First Things First 2000
a design manifesto

manifesto published jointly by 33 signatories in:
Adbusters, the AIGA journal, Blueprint, Emigre, Eye, Form, Items
fall 1999 / spring 2000

miscellaneous reactions:


ok, i'll sign,
although i'm still unhappy with the bland call for "new meaning", that being a little too easy. We fail to say what that new meaning could be. That makes the manifesto sound like moaning about the bad, bad world out there without a real, manifest (!) alternative. 

Regards from berlin, 
Prof. Erik Spiekermann, BDR


I want to express my support
for this manifesto and will distribute it at the design department of our local artschool. 

Barbara Jung, artist, Kassel University, BDR


Less Is More 2000 or Who Needs "Design"?
The recent multiple publishings of the "First Things First 2000" manifesto came as no surprise to me. We're now at the turn of the millennium, and the heady days of "graphic agitation" that preceded it have drawn to a close. 
Through the typographic radicalism of the recent past, graphic designers got it all out of their systems. On top of it, the digital revolution that stimulated all that agitation saw us through unprecedented shifts as the democratization of design wrested graphic control out of our (professional) hands. The end isn't just near. It's upon us. Witness Rudy VanderLans' goodbye-ish preface to the 1964 "First Things First" manifesto reprinted in Emigre 49: "there are no significant debates happening in graphic design today." 
Sobriety and reflection seem in order. 
Despite the earnest, well-intentioned renewal of the manifesto--an attempt to kick-start design in the new millennium--I remain skeptical. The redeclaration itself signifies how little design's self-image has changed. A significant portion of the design profession continues to prove, year-in and year-out, its apparent inability to engage complex critical topics--an inability displayed in the lack of self-critique that characterizes the very profession and all its official organs. Witness the homogeneous profusion of design magazines, how-to books, conferences, professional organizations, annuals, and awards through which it publicizes and sustains itself. This describes the discursive space of design--the institutional delimiters that define our profession. 
Yes, "there are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills [than advertising and marketing]." Yes, "unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention." Yes, "many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programs, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help." Or do they? 
Recently, I was reading a progressive political magazine, Z, and couldn't help but notice how "badly" designed it was--a desktop-published venture. But as soon as I caught myself recoiling (albeit slightly) from its appearance, I recognized how irrelevant professional graphic design was to Z's identity, and to its editors and audience. As a hypothetical exercise, I tried to envision how I might remake the magazine, but all my imaginings recast it in a professional light completely antithetical to its spirit. This experience illuminated the limitations of my own initial response and the extent to which I've been viscerally programmed to respond predictably to graphic conventions. Z is just fine as it is, I concluded. The identity crisis isn't in the magazine. It's in me. 
Perhaps increasingly graphic design is less the solution and more the problem. This is the squeamish possibility graphic designers avoid confronting, because in so doing, the profession risks undoing itself. This is the threat posed by any rigorous discursive critique. And graphic designers are as seduced as their clients and publics by design's hype (not to mention its reassuring income-earning possibilities). 
If graphic design is to begin re-situating itself as a cultural practice, this is where the conversation needs to begin:  right at home. How inextricably linked is professional design to corporate agendas, and what are those agendas? Is anything besides optical pyrotechnics (read: "eye candy") at work within recent history's award-winning designs? Do we perpetuate stereotypes through our techniques of representation? Does graphic design simply propagate the lingua franca of media "production values," or is it (are we) capable of constituting more complex messages and meanings? 
Are we committed to grappling with these difficult questions? As many have already pointed out, designers tend to retreat from the political implications of such queries. They respond instead by personalizing their work as expressive counter-strategies to corporate hegemony and the neutral anonymity of "information." But as far as I can tell, this just results in the next round of "radical" design, or even worse, bad "art"--solipsistic, overindulgent, and critically uninformed. 
VanderLans' claim that now there's "nothing that you can really sink your teeth into" was intended as a challenge. Obviously, there's a lot. But is the profession up to it? I'm wary. Design's cultural location precludes the vantage points that would afford insight. Those who've glimpsed through the occasional peepholes are going elsewhere (if they haven't already), seeking new opportunities for visual critique and radical cultural practice. I suspect these renegades have always been around, but most designers are too busy patting themselves (and each other) on the back to notice critical alternatives. Design's officialdom can scarcely acknowledge those designers who quietly and unsensationally solve their clients' hard problems in earnest. The work isn't glamorous, clever, hip, or sexy enough to garner much notice. 
When design is able to recognize the relativity of its own cultural condition, and to look beyond it, the profession will begin to come to terms with its limitations and the potentials that reside elsewhere. For all the talk about design's ubiquitous power, design professionals remain strikingly uninformed and self-absorbed. 
A salient example: I didn't notice any response from the graphic design community to Thomas Frank's recent critique of Tibor Kalman (Artforum, February 1999), in a review of Perverse Optimist, a compendium of Kalman's work. While I'm as much a fan as anyone, Frank's incisive review succinctly noted the limitations inherent in Kalman's critical position as a designer. Beneath the clever sophistication is a startling naiveté: "What Kalman overlooks is that it is not simply a fluke that a 'radical' like him has become one of the most sought-after architects of the corporate facade.... That business allows 'radicals' to do its graphic design is not the inexplicable exception, the 'crack in the wall' that Kalman believes to be such an opportunity for disruption; it is the rule." The design community has always been too busy idolizing Kalman to subject his work to serious critique, and that is even less likely to happen now, with Kalman's untimely death. It took an art critic to point out the shortcomings of his work. In light of Frank's observations, it is even more ironic that Kalman inspired the re-invocation of the manifesto in the first place. (I guess designers don't read Artforum, much less Z.) 
In closing, I call on the manifesto's signers (and all its adherents) to take a close hard look at the cultural location of your own work. If you're serious about your claims, take apart everything you ever thought you knew about what you're doing. Set out in uncharted territory. But if you do, if you really do, something tells me you'll no longer recognize what you're doing as design. Because that will no longer be quite what it is. For this new work, as a new kind of practice, will need a new name. 
And we don't know what to call it yet. 

