Can design make a difference?

A journey into the unknown that starts with strokes of white in a sea of red and ends with a controversial proposition.

The Unknown

The exploration hunt started by reviewing what the UCA Archive has in store. The UCA offers a range of different collections from Business cards, Photographs, Visiting books to Sketchbooks. However wide the selection was, it led me straight to the Typographic Circle collection (2008 – 2015). The Typographic Circle was founded by Maggie Lewis in 1976 with a mission to “bring together anyone with an interest in type and typography.” (Typographic Circle, s.d.)

It is a 'not-for-profit' organisation run by volunteers and the only requirement to become a member is to have a passion for type and a few quid to spare (for the yearly subscription of £15 for students or £30 for individuals).

The organisation not only provides a plethora of helpful resources, but it also holds a variety of type and typography related events including a series of diverse monthly lectures by well-known industry speakers. "Each speaker is invited to design the poster for their own event, and this has led to a terrific archive created by top designers to promote, well, themselves." (Alderson, 2015)

Figure 1. 'Typographic Circle Archive', 2020

What followed was a process of narrowing the range down to a smaller number of posters, this decision was based solely on instinct and the limits of the UCA collection.

The selected posters were:

Figures 2. - 7.

Poster entitled 'Typadelic' advertising Airside

Poster entitled 'On Liking/Disliking' advertising Patrick Burgoyne

Poster entitled 'To go on a journey you need strong legs' advertising Sanky

Poster entitled 'Symbol, Mark and a Typeface' advertising Angus Hyland

Poster entitled 'Design CAN make a difference' advertising Michael Johnson

Poster entitled 'Violent type. Killing our masters one character at a time' advertising Nils Leonar

An arrangement has been made to review these ‘objects of interest’ in person once they were identified. At this point there was no clear goal for this research or notion of what this inquiry might reveal. Regardless of this predicament, the visit to the archives was an enriching experience.

After carefully considering the timeline, meaning and style of each poster, it became clear that it is not necessary to look for connections between the posters. Each individual poster is a lead in and of itself - the path of each art piece is not dependent on the meaning of previous or future prints.

What are posters for in the first place? They are used to promote an idea, a product, or an event to the public. How that is achieved, is partly up to the designer and partly up to the commissioner. So, when the selection of posters (listed above) was laid out side by side, it was easy to see that some of the posters had a lot more to say than others. The white strokes on the red background spelling out “Design CAN make a difference” were calling out for attention. As If this bold message was not enough, the print pulls you in to read the small thought-provoking messages, which are sprinkled throughout the two-dimensional art piece.

Figure 8. 'Design Can Make a difference', 2013

The Insight


The ‘Design CAN make a difference’ poster was made to promote Michael Johnsons lecture to the members of Typographic Circle, which was held on June 17 in 2013. During his talk he examines the responsibilities of designers, he talks about his search for meaningful work and he presents the audience with examples from his own practise – concentrating on projects for 'not-for-profit' organisations. Johnsons speech also featured a call-to-action for other professionals to do good, not just pretty work.

“…endlessly churning out self-promotional projects is fine, to a point, but, next time, consider channelling that energy into something more useful. The next generation of designers needs to see that they CAN make a difference, rather than just designing for decoration. It is possible to do ‘great’ design and ‘good’ all of the time, not just some of it. At the end of all this, perhaps design is capable of achieving something genuinely meaningful.” (Johnson Banks, 2013a)

This statement is coming from an award-winning British designer who was born in Derby, England (which also happens to be the city where I did my undergraduate degree in Product Design – such a small world).

He has worked for some of the most prestigious brand consulting agencies including Wolff Olins, Smith & Milton, Sedley Place and Dentsu, before he started his own company Johnson Banks in 1992. Today, this London-based design consultancy is one of the leading creative agencies in the world with such brands as Virgin Atlantic, The Guggenheim Foundation, Mozilla, UAL, Duolingo, Pink Floyd and most recently The Royal Academy of Music as clients. (Johnson, s.d.)

Over the years, the studio has also taken on a number of ‘not-for-profit’ clients like the cystic fibrosis trust, Shelter (housing and homeless charity), The Anthony Nolan Trust (bone marrow register) and disasters emergency committee – some of which were featured in the ‘Design CAN make a difference’ speech. (Johnson Banks, 2013a)

Johnson is also an accomplished author who frequently contributes to design journals and shares reflective and thoughtful articles on the Johnson Banks website (it's worth checking out), however for many aspiring designers and non-designers he is most recognized for writing some of the best-selling books on design and branding:

Problem Solved: a primer in design and communication – 2002, 2012

Branding: In Five and a Half Steps – 2016

Now Try Something Weirder: How to keep having great ideas and survive in the creative business2019

(Johnson, s.d.)


