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. Most of usstayed home, quarantined ourselves, and built safe cocoons (unless we were so-called “essential workers”). In the United States, we continue to console our friends and families as more than 600,000 people have died, so far. The global death toll recently tallied over 4 million (Cunningham, 2021). 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.
If we didn’t experience job losses personally, most of us sympathized with the millions of Americans who were driven deeper into poverty as lockdowns lingered. 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 — sparking worldwide protests against systemic racism. Vast swaths of the country burned as wildfires destroyed towns and homes across California, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona. In every aspect of our lives, designers have made choices that contributed to these outcomes.
As the year dragged on, the onslaught of outrage compounded day after day. “To some extent,” predicted Garland (1964), “[designers] are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.” We contribute to this discourse by creating artifacts and telling stories that, in either overt or covert ways, uphold imperial power structures. In our hyper-competitive capitalist culture, real people are objectified and homogenized as lifeless “consumers.” They’re guided [with the help of designers] to see the world through a lens of scarcity. It’s no wonder so many people are compelled to spend more and more money in their quest for fulfillment. In fact, the average American household now holds more than $145,000 in debt (Fay, 2021). Stephen Satterfield, food writer and host of the recent documentary film High on the Hog: How African Cuisine Transformed America, talks about the ways in which our humanity has been lost in the current hegemonic system: “The only way we know how to express empathy and care is to buy stuff, give [people] money. [For example, a] woman is slaughtered. Start a Go-Fund-Me for the family. It’s like we don’t know how to give care” (Braswell, 2021). We shouldn’t be surprised; after all, our lives seem to revolve around money.
Fifty-four years ago (just 3 years after the initial publication of First Things First), Guy Debord’s (1967/1994) Society of the Spectacle forecast a cultural transformation that values appearances over reality — images over people. Social media brings this warning to fruition as we are (implicitly and explicitly) urged to aestheticize ourselves into objects of perfection. The “personal branding” phenomenon turns individual people into commodities, or “influencers” — human objects to be bought and sold for profit. Influencers like @tamarawebb (figure 3) typically share images of themselves (almost always alone) modeling or using branded products in some luxurious or exotic location. Viewers are persuaded to buy these products as surrogates for the transformational experiences they long for. 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)
And, when audiences never see the destructive machinery that works behind the scenes, they are blinded to the ways capitalist systems prey on young, solo entrepreneurs until they burn out and disappear. One influencer said (Swanson, 2021),
I feel like I’m a walking museum, bro. . . The scary thing is you never know how long this is going to last. That’s what eats a lot of us at night. It’s like, What’s next? How long can we entertain everyone for? How long before no one cares, and what if your life was worth nothing?
Another regretted having gotten involved at all (Jennings, 2020);
It’s scary because it’s this spiral of not ever feeling like you’re enough, and that leaves this mental scarring. It’s contributed to my mental health not being the best lately. I definitely had to get some therapy because of this.
Indeed, runaway market competition feeds on our natural insecurities and faces few consequences after real people’s lives have been ruined.
Our economic system was intentionally designed to yield maximum ecological extraction, 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, more than a year into the crisis, some resources remain hard to access, and people of color have suffered the most. 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.
Designers talk about empathy all the time, but often fail to follow through. Instead of addressing real social and environmental needs, so-called “innovators” like Amazon, Facebook, and Google prioritize ‘user experience design’ insofar as it will bring in more and more cash. For example, Amazon’s corporate mission states, “Amazon strives to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company” (Amazon, n.d.), and it’s now larger than its ten biggest competitors combined (Neufeld, 2020). In 2020 — during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic — the company’s sales soared an additional 70% over the previous year (Amazon, 2020). And Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos’ personal fortune increased by $74 billion (Bloomberg, 2021). Clearly, designers have created an enviable customer experience, but their empathy doesn’t seem to extend to the company’s 1.3 million employees who are treated with outright hostility. According to Forbes, Amazon’s warehouse employees are seriously injured on the job 80% more often than their counterparts doing comparable work for other companies (McCarthy, 2021). Delivery drivers have been groaning for years about Amazon’s unreasonable productivity targets that force them to save time by urinating in bottles. A driver in Detroit said, “It’s inhumane, to say the least” (Taylor and Hartmans, 2021). These indignities, combined with the amalgamation of crises over the past year have ignited a sudden and profound transformation of personal and social values across the global West.
