AIGA Centennial: How Best to Serve 25,000 Members?

W.A. Dwiggins coined the term “graphic design” in 1922 but the 1914 creation of the American Institute of Graphic Arts acknowledged the growing need for an organization “to do all things which [would] raise the standard and aid the extension and development of the graphic arts in the United States,” as Charles DeKay wrote in the Institute’s constitution 100 years ago. The Centennial of what today is known as AIGA serves as the perfect opportunity to look back on how, in many ways, the history of AIGA echoes the history of the graphic arts, but also, and perhaps more importantly, evaluate how AIGA and contemporary graphic artists can better collaborate in order to best navigate the next 100 years through ever-changing professional, technological, and cultural landscapes.

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It is fair to say that the founding members of AIGA looked to formalize elements of the graphic arts, relying on established traditions and advocating for industry standards and best practices. In an essay celebrating AIGA’s 75th anniversary, Steven Heller and Nathan Gluck identified its origins as “the old guard of a new profession.” But, as the two are quick to point out, traditions quickly gave way to new aesthetic criteria, thanks in great part to modernism’s machine-age lines and forward-looking tendencies with little interest in the past.

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Interviews with the AIGA leadership via email make clear that the past is an essential foundation for the organization’s continued success, though how it manifests in the future very much remains to be seen.

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When asked about some of AIGA’s overall goals as it enters its second century of existence, executive director Richard Grefé said, “lots of change: recognizing the incredible power of an engaged community of 25,000 designers and 67 chapters; empowering that group to share inspiration with each other; advocating ethical principles for the profession and public awareness of the value of design; developing professional development opportunities for designers in their role as problem-solvers in a world of complex challenges; and opening opportunities for designers as creative professionals, as contributors to strategic, conceptual, multi-dimensional solutions and as a force in improving the human experience.”

Thanks to desk-top publishing and the internet anyone can design and print wedding invitations, menus, and concert posters, as well as magazines. The Adobe Creative Suite makes this relatively easy, though that certainly doesn’t mean all designs are good, or successful in getting across a message. AIGA’s mission is pretty clear, and there are no shortage of examples that demonstrate the organization’s accomplishments. But the more complex question, and the question that seems to be more relevant today than ever before, is this: Who are the designers who will benefit most from the services offered by AIGA?

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While certain prominent designers were known outside the advertising and media industries before the internet came to the fore, their notoriety is nothing compared to the status enjoyed today by a certain strata of designer. I asked Sean Adams of AdamsMorioka, and AIGA’s co-president, if there was a specific moment in time when graphic designers were elevated from respected professionals to figures more closely resembling rock stars.

“This is an incredibly interesting subject that intersects issues of celebrity and design,” he replied. “In my experience, the system previous to the digital revolution was similar to the old Hollywood star system. There were only four or five magazines on graphic design, a few books a year, and a couple of major conferences. Designers became famous by a set formula; you entered competitions, people began to notice the work, a magazine featured you, you were asked to speak at an AIGA conference, and then for different speaking engagements. By now, you had a name in the industry and were considered ‘famous.’ . . . By the late 1990s, the system changed, much like the Hollywood star system shifted to an independent model. The online capabilities took the control from a few and disseminated it across the entire design industry. Now, anyone could be published online and the work would be shared globally. Design exploded as a profession.”

Of course, the majority of people who identify themselves as a graphic designer do not bask in the pleasures of jet-setting conference appearances, big-budget clients, and book deals. Most of AIGA’s 25,000 members are the “meat-and-potato” designers and illustrators who work regionally, focusing more on projects across town, not six time zones away. There is no doubt that much of their work is excellent. But what does AIGA do for the designer who specializes in, and makes a living from, designing local restaurant menus?

Grefé explained, “We have to always be conscious that in representing the design profession we are seeking to empower designers differentiated by the medium in which they work, the stage they are in their career, the place that they work and where they are located. For an association with such diversity to serve its membership well, it must realize it should not judge each activity on its relevance to all members, but rather whether each member finds at least some of its activities to be very important to them, wherever they are in their career in the spectrum of design practices.”

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In theory, it’s hard to argue with this stance, but in practice it might not be so easy to pull off. Take Patricia Cue as an example (full disclosure: I published her book). Cue was born in Mexico and has lived in the United States since 1997; she regularly designs with both English and Spanish. “I was a member of AIGA on and off for many years between 1995 and 2008,” she told me. “But I am currently not a member. At the start of my career as a designer the membership gave me a strong sense of connection to the professional world of design. It was the place I’d go for finding out what was going on in design, for conferences, to look at great portfolios, network at the local chapter events. When I became an academic, even though I was the student chapter adviser at SDSU, I withdrew from AIGA as a professional for several reasons. I felt that the academic community and our interests were underrepresented and that AIGA became a bit of a club of selected designers, that it lacked diversity and didn’t provide enough and more open opportunities for participation from a wider range of practices. I was on the board for the AIGA XCD (Cross Cultural Design) Chapter and it was really hard to get support, funding, and dissemination of our activities from the central AIGA.”

Part of the AIGA mission is to “mobilize a global design movement.” Considering the globalized nature of contemporary culture, as well as the demographic realities of the United States and the number of people for whom English is not their first language, it is surprising how the AIGA website does not recognize, in any obvious way, all of the non-English-language design happening within the fifty states today.

At the end of 2013 a contentious debate emerged about AIGA selling the building it owns on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The official stance on the sale, according to Grefé is, “The AIGA board of directors and a large swath of our members believe that the organization is better served by having an office space that meets the needs of the organization today and investing the real estate value currently contained in a non-income producing asset into an endowment for the long term future of the profession, as well as a small sum to invest in member activities today.” Again, on the surface, this sounds logical. But as the passionate exchange in the comments section that took place at DesignObserver last October proves, the real questions are about how the money generated by the sale would be put to use, making it clear that AIGA’s messaging isn’t necessarily in line with all of its members needs.

Of course, with so many members working across different mediums and through different stages of their careers, it would be impossible to please all of them. In the same way that for the past 100 years AIGA has been inclusive of, and proponents for, change when it comes to the profession of graphic design and the graphic arts, it certainly is capable of continuing to evolve apace with the needs and interests of its current members and, most importantly, potential new members. In this sense, it is an exciting time for AIGA. The organization’s first century has been impressive and influential – if it is able to best serve its members by both championing its stars while also supporting and engaging those who might not ever be stars but nonetheless create good work that enables them to do what they love, then AIGA will remain a vital part of international visual culture.

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