Michael Johnson is certainly not the first one to urge designers to use their skills for more than just commercial work. His presentation echoes the message of the First Thing First Manifesto (Garland, 1964), also known as the anti-advertising manifesto.

Figure 9. The First Things First Manifesto, 1964

However, Garland himself does not perceive his essay as an anti-advertising manifesto. First Things First was written in the heat of the moment and it was not primarily about ethical attitude. In an interview with the Eye magazine Garland shares his original intentions, “…I was talking about what seemed to me to be a political and economic point, about the way we spend money. That was my concern.” , “…The manifesto was meant to be an alert to the fact that monies, which were pouring into visual communications of all sorts, seemed to be going down the wrong channels. There were all sorts of things that we could have been about and we weren’t. I hardly expected it to raise any interest but I got this terrific reception.” (Odling-Smee, 2007)

Figure 10. First Things First 2000: A Design Manifesto, 1999

Regardless of Garlands true intentions the manifesto was picked up by the next generations of designers. It was updated and rewritten for the twenty-first century and published again by Adbusters magazine in 1999 as the ‘First Things First Manifesto 2000’ and many more magazines followed suit (The AIGA Journal / Blueprint / Émigré / Eye / Form / Items).

"The profession's time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best." (First Things First Manifesto 2000, 1999)

The manifesto was updated again in 2014 by Cole Peters, "aiming to reflect the influence of the Internet on communications and design, and also to open it up to any signatories." (Montgomery, 2014)

Unlike the first two versions of the manifesto, which were published in print, The First Things First manifesto 2014 was launched online instead.

Figure 11. First Things First 2014, 2014

"(It) should thusly represent not only designers, but also developers, programmers and other creative technologists — in short, anyone using technology and creativity within the scope of a professional pursuit," Peter states (First Things First Manifesto Celebrates 50 Years, 2014).

In 2020 as we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day the manifesto was renewed once again as the 'First Things First: A Manifesto — 2020 Edition'. This version fills in the gaps of its predecessors with a greater sense of urgency as we see the compounded effects of our climate crisis unfold.

"Our time and energy are increasingly used to manufacture demand, to exploit populations, to extract resources, to fill landfills, to pollute the air, to promote colonization, and to propel our planet’s sixth mass extinction. We have helped to create comfortable, happy lives for some of our species and allowed harm to others; our designs, at times, serve to exclude, eliminate, and discriminate." (First Things First 2020, 2020)


The ‘essentialist thinking’ style, which is synonymous with the First Things First manifesto is similar to the philosophy of Karel Honzík, Czech functionalist architect. In his essay Necessims: a vision of reasonable consumption from 1946, the author promotes the idea of planning for production of only essential things, which were to be determined by ‘consumption experts’ (Typo, 2006).

Figure 12. Necessims, 1946

From a more recent perspective, the 2005 issue of Creative Review features an interview with Paula Scher, where she links the rise in anti-advertising movements to the birth of total branding (sometime in the late 70s and early 80s), “Total branding resulted in an enormous improvement of the graphic quality of packaging and promotion for so many products and services, but it also created a backlash by many designers and design critics, who were repelled by the vast emptiness of the consumer culture.”

Scher also describes what followed after the dotcom explosion in the mid-to-late 90s “…talented young designers right out of art school were paid seemingly huge sums of money to pile into these firms, work as teams and committees, and produce work that became disappeared. We were told it was the end of print, that the medium would vanish. Instead, the young designers disappeared. They disappeared into firms producing invisible work, and then the firms themselves disappeared.” (Scher, 2005)

The Critical


Responding to the ‘Design CAN make a difference’ ideology.

Even though ‘Design CAN make a difference’ has a similar anti-consumerism message to the First Things First manifesto, there is a difference in what each one promotes as the way forward. First Things First divided work into the preferable essential work (useful) and the non-essential (useless), meanwhile ‘Design CAN make a difference’ focused on the meaningful, the purposeful and perhaps even virtuous work.

To illustrate the issues with meaningful design we will examine what are some of the barriers that keep designers from following in Michael Johnsons footsteps. Johnson himself lists some of the issues of working in the 'not-for-profit', education and cultural sectors during his speech. In summary, the budgets tend to be lower than for other commercial projects and while there are many other rewarding sides to this type of work, it is still not the type of work that wins design awards. (Johnson Banks, 2013a) This would explain why some of the more established designers are not getting involved.

