• Danielle Foushée

Creating through Crisis: First Things First, Revisited (Again)

Peer reviewed and accepted in AIGA Design Educators Community Summit Proceedings: "SHIFT 2020"

Since the 1964 publication of the original First Things First Manifesto (Garland et al.), many designers have lamented the pull of consumer capitalism on the design professions. Practitioners can be lured by money, power, and “rock star” status, most commonly in service to commercial interests that evangelize a culture of insatiable desire for more stuff. In 1999, a new cohort of signatories republished the manifesto for the new millennium, claiming that things had gotten worse, not better. They advocated for a new generation of designers to address the same social and cultural demands made 36 years earlier (Barnbrook, et al.). Now, the design community is called on again to meet the urgency of our time. Consumer culture can no longer distract us from our purpose. We are obligated to reorient our attention to research, creative practices, and pedagogies that serve the people around us; repair our social, cultural, and political systems; and heal the Earth itself.

The year 2020 brought a convergence of challenges that “design thinkers” like to call wicked problems. The world was infected by the Covid-19 pandemic. We stayed home, quarantined ourselves, and built our cocoons. In the United States, we continue to console our friends and families as nearly 400,000 people have died, so far.[1] We watched in disbelief as many of our fellow citizens refused to come together to care for one another. We also watched in awe as individual healthcare workers risked their own lives to make sure we survived.

How has design practice, education, and research been implicated in and impacted by (1) Covid-19, (2) Black Lives Matter, (3) politics, and (4) the economy in 2020?

If we didn’t experience job losses personally, we sympathized with the millions of Americans who were driven into poverty by a new Great Depression. We looked on helplessly as many of our elected government officials ignored the will of the country’s people, subverted its democratic system, and incited a seditious insurrection on our Capitol. We witnessed in horror as our Black community members were attacked and killed by police officers — which sparked worldwide protests against systemic racism. Vast swaths of the country burned as wildfires destroyed towns and homes across California, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona.

As the year dragged on, the onslaught of outrage compounded day after day. I knew we could never regain our innocence (so to speak). “To some extent,” predicted Garland (1964), “we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.” My colleagues and I reflected on this, and the ways designers build — or at least comply with — systems of power and destruction that numb (or coerce) entire populations into submission. Perhaps it’s unintentional: designers created artifacts for the invisible systems that finally turned against us. We worshipped at the feet of individualism and capitalism. We could not escape their cruelty. We are in debt; we’re sick; we’re afraid; we’re tired; and we’re angry. Our environment heaves under extreme drought, massive floods, hurricanes, and fire. Rivers and oceans are full of poisons and plastic. Numerous species have gone extinct. Countless others are barely holding on.

Instead of addressing real social and environmental needs, companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google prioritize “user experience” insofar as it will bring in more and more cash.[2] Amazon, for example, is now larger than its ten biggest competitors combined (Neufeld, 2020). And in 2020 — during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic — its sales soared an additional 70% over the previous year (Amazon, 2020). Jeff Bezos’ personal fortune increased by $74 billion in 2020 (Bloomberg, 2021), while millions of everyday Americans lost their jobs, struggled to access healthcare, and didn’t have enough food to eat (CBPP, 2020). Famously, industrial design professor Victor Papanek (1971) lamented the toxic partnership between design and consumer capitalism when he said:

Design has satisfied only evanescent wants and desires, while the genuine needs of man have often been neglected by the designer. The economic, psychological, spiritual, technological, and intellectual needs of a human being are usually more difficult and less profitable to satisfy than the carefully engineered and manipulated ‘wants’ inculcated by fad and fashion (p. 15).

Designers often contribute to a culture that values the accumulation of status above all else. To gain status, one must display the products that signify it.[3] These products rely on “consumers” — not people — who are guided to see the world through a lens of scarcity, which compels them to spend more and more money on a quest for unachievable satisfaction. This system was intentionally designed for maximum production, maximum efficiency, and maximum profit in industries including agriculture, manufacturing, distribution, and healthcare — all of which collapsed at once under the weight of the uncontrolled global pandemic. Now, nearly a full year into the crisis, some resources remain hard to access. When we couldn’t get toilet paper, cleaning supplies, basic food items, or a simple medical test, we became acutely aware of the flaws inherent in designing for the singular outcome of profit-making.