Loretta Staples, Assistant Professor
University of Michigan School of Art & Design, USA


reply: Steve Heller, USA
Hello Loretta 
This is an excellent and welcome response to the First Things First stimulus. I use this word deliberately because I believe the republication of the manifesto is just that -- the ignition of a long overdue debate. 
Personally, I'm relieved by your comments. I believe that designers have limited powers but have the potential to generate considerable noise. In a quiet space noise has its virtue, if  only as a means of waking the sonambulent. The manifesto serves to regenerate concern, not cure the malaise. 
Its easy to simply sign a document -- almost as easy as it is to publish it in a magazine. Action, however, is much harder. Afixing my name was a no-brainer, but doing something to live up to the promise is much more difficult. I admire a Ben Cohen, founder of Ben & Jerry's for starting and funding Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities and recruiting Stefan Sagmeister and Seymour Chwast to create graphics that are functional and free of artifice to promote a worthy goal -- the annual return 15% of the defense budget to education and civic causes. I applaud the designers for keeping their egos at bay while serving the mission. There are many others who seriously and without fanfare work for a greater good. To publish their works in annuals and competition catalogs seems almost to defeat their purpose, but perhaps this publicity -- these object lessons as it were -- is what the design "community" needs to understand the essence of First Things First.


I agree completely with the premise.
But what is it that makes Designers believe that anything less than an Art form will allow them to create useful, beautiful and challenging work? 
Graphic Design is a Commercial Art. It will always be owned by clients and disowned by the Art World - unless its practitioners can prove its value - not just by talking, but - by doing. 

Robert Appleton, USA


reply Max Bruinsma, nl my view, the manifesto is quite clear on the matter of design being an applied art. 'Cultural responsibility' does not solely regard Artists, but every visual communicator. Obviously the same goes for their clients - I would love to see Nike, or Coca Cola, or Microsoft and their likes endorse the manifesto, as you say: 

>not just by talking, but - by doing. 

reply Robert Appleton:
>>...not just by talking, but - by doing.
Me too, but how do you think that will happen? It's become simpler (less disappointing) not to expect it. Last year I did a campaign for "America's most enlightened employer" - Herman Miller. It was called 'things that matter', and it went beyond selling products. They liked it enough to trademark the name - but they're not doing it. And if they do, I suspect it will be so mediocretized by them, that even I won't recognize it. 
America's now a grown up country - so it's learned (from Europe) that the best way to preserve the status quo is to encourage 'discussion'. 
I'm not saying the answer is to keep quiet. A really good book might make a difference. 
Maybe you'll write it!


Hello Mr.B
I'm a final year Visual Communication student at the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design in Birmingham (of course!), England. 
My work this year is dedicated to the ideas contained in the First Things First Manifesto 2000 and part of this work entails writing a dissertation.  I am hoping that you can help me by answering a few of my questions: 

Have you always felt that design should be used for ethical and socially conscious purposes?  If so, where did this opinion come from? 

reply Max Bruinsma:
Yes. This comes from two sources: 1. A mentality that estimates content over form and which sees content in terms of (implicit) action, and the acknowledgement that almost anything you can think of doing has an ethical side to it. Since the core of design is to interface information with actions by readers/users (practical or conceptual actions) in a social and cultural context, it follows that design should be aware of its ethical and social responsibilities. 2. As an arthistorian I have become deeply aware of the ethical and social implications of any cultural activity. Being a central cultural activity, design should be carefull not to ignore these implications.

Have you modified your working life to adhere to the manifesto? 

reply Max Bruinsma:
Hardly. I am independent, and have always been.

What is your current position? 

reply Max Bruinsma:
Independent (design)critic, editorial/design consultant, educator. I work for and with people who understand and share my work mentality (which does not necessarily mean they share my worldview...)

Does all of your work relate to the ethos of the manifesto? 

reply Max Bruinsma:
I think on a deeper level, yes. I don't use the manifesto, or any other gospel for that matter, as a checklist. I do however find work that implies a cultural responsibility much more interesting and challenging than work that doesn't.

Thanks very much for your time.
Katie Parry
Birmingham Institute of Art & Design

FTF2000 :

by Chris Dixon, Adbusters

by Rick Poynor

original Manifesto, 1964

by Jouke Kleerebezem

Info Design Cafe mailinglist

max bruinsma