Designers, like so many others, have long served a malignant system that abuses our humanity and wrecks the environment. Most of us have been distracted from and oblivious to the social and physical well-being of our communities and their members. But, the pandemic offered time and space to reflect — to reconsider what we need and want from our lives and relationships. In the U.S. and around the world, our sense of community is shifting, our ideas of success are changing, and we’re reevaluating our life’s purposes. According to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometers (2020, 2021), 56% of people worldwide now believe that capitalism does more harm than good, and 64% say that they want to see positive social change in how we live, work, and treat one another. Ethical designers will pay attention to these changes and will make meaningful efforts to reorient our “priorities in favour of more useful, lasting, and democratic forms of communication — a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration of a new kind of meaning. . . Consumerism. . . must be challenged by other perspectives. . .” (Garland, et. al., 1964). Today, everyday citizens are taking matters into their own hands — designing a world where they want to live. In response to multiple and ongoing existential crises, people are beginning to prioritize hyper-local engagement.
Without much help from professional designers, a diverse coalition of citizens reignited the fight against systemic forms of oppression at the local level. At the same time, thrift has become essential — even aspirational — during lockdowns, quarantine, and beyond. And mutual aid efforts, community gardens, and resource sharing are being normalized as people are re-engaging with others in in-person relationships closer to home. These values are already coming to life through grassroots design practices that leverage existing community assets — human and not — to make change. 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 objective was to maximize growth and profit by implementing a singular design solution that, in theory, served everyone efficiently and universally. While these ambitions may have been well-intentioned, we now know that designing with local needs and cultural specificity in mind is more beneficial and sustainable than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Designers are uniquely equipped to help organize, develop, and create conditions that can both remove barriers and ease transitions to a new social and cultural paradigm that puts well-being above the machinations of unsustainable economic growth. Our design students are eager to work toward these changes. At Arizona State University, the majority of my students choose to explore ways in which designers should (1) demand work-life balance, (2) reverse environmental degradation, and (3) fight for social justice. Samantha Hillenburg, a senior in ASU’s graphic design program reflected:
[Most of us] can agree that [designers] have the ability to contour reality, bring communities together, and control the narrative. My biggest inspiration for design is its ability to speak. Design has the biggest voice in today's society and we need to use it for good in what matters: social inequity, political injustice, and climate change issues. Our world is more globalized than ever and designers have the responsibility to be involved with social and cultural issues (2021).
While my observations are limited to design students at Arizona State University, their experiences and attitudes are not isolated. Their ideas mirror the larger cultural changes in mindset that were accelerated by Covid-19. I encourage them to look inward to discover what matters deeply to them, I support and acknowledge the truth of their feelings, and I help them articulate and stand in their convictions with confidence. Despite the discomfort we sometimes experience through this process, they have a safe space to find their voices and to practice using them.
Covid-19 forced everyone to slow down and stay home, and lots of folks realized that our typical American “always busy” lifestyle had never contributed much to our quality of life in the first place. During lockdowns, many of us spent more time with our families, reconnected with personal passions, developed new hobbies, and connected with neighbors. We reengaged with our domestic lives through home-cooking, gardening, and DIY projects. In light of these trends, I asked my graduate students to conduct a self-study as a way to process the many layers of change they were experiencing — in relation to their personal values and goals. They worked on life/career manifestos, and their work espouses strong values of family, community, beauty, and purpose. Aubri Blueeyes lost a number of her family members due to Covid-19, which gave her pause to rethink her heritage, her priorities, and her future. She writes,
I have been raised almost all my life on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. My family and their families before them have always lived on the reservation we call home. We are tied and connected to it. My grandparents tell me stories about their relatives that also lived on the land. As for me, I am born into the Red House Clan — my mother’s clan — that was passed down to me. It is my culture, tradition, and identity. I will eventually pass this down to my children and then thereafter. However, [after leaving home for several years] I have found that I am losing a part of who I am as a person. My manifesto is not only an embodiment of me but also an embodiment of my traditions and values. Through it, I will reconnect with my language and culture as well as with the land (2020).
Indeed, many of us are trying to avoid jumping back into our old habits. “I think the pandemic has changed my mindset in a way, like I really value my time now,” said 27-year old software developer Jonathan Caballero (Hsu, 2021).
