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first things first: Climate change and graphic design

first things first Manifesto, 1964

The designer Ken Garland published his first things first Manifesto in London in 1964 and with it he challenged a generation of visual communicators to rethink their role as designers and to do something more useful with their creative talents than simply create commercial advertising for cat food, stomach powder and aftershave lotion.
In 2000 this declaration was updated and published by Adbusters – the commercial products were more contemporary, but the message was the same – there are pursuits more worthy of designer’s problem-solving skills than just commercial design. While many designers embraced the call to arms, others saw the manifesto as unrealistic idealism – how can you save the world and pay the bills?
Between Ken Garland’s original manifesto and 2000 a lot had changed, new products, new media and new ways of advertising all adding to a general increase in the sheer volume of consumerism taking place. A decade or so later and the landscape has changed again, environmental concerns that were once peripheral to scientific communities and the green movement are now mainstream – we’re now all aware of CO2 emissions, global warming and climate change.
Design has only played a very small part in this whole journey, but it’s been a very important one – creating adverts, branding and packaging that are seductive, enticing and comforting – design has made the whole experience feel okay. Now that we are starting to realise the environmental costs of some of our choices then it’s fitting that designers are picking up the spirit of the First Things First manifesto and applying their skills to tackling some of these issues. Emily Hinshelwood is a writer and graphic designer who’s used the OCA’s Graphic Design 1 module to support her in promoting environmental responsibility:
I have always been critical of advertising – ever since I read an article in a marketing handbook on ‘how to persuade young mothers to take up smoking’. And yet I can’t get away from the fact that my objective in learning Graphic Design is effectively the same thing! I want to promote environmental responsibility and in particular I want to persuade people to cut their carbon emissions.

Danger Climate Change
Danger Climate Change, Emily Hinshelwood

I work for a small energy charity called Awel Aman Tawe which was established 13 years ago to address issues of climate change. Primarily it does this through developing renewable energy projects, – solar, biomass, wind etc – and through energy efficiency programmes. Over the years of the project, it has been interesting to see how people’s perceptions of climate change have altered. Thirteen years ago, most of us knew very little of the science of it. It was hardly in the news, and rarely talked about. Now, however, we are all very aware of climate change. We know it’s happening – and happening a lot faster than we would like – and yet, it is still a taboo subject. In most social situations, if you bring up climate change, people’s eyes glaze over, and they’d really rather you shut up. I find this an interesting response, considering the enormous changes we are about to experience in the next couple of decades: the enormous loss of species, the mass migration as land becomes uninhabitable, the consequent conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. What is it that’s stopping us from talking about it?
We decided to run a programme of arts activities on the theme of climate change – poetry, animation, film, printmaking, theatre – and we had a fierce interest in the project. The poetry competition received entries from as far afield as Philippines and USA. People have responded so strongly, that I believe it’s the sheer depth of feeling that makes it hard to talk about it. It’s also made me see the vital role of artists and writers in helping us all to make the transitions required and to come to terms with our changing landscape and society.

Sustain it, Bethan Marlow
Sustain it, Bethan Marlow

Through the graphics design module with the OCA, I have tailored most of my assignments towards creating posters, leaflets, marketing materials for the arts and climate change project. The module is helping me to understand how people view publicity; it’s helped me to identify and highlight key messages. As a writer, I am used to playing with words, and editing out as much waffle as I can. It is a huge eye-opener for me to see that the same applies to visual communication.
One of the arts projects – Postcards from the Future – invited people to send in a postcard depicting their vision of the future; either imaginary, real or hoped for. I used the ‘folding exercise’ in assignment two to design the flyer for the project which contained the postcard and all the information that people needed. We had a great response with ideas from the apocalyptic ‘The End’ to messages about planting seeds, to comic takes on the future like this one from Huw Aaron.
Marco the last bear, Huw Aaron
Marco the last bear, Huw Aaron

I still find myself in awe of designers, and artists who can speak without words, and really grab us emotionally. This is what I strive for as I know that for an issue like climate change (and probably for young mothers who crave a cigarette), we are hooked by the emotional draw rather than the verbal argument.
Emily Hinshelwood
To view the postcards submitted to the Postcards From The Future project go to: http://awelamantawe.wordpress.com/

Meteorite, schmeteorite, Huw Aaron
Meteorite, schmeteorite, Huw Aaron

Posted by author: Christian Lloyd
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10 thoughts on “first things first: Climate change and graphic design

  • Excellent stuff; I particularly enjoyed the dinosaurs.
    It always strikes me that a lot more could be done to standardise packaging to make it more easily recyclable.
    In the past I’ve worked a lot with pack designers, supplying the photography, but I know more about why what goes in the pack goes in the pack than the forces at work in determining its form and materials.
    I wonder how much designers can influence these issues.

    • How much influence do designers have is a good question. I suppose what is needed is a more embedded sense of design thinking in which environmental concerns are part of the problem that needs to be resolved. Up until now these issues were perceived to be one of choice but rises in fuel costs, landfill taxes, reduction in resources and public opinion have become key economic factors that have to be considered.

      • Perhaps one of the factors at play is client perception of the role of designers and design. In my experience very often it amounts to little more than an applique finishing touch once everything has been decided, ‘tart this up so people want to buy it’.
        Even on purely mercenary terms they don’t seem to appreciate the value added to the bottom line by integrating good design, in its widest sense, into the process from the outset, something Apple are an exemplar of.
        Maybe client education, if only in terms of their own self interest, is required.

    • Ah, OK my attempt at rendering subscripts and superscript didn’t work. In the main article the “2” in “CO2” is a superscript but it should be a subscript. Not that I have a PhD in Chemical Physics or anything …

  • “Maybe client education, if only in terms of their own self interest, is required.” a central function of the designers’ craft in my view. The trick is doing it so that the client doesn’t fire you!

    • Client education is important but perhaps this ties into a wider re-evaluation of values that we all need to be engaged with if we want to have a chance of dealing with climate change. The First Things First manifesto was an attempt to draw attention to this.

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