When it comes to aspirational designers, they unfortunately do not have the luxury to pick and choose which projects they will take on. Final year projects are usually their first and last opportunity to create something meaningful. Furthermore, if we insert the argument of freelance designers, we will run into the same priority-based problem. It is true that freelancers have the necessary freedom but at the end of the day self-preservation (making enough profit to sustain oneself) is of higher importance than pursuing one’s virtues. The same line of thinking can be applied to businesses too. In both instances the needs of the individual (the designer or the company) outweigh the needs of many. Only when we have an established sense of security, we can start helping others. “Put your oxygen mask on first!”

Even though, young designers must put up with what they are given (less meaningful projects), they still have some power over what, how and where it gets communicated. Furthermore, all designers should have the right to voice their concerns around ethics in the design industry. This freedom can be exercised by not promoting services or products deemed harmful.

There are other reasons why meaningful design is not a viable career path for everyone and the foundation of these reasons is built on lack of knowledge, time, money, and the difference in priorities. Doug Powell (TEDx Talks, 2012) shares a similar conclusion in his talk Design a Force for Social Impact. His reasons why designers cannot make a difference are:

1) Meaningful design takes time.

2) Meaningful change takes change.

3) Meaningful change will take a new business model.

4) Meaningful change will take new networks.

5) Meaningful change will take new measurements.

However, these obstacles should not overshadow the one reason why designers CAN make a difference and that is their ability to make ideas visual, tangible, and understandable. Perhaps the biggest issue about the ‘Design CAN make a difference’ statement is that design is not the entity which makes the difference - it is people. What design can do (and should do) is to create a bridge that transforms information into meaning, which is only one part of the equation. The other half depends on what public (people) will do in return. If there was a happy ending to this story, it would end with, “…and so people began to think differently.”


Responding to the First Thing First manifesto (1964, 2000, 2014) and the ‘essential things’ philosophy.

First things first, we must acknowledge who were the signatories of the manifesto. Graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators, a privileged group of professionals, who were not struggling for work or money, which left them in the perfect position to move up to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the esteem and the self-actualization.

The manifesto makes a fair request to employ the skills of designers for more than just commercial work. Which can be seen as an attempt to create more respect for the profession at that time. However, they drive this point even further by denominating commercial work as meaningless and inessential, “…manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best.”

The examples of ‘inessential things’ used in the text such as cat food, slimming diets, fattening diets, designer coffee or butt toners reveal that their understanding of inessentiality is solely based on what they themselves have no use for. In contrast, their list of ‘essentials’ features books, magazines, educational tools, exhibitions, films, charitable causes, and cultural interventions.

The problem of these manifestos lies in the definition and reliance on ‘essential things’. The dictionary defines the meaning of essential as something of the highest importance, but it does not go further to identify what it is, to whom or when (in which situations) it applies.

Ultimately, everyone has their own definition of ‘first things’. There are billions of people on this planet, which makes for billions of unique definitions. This variety is what drives the Western Economic growth as it allows for everyone to pursue their own ‘first things’. Therefore, facilitating greater output and greater consumption.

Admittedly, there are a lot of problems with the commerce-based society, but we cannot deny its accomplishments. Putting our ‘first thing’ first, while rejecting the ‘first things’ of others (the message of the Manifesto), would be destroying the very thing that has allowed us to advance. For us to grow and prosper as a society we need to work towards our ‘first things’ while preserving the ‘first things’ of others.

As much as the signatories wanted to take a stab at the consumerism driven society by determining what is essential, they fail to acknowledge that the only thing they have declared is their own ‘first things’.

On the other hand, it is remarkable that the core message of the manifesto is just as relevant now as it was back then, and the issues of consumerism remain unsolved. Advertising is still a one-way stream of suggestive and persuasive stories which are constantly fed into our subconscious. Providing goods is no longer about satisfying needs, rather it is about vigorous research and the invention of new demands which can be fulfilled with new commodities. The designer remains to be just another piece in the domino effect. "Design is the servant of capitalism."

Through this lens the main goal of the signatories was to put a stop to this chain reaction. They felt responsible for invading the consciousness of others and creating hunger for more things. They wanted to replace commercial spiels for something more meaningful and purposeful, which ties their ideology back to Michael Johsons ‘Design CAN make difference’ poster. They did not want to be the reason why the messages teasing you to buy another cup of designer coffee are louder than the ones asking you to donate for a good cause.

All designers regardless of their specialisation have an immense responsibility over our behaviour and our understanding of life as we know it - what we make is what people buy, how it is designed informs how you use it. Essentially, design sets the stage, hands out the props and provides the script for life. However, this is a responsibility that the general public is mostly unaware of. Perhaps that is one of the things that needs to change in order to establish what is the social function of design and how it impacts culture. Otherwise, our freedom of choice remains an illusion.