As people looked for ways to reduce their Covid stress and isolation, “Zoom towns” popped up across the country in exurban and rural areas, especially when opportunities to work-from-home offered employees more freedom and flexibility to live anywhere. Now, many of us are not willing to go back: 40% say they would quit if they had to return to the office (Melin and Egkolfopoulou, 2021). College students also appreciate the flexibility of working from anywhere. Due to Covid, some college students dropped out or took a gap year rather than attend school online. But many more persevered — and 73% now say they hope at least some of their courses remain online post-pandemic (McKenzie, 2021). Anecdotally, students in both my studio and seminar courses were more focused and achieved better outcomes after the university transitioned to online learning. Most of them were less distracted, more engaged with their group work, more thoughtful, and their contributions in class discussions on Slack were more robust. Plus, introverts increased their overall class participation. I also heard from a number of students that they built relationships online with classmates they rarely talked to when they were all physically in the same rooms together on campus.
Now, officials are beginning the slow process of easing Covid-19 restrictions; restaurants and businesses are starting to reopen; schools are planning their return to in-person learning, and social life is rebounding. Jobs are plentiful again. Before the pandemic, Americans likely tied our sense of self to our work. But after more than a year of uncertainty and instability, many of us discovered that incessant workaholism had never been satisfying or fulfilling. Four million Americans quit their jobs in April alone (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). We’re also less willing to endure exploitative treatment by our employers. A food-service worker in Galveston, Texas said, “It’s not okay to risk your employees’ lives over someone’s cheeseburger” (Vinopal, 2021).
As Covid begins to recede, many of us are choosing a different path forward — reserving our time for things that make us happier and healthier. Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka set a great example when she dropped out of the French Open rather than submit to critical and demeaning interactions with the press. She told officials she was protecting her mental health (Crouse, 2021). And she’s not alone. One group of design students at ASU came together this spring to protest what they believed were unreasonable assignment timelines and a toxic learning environment. To support their demands, the cohort shared personal stories of the negative mental and physical health impacts they attributed to the learning culture. Writing for my design rhetoric course, one student shared his experience:
The taxing nature of the [ASU undergraduate design] program’s workload can cause students to act out of desperation just to keep up. I know from personal experience. During my first year in the program, I was prescribed methylphenidate to increase my focus, despite never showing a need for that medication during my childhood. The medication felt helpful because I was staying focused longer and getting more done. It made work more stimulating for me, which helps when you have to maintain focus for 10 hours a day. But I couldn’t tell how stimulated I was supposed to feel and I didn’t have the time to figure that out with my doctor because of the demands of school. Eventually I stopped taking the medication because I wanted to know that I could keep up in school without getting high. Ever since this experience I have been plagued by self-doubt (Anonymous, 2021).
The students also conducted a localized survey and found that most of their classmates focused on school work for about 50 hours per week, plus spent 20 hours at their part-time jobs. After suffering through the upheaval of their lives and future uncertainty, they’re no longer willing to accept this arrangement. They also complained about pro-bono class projects they’re required to do for real-world clients without compensation, as well as an atmosphere that — to them — seems to pit students against one another in fierce competition. Instead, they say they want a supportive culture that values their hard work and prizes sharing, collaboration, and community. I’m doing everything I can to help them achieve these goals.
Covid-19 and other recent natural disasters are making the existential dangers posed by climate change unavoidable. This summer, an unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and Canada crushed previous records; on June 29, 2021, Lytton, Canada hit 121°! The following day, an uncontrolled wildfire burned down the whole town (McGrath, 2021). The National Interagency Coordination Center (2021), which collects data about wildfires across the U.S., reported that in 2020, 59,000 ignitions occurred and 10.1 million acres were burned nationwide. The Weather Channel also noted that in the first half of 2021, the number of wildfires in the U.S. was four thousand more than in a normal year. While the heat wave descended and wildfires raged in the west, a high rise condominium building in Miami, Florida, collapsed — presumably killing most of the more than 150 residents who were trapped inside. The exact cause of this disaster is still under investigation, but many experts (including U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm) are speculating about the role played by the rise in sea levels associated with climate change (Boyle, 2021). Meanwhile, Detroit is underwater after it received seven inches of rain in one day, turning freeways into rivers, stranding motorists, and flooding thousands of homes. To add insult to injury, during the same week, a lobbyist for Exxon, an international fossil fuels corporation, was caught on video discussing unseemly strategies the company uses to scuttle government actions on climate change, including spreading disinformation and working through shell organizations to manipulate lawmakers and public perceptions (Brady, 2021).