Social networks are known to benefit people’s mental and physical health. When Covid-19 put stress on communities, they responded by initiating collective actions that gave people new kinds of shared experiences. When life’s big milestones — like graduation — were disrupted, students invented a new kind of socially-distanced procession via parades of cars crawling through town. People started doing “drive-by birthdays” to celebrate their friends and loved ones. In honor of healthcare workers, some communities introduced “quarantine clapping” during shift changes at hospitals. And porch concerts became a way to share cultural experiences with neighbors at a safe distance.

The amalgamation of crises over the past year ignited the most sudden and profound transformation of personal and social values since the original Great Depression. In the U.S., communities began to prioritize hyper-local engagement in response to national and global issues. A diverse coalition of citizens has reignited the fight against systemic forms of oppression. At the same time, thrift became essential — even aspirational — during lockdowns and quarantine. These values are coming to life through grassroots design practices that leverage existing community assets — human and not — to make change.

Larger-than-life statements of hope, solidarity, and equality are created and shared publicly for micro (neighborhood) and macro (global) audiences. Adults and children paint messages in their windows, draw on sidewalks with chalk, and leave messages of encouragement on rocks hidden throughout their neighborhoods. On a much larger scale, portraits of George Floyd (the Black man brutally murdered by a White police officer in Minneapolis) and the phrase Black Lives Matter became worldwide symbols of the collective struggle against racism.

Perhaps, designers and design educators should spend more time with real people in real communities responding to their actual needs and values rather than promoting false desires and unnecessary commodities. Designers need to cultivate an ethic that truly serves people. We must use our knowledge to build local frameworks that offer opportunities for individual and collective thriving. Jeremy Myerson (2016), design faculty at the Royal College of Art, suggests that we work against business models that prioritize growth and instead, focus our attention on “scaling down.” Still widely accepted as a key to success, “scaling up” is a remnant of old industrial-era thinking. The goal was to maximize growth and profit by implementing a singular design solution that, in theory, served everyone efficiently and universally. While these aspirations may have been well-intentioned, we now know that designing with specificity in mind is more impactful than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Communities create “human-centered” ways to share resources locally, providing their neighbors access to items without unnecessary bureaucracy or embarrassment. People in cities across the U.S. have installed “community fridges” to share items with their food-insecure neighbors. Others have gathered resources throughout their communities to build care packages full of toilet paper, hygiene products, and cleaning supplies that are hard to find at stores. In Dublin, a student started the “coat bridge” so people could share their unused ones with people experiencing homelessness (Carroll, 2019).

Designers must spend our social capital and use our skills to counteract corporate and institutional systems that have engineered a civilization that is on track to extinct itself in service to money and power. Everyday designers — regular people in their communities — are already devising workarounds and solutions to many of the problems generated by capitalism’s unquenchable greed. Professional designers and educators must let go of our perceived “expert” status to learn directly at the source of impact: local communities. We must embed ourselves deeply within our audience’s experiences, so that their success is our success. Grassroots interventions made by people in their homes, on their streets, and in their neighborhoods are the most interesting designs. Design, as a profession, has little meaning when we continue to favor profits over people. This is the time for designers of all disciplines to double down. We must finally bring First Things First to fruition.

Notes

  1. Within days of this writing, deaths in the U.S. are expected to exceed all the American lives lost in World War II.

  2. Only after a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capital and threatened elected officials’ physical safety on January 6, 2021, did powerful corporate interests and social media companies finally take action against fake news and incitement of violence.

  3. In 1967 (just 3 years after the initial publication of First Things First) Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle predicted our transformation to a culture of representation in which we are each compelled to curate a public image for ourselves that conveys perfection from every angle (1994). The contemporary personal branding phenomenon turned individual people into commodities — objects to be bought and sold for profit.

