First Things First – Adriana Eysler

“Art for us is an occasion for social criticism and for a real understanding of the age we live in” – Hugo Bell

The lecture I was perhaps most captivated by in this series, in terms of issues discussed, was delivered by Adriana Eysler, in which the social purpose of design and the social responsibility of the designer was questioned.

Design as a profession emerged at the end of the 19th century as a result of the industrial revolution and capitalism; “The pivotal position of design within contemporary culture traces back to the turn of this century [20th], and its growth in importance is inextricably linked to the rise of industrial mass production.” Ewen, S, 1990.

Opposing the mass production of art and design was the Arts and Crafts movement, which started in Britain and spread to the US, Europe and Japan. Key people in this movement such as Augustus Pugin, John Ruskin, and William Morris believed that mass production doesn’t speak to individual needs of users and is of poor quality. This links to the designer as author concept of Slatter’s lecture; and the idea is still present now with art and design websites such as ‘Etsy’ where everything is handmade by individual artists and items can be personalised to the customers preferences.

News from Nowhere – William Morris 1890. An example of work from the Arts and Crafts movement; featuring decorative rural themes.

After this came Industrial Modernism; The Bauhaus was a design school in Germany running between 1919 and 1933. This was a response to industrialisation and its effects. Bauhaus embraced functionalism, geometric formalism and machine aesthetics, with the iconic phrase “form follows function” being associated with the movement.

Both of these movements coincided with the belief that design has the task of building a better life and society for people; that designers are “agents for social change”.

In WW1 designers became key in propaganda, they took on the role of selling war to the public, convincing them it was just. Designers had already worked with psychologists to make their work more effective, as discussed in October’s Fashion lecture, and posters such as James Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam ‘I Want You’ are examples of how designers were able to encourage people to sign up and fight. The posters for war were very similar to the pre-existing advertisements for consumerism; the two were sold in the same way in an attempt to make war seem like a continuity of life. fee153a49d2aa4fb18390b9baef51401 jacka_artv00026_lge
Here you can see similarities in the way designers approached ordinary advertisements for products, such as ‘Johnnie Walker’ Whisky, and in the way they approached propaganda and posters to encourage men to enlist.

“Repelled by the slaughterhouses of the world war, we turned to art” – Hans Arp.

In 1933 the Nazis closed the Bauhaus, declaring most avant-garde art as ‘degenerate’. Many of the designers therefore emigrated to the USA, where their influence on design was very prominent. An example of this can be seen in the evolution of the IBM logo; going from being very decorative to having more simplistic but effective aesthetics.

In 1964, British graphic designer, Ken Garland and 20 other designers published the First Things First Manifesto. This is a declaration of principles, calling for a return to a humanist aspect of design. Garland practised what he preached and was involved in lots of design projects contributing towards a better society, i.e. the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) March poster.


Following this, in the 80s and 90s activist design groups used their work to confront social issues such as AIDS and Homophobia. Many designers started changing their profession to ‘artist’, wanting more freedom with their work, not wanting to design for large corporations with messages they didn’t agree with.

Barbara Kruger’s influential work (influential if you are at all concerned by this issue) is a great example of this. Her work serves as a guilt trip, a reminder of how wrapped up we can become by consumerism, and it encourages us to look what’s really important.

‘No Logo’ 1999 was an influential book at the time; author Naomi Klein explores how brands really operate and the lengths they go to to mask and beautify their methods of manufacturing i.e. sweatshops. This is where Culture Jamming/Guerilla Communication comes in; a tactic used by many anti-consumerist social movements. The Anti-Sweatshop culture jamming in the 1990s key issue was ‘uncooling the billion dollar brands’.

Examples of Culture Jamming protests
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I was particularly gripped by Eysler’s culture jamming example of BP vs Greenpeace. BP rebranded their company, originally standing for ‘British Petroleum’ they changed the meaning to ‘Beyond Petrolem’, suggesting they’re no longer an oil company and that they’re all about renewable energy sources. Bullshit. Their green sunflower logo fell victim to a Greenpeace campaign in which they were fighting against this issue.

BP’s original logo
BP’s rebranded logo

Greenpeace’s take on the logo

I have been so engrossed by this lecture, and have decided that this will be the topic I chose to base my essay on. I have just ordered Klein’s ‘No Logo’ to read not only as a form of research but out of genuine interest. Once this lecture series is finished I shall read much further into the social responsibility of designers; I am most interested in the culture jamming topic and therefore will focus my research and essay on this in particular.

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