Our students are inheriting this life or death crisis caused not by them, but by the generations who came before. They are alarmed, and several have used my design thinking project to explore possible solutions. Junior graphic design student Savaani Thigale pitched a comprehensive program to help people transition to a zero waste way of life. Her research showed that Millennials and Gen Z are most likely to adopt lifestyle changes, so she targeted her concept to their needs and motivations. First, she argued for a one-stop shop for no-waste living. It would be like Wal-Mart, with food, housewares, clothing, personal hygiene products, and more. But none of the products would produce the type of waste that typically goes into landfills. She also suggested that — to keep participants motivated — she would create an app where people could track their progress and compare it to their friends and others in the community. And finally, she proposed a marketing campaign to drive excitement about the program and entice people to sign up. Other students have proposed equally compelling interventions.
People worldwide are waking up to the climate disaster we face, and during the pandemic-induced economic recession we had more time and energy to devote to reducing our impacts on the environment. A study by IBM (2020) proclaimed, “Sustainability hits its tipping point,” and revealed that at least 77% of consumers say they want products that are eco-friendly. Designers’ work is located at the nexus of ideas and artifacts, so it’s time we take responsibility for the things we put into the world.
Instead of approaching environmental issues from a ‘crisis’ perspective, some students advocate for public access to nature as part of a healthy lifestyle. Their research shows the importance of nature to our well-being; it lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, increases attention, and improves mental health — while also encouraging environmental advocacy (Robbins, 2020). One of my students predicted that there would be a heightened need and desire for people to socialize outdoors and in public places after Covid-restrictions ease. He wrote,
We still live in a world affected by the coronavirus pandemic. We still carry the feeling of danger when leaving the house to do things that once felt ordinary. There is no escaping that we live in troubling times, but we do know that this will not be a way of life that lasts forever. Once the clouds depart, there will be a newfound appreciation for being with others, being in the outdoors, and experiencing nature (Evans, 2021).
He suggests that graphic designers will find new opportunities to accommodate people’s desire for comfortable and navigable outdoor public spaces by engaging in the field of environmental graphic design. Heather Murphy agrees. She works for the City of Phoenix Streets Department and told me that their April 2021 traffic data revealed a 27% increase in bicycling since the start of the pandemic. Pet adoptions also skyrocketed. Nearly half of all Americans got a new dog (Rover, 2021) and with it, new reasons to get outside and move around. Porch concerts, sidewalk birthday parties, and neighborhood movie nights in the park are just a few of the outdoor community-oriented activities that have brought people together safely over the past year.
Social justice, equality, and democracy were driven to the forefront of our minds last year, as well. Beginning with the wide disparity in Covid-19 healthcare outcomes for people of color and the murder of George Floyd by police, a majority of Americans were forced to acknowledge our country’s racist systems. Worldwide, people of all ethnicities protested racial injustice throughout the summer, despite the risk of catching the virus. The famous phrase “Black Lives Matter” was painted larger than life on roadways, and portraits of police-shooting victims were painted in the streets. In Phoenix, Arizona, activist Gizette Knight organized an event in which artists painted 28 portraits of 28 influential Black people for Black History Month in February 2021.
People also got organized to participate in political life; more Americans voted in the 2020 Presidential elections than in any other contest in U.S. history. Now, reactionary politicians across the country are advancing new legislation to deny voting rights to millions of citizens — especially people of color. Propaganda and misinformation about race, class, and U.S. history are widespread. People in power are attempting to silence journalists and scholars in a coordinated effort to erase historical narratives of slavery and racial oppression from the culture. Investigative journalist and Black professor Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a MacArthur Genius Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize for her work on The New York Times “1619 Project,” was recently denied tenure by politically-appointed trustees of University of North Carolina. Only after a massive public relations fiasco did they reconsider their position (Wamsley, 2021). In Florida, the governor signed a new law that appears to undermine academic freedom; its goal is to survey all public university faculty and students about their political beliefs in order to “promote intellectual diversity” (Andrade, 2021). Systemic racism has been designed into U.S. institutions since the country’s founding, and we must remain diligent in our fights for academic integrity; historical accuracy; and social justice; and economic leveling.
Our design students have begun to articulate their desire and expectations for a more complex understanding of their discipline that addresses these issues. And, they are eager to use their work to foster social justice and equality in the field and throughout society. Every semester, some of my design rhetoric students choose to write their editorials about the lack of diverse representation in their design history classes. Many students across the country are still learning from the same design history textbook I used in the 1990s! And too often, they’re still being trained to follow so-called “rules” invented by (mostly) white European men nearly a century ago. ASU Senior Ali Wolf writes (2020):
When we focus on history from a Eurocentric point of view, many perspectives are left out. Students from marginalized communities are implicitly encouraged to conform in order to be taken seriously in their learning environments, which discourages them from pursuing further education and careers in design fields. When students and professionals leave the industry, creative teams are less successful.