The bottom line is that questioning the industry and the ideology of consumerism should not be immediately linked to the extremes of communism and swiftly disregarded. We do not have to settle for one of the two provided options. If we have learned anything from the past, then the best option is something new altogether - a cultural revolution at a global scale.

My Visual Response

As I was composing and writing this piece, I could not stop thinking, "How on earth am I going to conceptualize a visual outcome which will showcase all these findings?"

The main subject of this article was practically asking me to design a poster (and trust me I would love to subtly insert myself right next to the legends featured in the Typographic Circle), however a motionless 2D art piece was just not good enough.

"What about a 3D GIF?"

Sure, that would catch some eyes on the internet, but it would still require a lot of text to explain the context.

Figure 13. Visual Outcome Concepts

"Sooo, I have landed on the final solution - a video."

And the tool that helped me put this together? PowerPoint! (Yup, you are reading that correctly - it is a magical thing.)

I also took some inspiration from the good old Windows Pinball game from 1995 and one of my favourite morning cartoons, where rules of physics cease to exist, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. (This is the madness that goes on in the heads of creatives - you are welcome.)

Figure 14. Wile E. Coyote - Gravity Lessons

Final Thoughts

Overall, I am happy with the end result but there is definitely a lot of room to grow. Any recommendations and words of wisdom are welcomed, please pop them in the comments!

Peer-Group Feedback:


Great video.


It really shows you enjoyed it!

Widen your search. Dig a little deeper into The Typograhic Circle and Michael Johnson's career to provide better foundation.

(PS. After discovering the 'First Things First: A Manifesto — 2020 Edition' I realized that it represents my beliefs of what design is ought to do, therefore I became one of the signatories shortly after completing this brief.)

List of illustrations

Figure 1. Typographic Circle. (2020) Typographic Circle Archive. At:

Figure 2. Typographic Circle. (2020) 'Typadelic'. At:

Figure 3. Typographic Circle. (2020) 'On Liking/Disliking'. At:

Figure 4. Typographic Circle. (2020) 'To go on a journey you need strong legs'. At:

Figure 5. Typographic Circle. (2020) 'Symbol, Mark and a Typeface'. At:

Figure 6. Typographic Circle. (2020) 'Design CAN make a difference'. At:

Figure 7. Typographic Circle. (2020) 'Violent type. Killing our masters one character at a time'. At:

Figure 8. Johnson, M. (2013) ‘Design CAN make a difference’. At:

Figure 9. Garland, K. (1964) The First Things First Manifesto. At:

Figure 10. Barnbrook, E. al (1999) First Things First 2000: A Design Manifesto. At:

Figure 11. Cole, P. (2014) First Things First 2014. At:

Figure 12. Honzík, K. (1946) Necessims. At:

Figure 13. Boudova, M.(2021) Visual Outcome Concepts

[Sketch] In possession of: the author.

Figure 14. Road Runner/Gallery (s.d.) Wile E. Coyote - Gravity Lessons At: (Accessed 12/01/2021).


Alderson, R. (2015) Celebrating the posters designers have made for their Typo Circle talks. At: (Accessed 12/01/2021).

Berman, D. B. (2008) Do Good Design: How Design Can Change Our World. London: Peachpit Press. At:

Burgoyne, P. (ed ). (1999) 'Good Work' In: Creative Review 19 (11) p.11. At: (Accessed 23/11/2020).

Typographic Circle. (s.d.) What we do. At: (Accessed 12/01/2021).

De Luce, I. (2019) '8 best ‘anti-ads’ that sold you a product by telling you not to buy it' In: Business Insider 01/10/2019 At: (Accessed 24/11/2020).

First Things First 2020 (2020) At: (Accessed 23/12/2020).

First Things First Manifesto 2000 (1999) In: Eye Magazine 9 (33) At: (Accessed 29/11/2020).

First Things First Manifesto Celebrates 50 Years (2014) At: (Accessed 10/12/2020).

Garland, K. (1964) First Things First. At: (Accessed 24/11/2020).

Howard, A. (1994) 'There is such a thing as society*' In: Eye Magazine 4 (13) At: (Accessed 04/12/2020).

Johnson Banks (2013a) Design CAN make a difference: the transcript. At: (Accessed 24/11/2020).

Johson Banks (2013b) Design CAN make a difference. At: (Accessed Novemeber 24, 2020).

Johnson, M. (s.d.) About. At: (Accessed 12/01/2021).

Montgomery, A. (2014) Updating the First Things First manifesto for 2014. At: (Accessed 10/12/2020).

Odling-Smee, A. (2007) 'Reputations: Ken Garland' In: Reputations: Ken Garland 17 (66) At: (Accessed 24/11/2020).

Scher, P. (2005) '5x5=25' In: Creative Review 25 (3) p.79. At: (Accessed 23/11/2020).


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