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Designing democracy: can creatives sway MPs with a new manifesto?

By Lynda Relph-Knight | Consulting design editor

January 22, 2015 | 4 min read

We can expect to hear the word ‘manifesto’ bandied about over the coming weeks as the political parties vie for votes in May’s general election. But we’re hearing it more in the creative industries too as official bodies and individuals set out their own agendas.


One of the more memorable manifestations in design was the First Things First manifesto. Published by seminal graphic designer Ken Garland in 1964, it marked a bid by creatives to staunch the flow of shallow consumer advertising. "We have reached a saturation point at which the high-pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise," it said. While not calling for a total veto on advertising work, Garland and his fellow signatories urged designers to refocus their talents on education and public service. "We are proposing a reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication," the manifesto read.

You could say that little has changed and that First Things First is even more relevant now in these days of multichannel bombardment. Indeed, it was reproduced in 2000 and updated last year by Canadian designer Cole Peters in a bid to foster more human-centred design. Like the erudite teachings of Victor Papanek, the eco-design pioneer, it isn’t likely to dim in relevance.

But the sentiments are embodied now in a new design manifesto, due to launch late next month. Appropriately penned by the All-Party Design and Innovation Group (APDIG) to engage MPs before the general election, it will focus on: housing and infrastructure, health and, of course, education. These are deemed key areas where design can effect positive change in the UK – and potentially win votes.

APDIG’s manifesto echoes the shift in emphasis in design over the past few years from the creation of objects and isolated visuals to that of services. Products, graphics and architecture are inevitably part of programmes launched in, say, health and crime prevention by the Design Council and others over the past five or so years. But those programmes take a more holistic approach to social issues than might previously have been the case – as have Dave Birss’s Day Before Tomorrow videos for The Drum on the future of healthcare, education, money, retail and the city.

With luck and good marketing, APDIG’s efforts might sway parliamentarians’ minds a fraction towards issues that really count – and provide fresh meat for hustings speeches. It might even earn designers greater public respect.

All we need now is for a creative force to produce a manifesto on the election process. A new way of looking at how voting works is surely due at a time when minority parties like the Greens, UKIP and the Scottish National Party are gaining momentum. The Design Commission is publishing an essay in March on Designing Democracy, but how do we really deal effectively with the inevitable hung parliament? We’d welcome your views on that.

Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's consulting design editor. You can follow her on Twitter @RelphKnight

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