Gimmick merchants, status salesmen and hidden persuaders
by Alex Cameron
As we look forward to a better year than the last, we should, nevertheless, take note that what we want and what we get are rarely the same thing.
All I want for 2023 is a few less “design manifestos” of the type we have grown accustomed to over the last few years. “More Light” instead of more depression. What I look for in a design manifesto is to be inspired and challenged, not bludgeoned by apocalyptic fantasy. I want them to be design essentialist in substance, and novel in form.
So, for the love of design, no more “rewrites” of the late, great Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto (1964). Let’s put a stop to vandalising Garland’s original provocation that has to be seen in its historical context… instead of being wilfully misrepresented and tragically and wholly misunderstood.
In general, I am a huge fan of the design manifesto. At its best it offers a distillation of a considered design outlook and offers a unique insight. It is a provocation that pokes and prods at contemporaneous design culture in an attempt to inspire a re-evaluation, a way forward out of troubling times, cultural or intellectual stasis or reaction.
The worst kind of manifesto plays to the gallery, offers little more than platitudes in place of vision and wisdom. Those that say little about design while presenting itself as something radical. In other words, all form and no content.
The point of the manifesto – if it is to be more than the signalling one’s faux-virtue, commercialisation, PR, or prejudice – is to provoke discussion and debate and encourage and welcome dissent. It should be more than the sum of its parts by transforming thinking or adding to the best of design knowledge. To do otherwise – should it merely chime with mainstream thinking – is a sign of impotence. Further we might expect from a design manifesto a keen sense of design history and a desire to free the discipline from ideological constraint.
So it is within these parameters that it is worth considering and contrasting manifestos from this century and some of those from the beginning of the last. The contrast is instructive in some very revealing ways.
September 2022 saw the launch of a new manifesto, Design Declares. According to their website ‘Design Declares is a growing group of designers, design studios, agencies and institutions here to declare a climate and ecological emergency’.
Among its “8 Acts of Emergency” you will read:
“Acknowledge and raise awareness of the climate and ecological crisis – including its roots in systems of oppression – in our organisations and our practice”
“REDEFINE ‘GOOD’ Encourage, recognise and reward sustainable and regenerative design excellence in our industry through media and awards.”
A little over 100 years before these soporific slogans were written you would have read, in Gropius’ Bauhaus programme, the following:
“Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline … which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.”
Of course, Design Declares is a mere bastard child of Architects Declare, who demands are that the industry:
“Establish climate and biodiversity mitigation principles as the key measure of our industry’s success: demonstrated through awards, prizes and listings,” such that they be further employed to judge the entries and applaud their own criteria.
Way back in 1914, the hopes of architecture were a little less prosaic. Expressionist author, Paul Scheerbart wrote about materiality in architecture:
“One thinks of the lights shining from all the glass towers and in every aircraft, and one thinks of these lights in all their many colours. One thinks of the railway trains all gaily lighted, and one adds the factories in which at night, too, the light shines through coloured panes.”
One year earlier, a Futurist manifesto turned its attention to fashion, with Giacomo Balla writing:
“The consequent merry dazzle produced by our clothes in the noisy streets, which we shall have transformed with our FUTURIST architecture, will mean that everything will begin to sparkle like the glorious prism of a jeweller’s gigantic glass-front, and all around us we shall find acrobatic blocks of colours…”
It is immediately apparent that one set of ambitions is design-focussed or essentialist, while the others is merely pushing mainstream politics. To help explain this shift, it is worth considering that Design/Architects Declare were also taking their cue from a raft of design manifestos that populated design magazines from the noughties through to today.
At the time Garland noted:
“We think that there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on. There are signs for streets and buildings, books and periodicals, catalogues, instructional manuals, industrial photography, educational aids, films, television features, scientific and industrial publications and all the other media through which we promote our trade, our education, our culture and our greater awareness of the world.”
A quarter of a century later, a rewrite of that manifesto by Adbusters et al (FTF2000) turned in on design, thundering:
“Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.”
That was mild by comparison, The latest and most hysterical version of Garland’s thought-provoking document, is a paranoia-provoking hyperbole. In that “First Things First 2020”, the authors insist that:
“Our time and energy are increasingly used to manufacture demand, to exploit populations, to extract resources, to fill landfills, to pollute the air, to promote colonization, and to propel our planet’s sixth mass extinction.”
Hyperbole aside, what is immediately striking about today’s design manifestos, in contrast to those of the distant past, is the gulf in tone. The prose of the design manifestos of the 20th century were gilded with an excitement about design’s potential in their present and their authors were giddily optimistic about the future. By contrast the design manifestos of the early 21th century have a malignant attitude to design’s past, and are nothing short of hysterical at the very idea of an unreconstructed future for design. Where past designers looked to a future for design full of hope, todays are transfixed by the coming dystopian future.
Other than following Garland’s structure and plagiarising his prose, what followed bore little resemblance in spirit or understanding of the historical context in which it was penned. The manifestos that have laid claim to Garland’s First Things First manifesto have little in common with it, so much so that even the overly accommodating Garland felt compelled to correct the drift (or should that be grift?).
Writing in 2012, Garland wrote a riposte, “Last Things Last” where he noted,
“This may come as a bit of a shock to those of you who believe we are engaged in some essential conflict between ‘’us’’ and ‘them’, with ‘us’’ being the artists, designers, photographers, architects and such-like who consider ourselves to be the truly creative part of the community, and ‘them’ being the business persons, entrepreneurs and industrialists whom we are to regard as the ruthless exploiters of our skills. Well, I don’t accept this simplistic picture. These unappetising ‘them’ characters belong in fairy tales, along with Cinderella’s ugly sisters.”
Were it only a question of form we might forgive the apocalypticism of contemporary manifestos in contrast to those of the early 20th century. Unfortunately, in substance too, they are wildly out of whack. They demonstrate that instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, they are wilfully kneeling on the necks of giants.
While sections of the Modern movement of the early 20th century certainly played footloose with the past, their excitement about design and its future remained intact. Today’s post-post-modernists, by contrast, seem terrified by the future and utterly contemptuous of past. They are taking a wrecking ball to design history and the historic role of design.
Further, it is their demand to “recalibrate design” that should concern us most.
What is being called into question today is far reaching, and impacts on some design fundamentals: what is considered good design (ethical/sustainable), designs new leadership role in the production process (the end of the designer as mediator between client and audience), and indeed, the rejection of designs audience as active participants (behaviourism/social engineering). The relationship between designers and society is being upended and reconstituted.
According to the design elites, responsible designers need to see their role as acting above the audience, and determine what is good for them, irrespective of what people want. The audience has been side-lined to such a degree that they are no longer part of the process in judging what “good” design is.
It seems that for many elitist designers, the public have simply made too many bad choices in the past and can’t be trusted to make the correct decisions. It is now more apparent than ever that the new elites in design do not believe that the public have the mental resources to act as moral and active citizens.
As a result, for 2023 I would like to hear less hyperbole, risk-aversion, paranoia, and catastrophism. I would like the culture of contempt for design history to stop and I would like to see design recover its revolutionary status of independence, in opposition to its capture by an elite posing as radical anti-establishmentarians.
I would like the craft of design to retake centre stage in design debate, commentary and criticism. And maybe most importantly, I would like to see a reconfirmation of the equal and fruitful tripartite relationship between the designer, the client, and the public; rather than the common contemporary contempt shown by designers for the other two.
Alex Cameron is a design and cultural critic based in Madrid. Visit his blog here.