it never has or never will be.

I have then found another article online that also supports the thoughts of Beirut and some of my own I have highlighted the key parts of the text, which are also symmetrical to the Ten Footnotes points.

Designs on morality
'The idea of the "designer as mediator" used to be uncontroversial. Designers agreed that their role was to communicate the client's message in the most effective and accessible way to a given or mass audience. But this idea is under attack - increasingly, designers are not just communicating a message, but are asking whether that message is "ethical" and whether it fits in with their personal beliefs.
At first sight graphic designers "choosing" to be more "ethical" and "taking responsibility" for the ideas that they are asked to communicate sounds fairly innocuous. It is often posed as a personal view. If that were so this column would not see the light of day and the many debates that are taking place would be unnecessary. We all have our private views, but they are of little consequence to others. But when a private view is propagated in a public forum it is no longer a private view and must be scrutinised.
We all draw lines that we refuse to go beyond - many of us will not consider doing the "free pitch" and would certainly (I hope) not get involved in bitching about our contemporaries. Similarly, we would all like to work for clients with whom we feel a close association,whether it be charities or institutions that we support, and many of us dream of having a client base made up of people we have come to regard as friends.
But the call for designers to be more "ethical" has more far reaching consequences than we might imagine. There is a real danger that the progress made in getting a broader hearing for the benefits of design will be lost as the industry turns on itself, offering false promises and ethical dilemmas. We pass up the idea of mediation in favour of an "ethical approach" at our peril.
I remember being excited and inspired when I first came across the idea of designer as mediator. The essential and elementary role of the graphic designer - to pour all their energy and experience into interpreting an idea and rendering it understandable for a particular or mass audience - is what determines the unique position of graphic design in modern society. I compared the designer as mediator to the translator who allowed people from different continents to communicate. But today it seems that this is just not good enough.
On the contrary, the role of the "ethical designer" is to question the content and the purpose of the message. At the Points of View series of lectures at the Royal College of Art in London, Kalle Lasn, founder of the Canadian radical Adbusters magazine, complained that too many graphic designers are acting like car mechanics - they fix the broken-down car, but don't voice any concern about the "fact" that the car is a killer and is destroying the environment. Lasn's proposition was taken to its logical conclusion at another debate when one speaker said that the argument of the designer as mediator was a bit like the argument used by the guards at Auschwitz concentration camp - "don't blame us, we're just following orders".
The graphic designer is at best reduced to simply being a technician (apologies to the car mechanic), and at worst is charged with toeing the line in the same unthinking way as Nazis followed orders. Thanks very much.
But this is not a question of designers as automatons who follow orders from big bad companies and do whatever they tell us. As graphic designers, we have a responsibility to get on with the job at hand - communicating the ideas and products of others to the people who are being asked to buy into them. It must be their decision whether they do or not.
The problem with this discussion is, paradoxically, it undermines the role of graphic design while at the same time according it too much importance (bear with me). The notion that designers should be responsible for an idea or product puts too much emphasis on the generation of ideas rather than their transmission. The recent discussion about designers "rebranding Britain" played a big part in inflating designers' egos by suggesting that they could "create" a new national identity and with it determine what and why people should celebrate.
Furthermore, the idea that consumers will simply swallow up every "message" a designer creates implies not only that consumers are suckers, but also that designers are all-powerful.
Designers are not and should not think they are responsible for someone else's ideas. So let us be as unethical as we want. Let us - as graphic designers - leave the "messages" to those who write our briefs, and get on with communicating and being creative.'

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