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 speech.
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.
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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 biscuits.
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.
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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 marketplaces.”
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 Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes(Princeton University Press, 2005).