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Monocle hijacked the Logan Hall stage at Typo Talks in London, the world’s leading conference on graphic design, to quiz four giants on the state of the industry. We began by discussing the impact of Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto.

The panel

Adrian Shaughnessy

London-based designer, author and senior tutor of visual communication at the Royal College of Art, Shaughnessy is a self-taught graphic designer. He is also co-founder and director of the publishing company Unit Editions.

Paula Scher

Scher has been a partner at Pentagram’s New York office since 1991 and has been responsible for establishing the visual identity of the city through a series of high profile projects.

Ken Garland

Garland founded his own studio, Ken Garland & Associates, in 1962 and has been a central figure in the global graphic design industry ever since.

Irma Boom

Boom is a Dutch graphic designer and is the most celebrated book designer in the world. Responsible for over 250 book designs, she has more than 50 in the MoMA’s permanent collection.

Monocle: How did First Things First change the course of graphic design?

Garland: I was at a meeting in December 1963 about why graphic designers shouldn’t join the society of industrial artists and designers. I sat at the back of the hall on the point of leaving but stayed and wrote about what I felt. At the end of the meeting the chairman asked if anybody had anything to add. I got up on the platform and declaimed what became First Things First. Adbusters magazine reprinted it in 2000 and decided there should be an updated version, which I co-signed.

Monocle: What was the message of the original manifesto?

Garland: It was about priorities that we should have been paying attention to instead of the ones we did. They were mainly socio-political. It’s not that I don’t like advertising but I thought far too much money and hard work was spent on cooking up stuff that had no value. Graphic information was a new phrase in 1963; I was championing a new attitude in graphic design.

Boom: I talk about commissioners, not clients. I collaborate with, rather than work for, people. I always remember that I should stick to the principle of First Things First and not sell my soul to marketing.

Monocle: How did the second manifesto differ?

Scher: I didn’t sign the second manifesto because it declared what graphic designers should and should not work for; design for publishing is good, design for marketing and advertising is bad. The problem for me is that it eliminates the goal of design, which is to elevate our world. If a designer who has a conscience and cares about their design doesn’t take on certain projects, then who will? The goal is always to make something better.

Shaughnessy: We’ve been talking of First Things First as if it’s an extreme document but it’s not. It is incredibly measured and not anti-advertising. It’s about how we allocate what funds we have and to think about what we do. It’s important not to be anti-commercial. The second one took things further. It is inspirational but it doesn’t offer an alternative way of working or a blueprint of how to go forward.

Garland: It could be that both manifestoes mislead younger designers into being idealistic. Students say to me, “What can you recommend as the most important thing to focus on?” They think I’m going to say ethics but I always tell them skills. Unless you have skill you won’t get anywhere.

Monocle: Does the industry need a manifesto today?

Scher: Young designers today are very different compared to what we were like. They are not like sheep. Thanks to technology they have an individual, entrepreneurial spirit. They set up small businesses. They don’t have the inferiority complex that the design community used to have. When the design community misbehaves it’s because it has a bad self-image.

Monocle: Does this explosion of small studios and individual young designers cloud the industry or make it a better place?

Shaughnessy: It’s incredibly healthy because it makes for a vibrant and dynamic scene. We’ve been talking about ethical issues but there are issues of practical and immediate impact such as the rise of the internet. I think we’re in the post-graphic design era. Companies can start now with just a Facebook page. Social media is so powerful that brands no longer dictate the pace. It’s dictated by users and consumers. I think there’s an almost hysterical fear in the corporate world because of this and it’s turning the graphic design industry on its head.

Monocle: Has modern technology had a defining impact on the way you work?

Boom: I always think of Massimo Vignelli’s expression of bc/ac – “before computer” and “after computer”. Technology, the internet, computers, iPads and Kindles are not a threat to me but rather a friend. They mean I can be even more specific about how I work; I can investigate the intrinsic qualities that make a book a physical object. Technology helps me to make my statements and definitions more clear, more articulated. My books are not pdfs.

Garland: I didn’t start working with a computer until the mid-1990s. Now it is my main tool for graphic design. But I notice my work has not altered one jot. It is merely a convenient piece of apparatus. It allows me to recall information effectively; it is a wonderful research tool but that’s it. I’m 83 years old – I’m an extremely old person. I have fully adjusted myself to working with a computer, but on my own terms.

Monocle: Do you feel students and graduates have lost skills because they rely too heavily on technology?

Garland: Undoubtedly. I teach a fortnight every summer here in London of typographic exercises and I ask youngsters to do everything by hand. The first day they are nonplussed because it’s not what they’re used to. By the end of the day they love it. Hands remain vitally important tools. I don’t think we’ll ever abandon certain uses of our bodies because there are alternatives.

Scher: Students become slaves to the technology they learned with while at school. The advantage of being a pre-computer designer is that technology is always changing so the idea there’s something new isn’t scary because you master it and work with it. At school though, you begin working with a particular type of software and you graduate working only with that. It’s difficult for young people who haven’t mastered thinking beyond technology to move forward and they get pushed out by the latest graduates who have a grip of more advanced software. Young designers either need to move beyond technology becoming their sole modus operandi or they need to keep up with it. Too many were raised to design with the technology at hand and not think beyond it.

Shaughnessy: The most interesting thing about the new intake at the rca is that the most popular department is the letterpress department. There is this primal, atavistic urge to get their hands dirty.

Monocle: But are they employable when they graduate?

Shaughnessy: It goes back to the idea of design entrepreneurship. A lot of them have very strong social agendas and graphic design becomes a tool. They’re not so interested in graphic design as political and social activism. There are huge societal changes going on which make graphic design into a very protean, moveable, flexible craft today.

Monocle: How can graphic design contribute to a better future?

Garland: One thing we can do is to support new notions. For example, publishing on demand. I run a small publishing house and we publish on demand. If we can support any way in which publishing on demand can become more competitive financially, then we must do that actively. Let’s see if we can promote alternative ways of production that don’t put information overload into physical form, just to end up in landfill.

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