“Well, friends, colleagues, students: I say this. God rot their stinking, heartless climate and its market-ridden obsessions. The world does not begin and end with their stocks and shares, their profit-and-loss equations and their bloated, self-congratulatory company reports. There are other things we can be about, other methods, other ends. Let’s find out how we can get on with them now.”
Ken Garland, 1987, (taken from Where do we go from here, published in ‘A Word in Your Eye’ by Ken Garland, University of Reading, Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, 1996).
Many will know that Ken Garland, who sadly passed away on May 20th 2021, is the author of the original First Things First manifesto in 1964, a call to challenge the growing dominance of advertising and market-led priorities in design practice.
I was first shown the text of the manifesto by a friend in 1994 — without information about its origins – and was delighted by its social and ideological priorities. Assuming it to be a recent initiative I was shocked to discover that it had been written thirty years earlier and doubly shocked that is was largely unknown to many designers, myself included.
So significant and so opportune was its message, even after (or perhaps because of) the three decades since its inception, that it seemed vitally important to bring it back into the light of day and expand upon the issues it raised within a contemporary climate. The resulting essay There is such a Thing as Society — published in Eye Magazine in 1994, under the editorial direction of then-editor Rick Poynor — was an attempt to do just that.
I met Ken Garland in person the following year at a lecture he gave in London. In the years that followed, I invited him, on numerous occasions, to speak in Porto (where I live), including as the inaugural guest in the long-running Personal Views lecture series (a series which Garland dubbed, in his typical dry-humor, the biggest design conference in the world — only in installments).
Ken Garland spent his professional life dedicated to design as a form of social practice, believing it had currency in producing social value but that it had been commandeered in the pursuit of unbridled consumerism. The ‘First Things First’ manifesto was a professional and personal voicing of those concerns. Yet he’d be annoyed, I believe, to think that his legacy consisted solely of the manifesto, and rightly so, as it was only one manifestation of his beliefs within a lifelong practice. Over and above his political affiliations — he was a member of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) for which he redesigned their logo, and a member of the Labour Party — his belief in design as a value-adding activity was principally channeled through his professional design work and his partnership with a range of clients
His commitment entailed a perception of design not only as a particular set of skills and personal visual engagement with the world, but as a tool — one to be shared, developed and applied in partnership with others, one that does not place the designer at the centre of production but celebrates instead the richness of the collaborations that are possible. It is a vision of a practice that is not formulated because of social and political consciousness but that implicitly includes it. It has been accompanied for many years by his contagious passion and humanity in countless lectures and interactions, particularly with young designers and students who were the quickest to recognise and to delight in the embracing, inclusive vision that he so enthusiastically transmitted.
I hope that Ken Garland would be more at peace to know that the values he so notably espoused and epitomised continue to inspire and motivate new generations of designers in new ways, and that this is his legacy.
Ken Garland 1929—2021