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Karl Marx had one. The Unibomber had one. When Thomas Jefferson
wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he drafted the
manifesto that launched the American Revolution. Graphic design
would not exist as we know it today if F.
T. Marinetti hadn't published his manifestos and instigated
Futurism. By inventing the idea of art as a branded public
enterprise, Marinetti compelled many poets, painters and designers
after him to state their principles in compact, incendiary
A manifesto is a short document that “manifests” or makes public
a set of ideas and goals. A manifesto is passionate, personal and
vivid. Such calls to action went out of fashion during the mid-20th
century, replaced by more businesslike, professionally oriented
statements of purpose and principle. But at the turn of the new
century, just as at the turn of the old one, manifestos came back.
Businesses started using “brand manifestos” to spell out the
defining features of their products, and software companies and
design firms started posting manifestos to publicize their approach
in an edgy, direct way.
Photo by ~fa~.
Designers seem especially drawn to manifestos. A well-written
manifesto is like a well-designed product. It communicates
directly, it is broken into functional parts, and it has elements
of poetry and surprise. And drafting one is more like writing an ad
than writing a novel. Manifestos typically have a social
function—they serve to bring together members of a group. Ten years
ago, Bruce Mau published his “Incomplete Manifesto,” written as a list of
commandments (“Go deep.” “Capture accidents.” “Study.” “Drift.”)
These principles became the established creed of Mau's own design
office, but they can be used by anyone. Other designers with
intriguing and influential personal manifestos include product
designer Karim Rashid and the infamous post-typographers
Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals.
Bruce Sterling's “Manifesto of January 3, 2000” helped galvanize the
contemporary green movement, which is the epicenter of
manifesto-writing today. Sterling, in addition to demanding an
overhaul of all social, political and military systems, pushed
designers to create “intensely glamorous environmentally sound
products; entirely new objects of entirely new materials; replacing
material substance with information; a new relationship between the
cybernetic and the material” (iPhone, anyone?). Also in 2000, Rick
Poynor published the “First Things First 2000” manifesto, based on a text
written by Ken Garland in 1964, a controversial document that
called for designers to use their skills to improve environmental,
social and cultural life rather than to sell hair gel and dog
In the past few years, dozens of manifestos have been published
in books and on blogs and websites about how to live, design and do
business in sustainable ways. Emily Pilloton's “(Anti)Manifesto: A Call to Action for Humanitarian
(Product) Design” replaces the pith and poetry of the typical
manifesto with a more careful and considered—yet no less
passionate—essay on how to make design more essentially
humanitarian. Yet in keeping with the manifesto tradition, she uses
snappy subject headings to bring readers in and give them something
to remember: “Taking the 'product' out of product design.”
“Activism over academics.” “Design is the new micro-loan.” The Designers Accord, launched
by Valerie Casey, encourages designers and institutions to make a
public commitment to sustainable practices; using social networks
and the internet, the Designers Accord is an activist instrument
with a rapidly expanding base.
Photo by uppercaseyyc.
Manifestos from the D.I.Y. movement celebrate craft and indie
media as forms of social and creative empowerment. Andrew Dubber's
“New Music Strategies Manifesto” condemns the
industrial control of ownership and distribution: “Innovation
requires open systems.” “Copyright is important—and broken.” “The
Internet is like electricity.” Ulla-Maaria Mutanen's “Draft Craft Manifesto” is descriptive rather
than prescriptive. Rather than take the form of commandments, her
manifesto talks about the values that draw people to crafting and
the social phenomena that result: “Learning techniques brings
people together. This creates online and offline communities of
practice.” “Craft-oriented people seek opportunities to discover
interesting things and meet their makers. This creates
Mutanen's manifesto also talks about the importance of tools to
crafting—not just physical tools like needles and awls, but
intellectual tools like recipes and tutorials. A manifesto is, in
the end, a tool. It helps the writer articulate a point of view,
shaping and compressing theories and beliefs into an essential and
directed form, and it helps readers discover their own position.
It's a tool that anyone can make, share and use.
To read more on the history of the manifesto, see Martin
Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the
Avant-Gardes(Princeton University Press, 2005).
Can design make a difference? Heller asks the founder of Project M about improving the world one community at a time.
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