Last Things Last

Last January we organized what we thought would be a neat little conference in Barcelona. Hosted at Otrascosas de Villar-Rosàs, the third edition of Manifesto. exhibition should have been accompanied by a talk with Ken Garland. We thought it was quite appropriate to initiate the series of debates we were long thinking of with Ken, as his “First Things First” manifesto, published in 1964, has been the starting point of our research on design manifestos.

As we had already visited Ken at his home in London the year before, and found he spoke quite willingly about his widely acclaimed manifesto, we thought we’d have a nice chat once again. Well, things didn’t actually go that way. Upon his arrival,  Ken firmly declared he wouldn’t be giving the talk we’ve planned or share advice or revisit the manifesto, but had something special prepared for the occasion. Here you can find “Last Things Last”, a new manifesto by Garland almost fifty years after the original one.

Make Sense

Tankboys and Cosimo Bizzarri

From the onset of our research for “Manifesto.” which started two years ago, the same question has been asked to us over and over —Why bother with design manifestos? Good point.

In the first decades of the 20th century there was an art manifesto explosion. If you were an artist and thought you had a revolutionary idea, you had no choice but to express it as a manifesto. The consequence of this trend was the birth of some of the most important contemporary art movements, along with a growing apathy towards the manifesto form. Overuse led to under use in the following decades. Surprisingly, since the end of the century, the manifesto form has been making a comeback, especially in the field of design. Why? Is it that designers have been feeling an urgent need to react to something? And does this have something to do with the turn of the new century? Or with the exponential reach that the Internet gives to anybody who has something to say? 

Writing a manifesto is to some degree an act of narcissism. It implies the fact that one is so convinced of his or her own ideas that somebody else will want to follow them as rules of life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While self–centred personalities can be arrogant, unreasonable, and blind to other people’s opinions, they can also be considered extremely brave, stimulating, and contagiously passionate about what they do. You need a big character to point out what has been missing, or, even better, to point out what was under everyone’s nose when nobody knew how to articulate it. All the design manifestos we’ve bumped into in the last two years have been written by someone bold enough to believe that someone would follow his or her maxims. Some sound void and fluffy. Others vibrate with wisdom and passion. The latter are those we have selected for “Manifesto.”. 

The exhibition gathers the professional beliefs—either serious or irreverent, unpublished or appositely prepared—of some of the smartest and most respected professionals of today’s design world. The quality of the content—and not the form—was the principle that guided our research, and only a few of the 21 manifestos contained in the exhibition are successions of bullet–point intentions. We prefer to think that even a postcard, a page, a book, or a seven–word–sentence can be a manifesto. The content of each manifesto differs quite drastically from the other. Some speak of grids and typography, others of coffee breaks and car drives, others of being shy or mad. They are all, in our opinion, fervent declarations of love towards design. 

Having come so far in reading, you might still be searching for an answer to the original question—Why bother with design manifestos? 

As people who deal with this discipline every day—be it in a professional or public manner—we see design being too often reduced to the mere function of making something look ‘nice’. Unfortunately, such a focus on the end result just doesn’t work. Not even in design. That’s why we decided to hold back the final result for once and move the attention on what is usually kept out from exhibition spaces: the work process. Because it’s along the winding, potholed road that a designer embarks upon every time he gets a new job that lays the real meaning of every project. By collecting and displaying these 21 manifestos, we want to suggest that only by focusing on his or her own work process can a designer fulfill his or her role in society: that of building—or revealing—a meaning for what surrounds us. Making sense, if you prefer.

Tankboys and Cosimo Bizzarri

Manifesto Wars

Steven Heller

During the turbulent teens and cantankerous twenties artists’ manifestos were as common as weeds, and just as fast to sprout up from a groundswell of radical activity. Manifestos were statements of purpose, calls to action and weapons of mass obstruction. 

Words were the lethal ammunition. Sometimes they were aimed with pinpoint intelligence, other times they sprayed the battlefield with rampant stupidity. Manifestos came in all degrees of simplicity or complexity. They were long or short depending on the writer’s proclivities. Some survived, others are long forgotten—and the better for it. All tried to make a mark. 

Today manifestos are back. Artists who have decided it is their respective mission to save the world, or even those who have less ambitious goals, routinely turn first to a manifesto—a statement of principles—and then to their art forms to state how, why and where. As they were in the teens and twenties (and thirties and forties and fifties and sixties, etcetera), some manifestos are worth the paper they are written on, while others are not worthy of the trees they destroyed (perhaps a manifesto about manifestos is due). 

Yet even the most worthy often have a hollow ring. No matter how smart the manifesto may be, words are empty without action to support them. 

Therefore, the Ten Commandments—a manifesto by any other name—has some weight (not just as heavy stone tablets) because millions of people have more or less followed and sometimes violently acted out the “thou shalts and thou shalt nots” to the letter. Of course, this divine manifesto was actually created by men, and the Ten Commandments contain all the flaws that men had in those early biblical times. In other words, even a finely composed manifesto born of well–meaning sentiments is not always an exemplary one. Manifestos are by nature built on prejudice for or against something. They are also dictates to do something that someone else thinks important or necessary. Follow me because I am right is the implication of a manifesto—is it not?

But there is a genus of manifesto that is not just a commandment to follow or movement to join. The personal manifesto is not implicitly telling you or me what to do; it is tell you or me what the individual who wrote it believes. And if there is a chance that the ideas contained in the manifesto touch a chord in other individuals, then all the better. A personal manifesto is a declaration of principles, not an order to forge ahead, damn the torpedoes or change the world in a particular image. 

The past ten years—let’s say since the turn of the twenty–first century, because the fin de siecle is always a moment when new things occur—had been a fertile period for personal manifestos, and particularly in art and design circles. Some of those who have issued such declarations call them “to–do–lists,” others are more high–falutin. Manifestos are everywhere in art and design books, spoken at conferences, shouted from the rooftops. The creators are telling anyone who listens: “This is what I am going to do, and perhaps you’d be happier doing it too!” 

Sarcasm aside, a manifesto is a double–edged sword. It can articulate goals and desires in an honest and inspiring way. It can also be perceived as so much babble— pretense of the highest order—and must be ignored. 

Does that mean a manifesto should be written in any “standard” manner to avoid critique and be pure of meaning? No! A true manifesto will make those who do not agree wince. That’s the point. Make a statement and then act upon them that does change something—whatever it may be. The most memorable manifestos have altered the way we think and do. A manifesto should be a declaration of war against complacency. Shit! That almost sounds like a manifesto.

Steven Heller, Design critic