Former Senior Vice President at R/GA (Sao Paulo and San Francisco) and Latina designer Paola Colombo (2017) agrees:
Diversity is not just an HR topic, it’s a reflection of culture which influences how we live, how we communicate, what we need, which… influences the work we do as agents between our clients and the people they want to reach. As an agency expected to deliver innovation, we cannot create innovative work if our teams are homogenous.
As faculty in design we must practice what we preach; get out of our comfort zones; learn about design scholarship and practices outside the frameworks we learned in school; nurture our increasingly diverse student populations; and serve the specific needs of the varied communities our work targets.
Race is not the only diversity, equity, and inclusion issue designers and design educators need to fully embrace. Social justice reform in design education must also respond to discrimination against people with differences in physical and neurological ability, gender, sexual orientation, age, and more. Writing about the importance of universal design, ASU graduate student Michelle Jiang (2020) concludes:
Graphic design doesn’t have to be limited to visuals. There are millions of people with disabilities in America alone, and many graphic designers rarely consider this demographic. Through research, we can improve our users’ experiences by adding audio and tactile design… Graphic design should not be limited to visual communication. Our field should be renamed Communication Design, which requires us to create whole-body experiences that appeal to all the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
Some higher ed programs in graphic design have already taken Jiang’s advice, changing the name of the discipline to include all kinds of communication. But this is only a first step toward social justice in design and beyond. We have to do more.
Our students are dissatisfied with the status quo, and we should be too. Design education has coasted on old, outdated paradigms for way too long. As educators, we are obligated to confront changes in cultural and social values as they emerge. Other disciplines like engineering, business, biodesign, and computer science have already begun to adopt design processes to meet their needs, because traditional design disciplines have not consistently met the demands of our changing physical, virtual, social, and cultural environments.
Covid-19 has accelerated changes that were already underway. Neoliberal capitalism has for many years exploited people for profit, exacerbated social and economic inequities, compromised our health and wellbeing, undermined civic cohesion, corroded public trust, and ravaged the planet. The environment is increasingly toxic, poisoning humans, animals, and plant-life alike. Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more deadly. And we can trace these problems directly to decisions made by designers since the Western Enlightenment. If we are to remain relevant — and more importantly, regain our integrity — we must make demonstrable changes now. Design educators must lead the way.
 Eyeroll.  As a district ranger in the U.S. Forest Service, my husband works every summer on wildfire teams across the western states. As of this writing in June 2021, there are more than 20 fires burning across Arizona’s landscape. They’ve had to ration resources for firefighting because there are not enough personnel to go around.  According to critical theorists Althusser (1971) and Foucault (1976), there are two systems of power that command broad-scale social conformity: one is corporeal, and the other is ideological. Designers most often create products that affirm the ideologies of the dominant culture including: patriarchy, individualism, competition, growth, and property ownership, among others.  A 2019 Morning Consult study reported that 88% of Gen Z and Millennials learn about products they want to buy on social media.  In May 2021, CNN reported continued shortages of a range of products including chicken, chlorine, gas, ketchup, lumber, metals, and steel. According to the American Hospital Association (2020), in the early months of the pandemic, Black Chicagoans accounted for 72% of its positive Covid-19 cases despite making up only 32% of the city’s total population. Another study in California revealed that Black Americans were 2.7 times more likely to be hospitalized than their White counterparts (Sutter Health, 2020).  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. According to a study by Zignal Labs, online misinformation dropped by 73%, and the use of capitol riot hashtags plunged by 95% after former President Trump was banned from social media sites (Ghosh, 2021).  The pandemic is still raging in some parts of the world and resurging in others, and in June the World Health Organization recommended that even vaccinated people continue taking precautions due to the more dangerous Delta variant of the virus (Rabin, Mandavilli, and Hubler, 2021).  118° is the hottest temperature on record for Las Vegas, NV (Current Results, 2021).  At the time of this writing, the recovery efforts are still underway.  The 1619 Project is a series of reports on the ways in which legacies of slavery are still impacting the lives of Black Americans today.  Lightly edited for length and clarity.
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