References

  1. Amazon (2020, October 29). Amazon.com announces third quarter results. Retrieved December 27, 2020 from https://ir.aboutamazon.com/news-release/news-release-details/2020/Amazon.com-Announces-Third-Quarter-Results/default.aspx

  2. Barnbrook, J., Kalman, T., Lupton, E., McCoy, K., Poynor, R., Miller, A., Roberts, L., van Toorn, J., VanderLans, R., Wilkinson, B., Bell, N., Keedy, J., Licko, Z., Mevis, A., Howard, A., Helfand, J., Glaser, M., Blauvelt, A., Bockting, H., . . . Spiekermann, E. (1999). First things first manifesto 2000. Émigré #51, cover.

  3. Bloomberg (2021). Bloomberg billionaires index. Retrieved January 2, 2021 from https://www.bloomberg.com/billionaires/?sref=GzMobW41

  4. Carroll, R. (2019, December 9). Coats for homeless removed from Dublin’s Ha ‘penny Bridge. The Guardian. Retrieved December 23, 2020 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/09/coats-for-homeless-removed-from-dublin-hapenny-bridge

  5. CBPP, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (2020, December 18). Tracking the Covid-19 recession’s effects on food, housing, and employment hardships. Retrieved December 27, 2020, from https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-recessions-effects-on-food-housing-and

  6. Debord, G. (1994). The society of the spectacle. Zone Books.

  7. Garland, K., Wright, E., White, G., Slack, W., Rawlence, C., McLaren, I., Lambert, S., Kamlish, I., Jones, G., Higton, B., Grimbly, B., Garner, J., Froshaug, A., Fior, R., Facetti, G., Dodd, I., Crowder, H., Clift, A., . . . Briggs, K. (1964). First things first: A manifesto.

  8. Myerson, J. (2016). Scaling down: Why designers need to reverse their thinking. She Ji Journal, 2(4), 288–299. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sheji.2017.06.001

  9. Neufeld, D (2020, July 2). Visualizing the Size of Amazon, the World’s Most Valuable Retailer. Visual Capitalist. Retrieved January 3, 2021 from https://www.visualcapitalist.com/amazon-worlds-most-valuable-retailer/

  10. Papanek, V (1971). Design for the real world: Human ecology and social change (2 edition). Academy Chicago Publishers.

Figures

  1. Figure 1: First Things First Manifesto 2000. Emigre #51, Cover.

  2. Thinking about how design practice, education, and research has been implicated in and impacted by Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, politics, and the economy in 2020

  3. Social values are changing rapidly in this time of compounding crises.

  4. Social networks are known to benefit people’s mental and physical health. When Covid-19 put stress on communities, they responded by initiating collective actions that gave people new kinds of shared experiences. When life’s big milestones — like graduation — were disrupted, students invented a new kind of socially-distanced procession via parades of cars crawling through town. People started doing “drive-by birthdays” to celebrate their friends and loved ones. In honor of healthcare workers, some communities introduced “quarantine clapping” during shift changes at hospitals. And porch concerts became a way to share cultural experiences with neighbors at a safe distance.

  5. Larger-than-life statements of hope, solidarity, and equality are created and shared publicly for micro (neighborhood) and macro (global) audiences. Adults and children paint messages in their windows, draw on sidewalks with chalk, and leave messages of encouragement on rocks hidden throughout their neighborhoods. On a much larger scale, portraits of George Floyd (the Black man brutally murdered by a White police officer in Minneapolis) and the phrase Black Lives Matter became worldwide symbols of the collective struggle against racism.

  6. Communities create “human-centered” ways to share resources locally, providing their neighbors access to items without unnecessary bureaucracy or embarrassment. People in cities across the U.S. have installed “community fridges” to share items with their food-insecure neighbors. Others have gathered resources throughout their communities to build care packages full of toilet paper, hygiene products, and cleaning supplies that are hard to find at stores. In Dublin, a student started the “coat bridge” so people could share their unused ones with people experiencing homelessness (Carroll, 2019).

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