The Ghost of AIGA Publications Past

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On Tuesday night, May 22, I participated, with twelve other New York designers, in an evening celebrating the 30th anniversary of AIGA/NY. Each contributor was supposed to speak for six minutes (though that was not always the case). My bit recalled AIGA’s publishing past and my contribution to it. Here is an excerpt:

Hello! I am the GHOST OF AIGA PUBLICATIONS PAST . . . And this is as much about the past glory of AIGA’s publishing program as it is a cautionary tale about its future.

AIGA publications programs, which date back almost to its founding, impacted all members—most of whom were in New York—and forever changed what we now call design writing. We’ve lost something valuable as AIGA surges in its digital future. Print publishing, which AIGA has all but eliminated, is an invaluable resource.

The AIGA published a journal from the late 1940s through the early 1950s, to showcase its annual exhibitions as well as to add spice to what was then a rather dull design dialogue. In an early ’60s AIGA Journal, Washington Post reporter Wolf Von Eckardt helped trigger the as-yet-unspecified discipline called design criticism with this salvo:

“The United States is probably the only civilized country where the questionable taste of politicians dictates the visual image of government,” he wrote.

Von Eckardt argued that the new logo, designed by Chermeyeff & Geismar, was an important alternative to what he called the “Grandma Moses fashion” of depicting more than is necessary, or what is “clearly too much.”

Another ’60s AIGA Journal introduced not just the work but the ideas of Ben Shahn. In his essay “In Defense of Chaos” (above), Shahn added his critical voice. “I love Chaos,” he said. “It is the mysterious, unknown road. It is the ever-unexpected; the way out; it is freedom; it is man’s only hope. It is the poetic element in a dull ordered world.” These thoughts were not routinely found in well-ordered commercial art of the ’50s. The AIGA Journal took a stand.

The Journal also generated interest in vernacular design (above), long before it was a popular fashion. Rather than highlighting only its own ostensibly elitist group of graphic designers, the editors of this 1973 edition focused on neon signs. These monumental advertising displays were not considered high midcentury-modern design, but the Journal, through features like this, gave mass-market design its props.

The Journal did not shy away from controversy. In fact, it seemed to be energized by it. In fall 1968 AIGA sponsored the symposium “Whatever Happened to Magazines,” featuring the leading art directors of the day grousing intelligently about the state of their art. As Frank Zachary of Holiday noted in the Journal above from 1968: “The heart of the problem is not the relationship of the art director to the editor, but the relationship of the editor to the publisher, and the publisher to business. What’s wrong with magazines is the reason they exist. Magazines exist to stay in business and make money.”

In addition to the Journal, there was a steady flow of competition catalogs, covering many topical themes and disciplines. Today we’d probably complain about the paper waste. Digital is much more sustainable for sure. But I don’t have any doubt that these artifacts are just as, if not more valuable in recounting the history of graphic design.

The typesetting, printing and the images, transmit a sense of the moment that a digital record cannot achieve.

AIGA National, which recently cancelled all but one of its exhibitions, once had had as many as half-a-dozen competitions a year. “Insides” was specialized, yet in a field were covers were tops on the publishing totem pole, this show was an inspiring record of good interior graphic design.

Above is Al Hirschfeld’s self-portrait. He was long the most well-known theatrical caricaturist in the world. “The Mental Picture” show was AIGA’s exclusive illustration exhibition. Sadly, AIGA doesn’t cover illustration as a separate discipline any longer.

Yes, covers were important too. My very first piece of “award winning” graphic design was a cover for Screw magazine in the AIGA “Cover Show”. Even singling out posters was useful. This 1978 catalog (below) provides a vivid, albeit black and white, record of the icons of their day.

The Journal had been suspended in the late 70s, but was revived in 1982 as a newsletter, focusing on AIGA news. I was invited to write for it in 1986 and took over as editor a year later. My goal was to inject more design journalism and criticism, and consequently spread the net for writers in and out of the field. Frankly, there were not many good design journalists available at the time, so the Journal became a platform for non-designers who were interested in a design beat. The newsletter soon took on the quality of an OpEd page.

Each quarterly issue was branded by a theme. Like this one (above) on Globalism. The stories, however, were not
limited to business alone. This (below) by Philip B. Meggs, a contributing writer, covered politics, culture and the arts of persuasion. For Meggs and others, this was the only venue for writing of this kind.

The Journal may have been the first to cover minority representation in Design (below). An initiative that was started by AIGA to discover why there was a disproportionate number of minorities throughout the field.

But the Journal was not all scholarship. Wit and humor makes the world go round. And our “Dear Tibor” column (below) by Tibor Kalman was witty, humorous and, believe it or not, often rather helpful to old and young designers. Nonetheless, some skeptics accused us of making up the letters.

Tibor frequently tested his various off-center theories about why graphic design needed fixing. His satire was a perfect counterpoint to our more serious content. Tibor’s contribution to graphic design at the time was an increased awareness of social issues and the profession’s impact on them (and vice versa).

The Journal devoted a few issues to the topic, including “Do-Goodery Comes of Age,” wherein the idea of pro-bono as fashion was critiqued. And examined the nexus of creativity and pro-bono responsibility. The journal began covering political and social movements, often to the chagrin of readers who would threaten to cancel their membership, if we continued to be “partisan.” As if AIDS was a partisan issue.

The Journal also looked inward, analyzing what this new design writing was really saying and how it was being said.

The Journal was a compliment to the The Annual of Graphic Design U.S.A., which in addition to publishing AIGA’s four annual competitions or shows, also ran biographical profiles of all medal winners.

In the mid-1990s, Bill Drenttel, who served on the AIGA board’s publishing committee suggested that the Journal transform from newsletter to magazine. Working with various art directors, we reformatted and editorially revamped the Journal. We even began taking advertising to help offset costs (including paying our authors).

Thematic concepts were even more important. Each edition had a different one: “Cult and Culture” and “The Bordertown” issues (above). I invited different co-guest editors to help develop content. Guest co-editor Milton Glaser’s “The TRUTH ISSUE” (below) took aim at the fundamental assumptions. What other design magazine would be so audacious as this?

So much good content was generated for the AIGA Journal that this book (below), Design Culture: An Anthology could easily be 300 pages.

I resigned from the Journal in 2001, leaving it in the very capable editorial hands of Andrea Codrington. Renamed TRACE: AIGA Journal of Design, each issue also focused on a single theme. This one on “EXPOSURE,” allowed for a wide berth of examples of public designs. What was clear, however, is that design writing in the AIGA Journal, had transcended convention. All visual culture was fair game.

Designed by 2X4, the entire look and feel of TRACE was more artful than previous incarnations. Nonetheless good design and content alone does not always keep a journal afloat. TRACE was discontinued after three issues. And a few years later the AIGA Journal was resurrected as an online only publication, called AIGA VOICE.

We published one story per week. By then the pool of writers (designers and non-designers) was lake. Other blogs were also in the mix, including Speak Up and DesignObserver. But last year VOICE (as I knew it) was suspended too.

AIGA’s publishing program is no longer about print. Personally, I was okay with that, until I started revisiting these and other artifacts. Now, I long for it. The smell, the feel, the look; Opening the publication, flipping through its pages, and being surprised and elated all over again is a joy. Perhaps as AIGA/NY evolves there will be room for an robust publishing program with a little bit of ink on paper — not just for old times sake, but for new times too.