Stewarding design: an interview with AIGA’s Ric Grefé

This article originally appeared on Core77.

Ric Grefé has been the Executive Director of the AIGA for the past 20 years—an organization that boasts a membership of more than 25,000 and has had an enormous influence on the practice of design. After its centennial year—AIGA itself has been around for 100 years—Ric will step down as the organization’s director, and in this interview, talks about the state of design, his experience with the organization, his legacy, and his next professional steps.

ric-grefe-executive-director-300Chochinov: Well, it’s hard to know where to start Ric. Design has taken so many twists and turns since you took the stewardship of the AIGA in 1995 (the same year Core77 was founded, by the way!). So maybe that’s a good place to begin: When you came onboard, what were the overarching challenges of design, and what were the mandates of a national design organization?

Grefé: The mid-1990s were an interesting moment for design. Although it was a full decade after the introduction of the Mac, the profession (and the educational community) were still wrestling with what role technology tools might play. It was not clear whether user interface design was a designer’s realm or a developer’s realm; motion design was not pervasive; we were not yet talking about experience design, design strategy or design thinking. The challenges for the profession were communicating the value of design, educating mothers about what their designer children were doing, and seeking meaningful roles for designers... as well as balancing craft and technology.

The mandate for a national design organization was in flux: an exclusive club of accomplished graphic designers or an inclusive hub of a vital creative community? Was AIGA adapting quickly enough to serve the profession as it was evolving? Was it to serve existing members or lead the next generation of members?

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HP Earth Insights by AIGA members Ffunction, 2013

Yikes! That sounds like a tremendous amount on your plate—and on an entire banquet-hall-ful of designers! Do you remember what your first step was? (I know a lot of people, when they’re initially brought on into an “existing job” spend the first while “listening.” But of course there’s also the notion of the necessity of spending social and political capital quickly; after all, a new person is supposed to do some “new” things, right?)

The situation was exacerbated, of course (always is in new jobs), because the financial condition of AIGA was tenuous. So the first steps were to re-evaluate all operations; begin thinking about new revenue streams; and launching the listening campaign to discover what members were saying across the land.

I spent 180 nights on the road the first year, visiting chapters and influential members, and also had the advantage of bringing in a great facilitator to work with our chapter leaders on imagining the future at a retreat that occurred six weeks after I arrived. That resulted in the first drafts of a new strategic plan. We started moving very quickly trying to move away from the impression that we were a club led by cliques; we immediately began to try to implement some of the suggestions from the retreat.

And how did you find your way to AIGA in the first place? You were in public broadcasting, right?

Yes. I was responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and radio in Washington, which was a great prelude to AIGA... working with creative professionals determined to reach people with meaningful content, yet challenged by media and technology. Yet one of the best preparations of that experience was learning how to work with and deeply respect local affiliates—whether television and radio stations or chapters.

From my early teens on, I was a bit of a design geek. And at Dartmouth, I became enthralled with letterpress printing, studying with Ray Nash (an early AIGA medalist). The day after I graduated, I was on my feet all day at the Stinehour Press setting type by hand for a book for the Morgan Library. Yet my careers took me into a number of other arenas before coming across a print ad in the New York Times classified section one Sunday for an executive director at AIGA.

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Well, if you had letterpress ink on your hands, I think you were probably a strong candidate! What were your earliest epiphanies about this organization for which you assumed the stewardship? And particularly, which discoveries turned out to be true enough to last?

Here are a few. AIGA was suffering from a (misplaced) impression among chapters and many members that it was led by an elitist clique in New York that was not well connected to the rest of the country. AIGA at that moment was running more like a club and not necessarily stretching the boundaries of progressive association management (the membership records were 3x5 cards in shoe boxes, at least one Mac had not been taken out of its box, the office network involved placing a floppy disk with your content on the partition between cubbies for the next worker to use, and every employee was entitled to select their own font and style for correspondence). Finances were challenged, yet the production values of national events were not appealing enough to draw sponsors in ways that properly recognized the value of access to our community.

This was precisely the moment when AIGA should (and would) shift from a club to a hub... of an entire networked community. Or, in the metaphor of the moment, to move from the cathedral to the bazaar.

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Identity for Kromka Polish Bakery by AIGA member Sebastian Bednarek, 2015.

AIGA was also deeply anchored in “graphic design” even as the design disciplines were being called into play crossing the traditional boundaries seamlessly in service to client needs, but also “communication design” was expanding into interaction design, user experience, branding, and ultimately, experience design.

Members felt they needed help in understanding how they could create greater value for clients, even as they also felt that AIGA needed to help them communicate the value of design more broadly to the public, business, government, and the media.

There were few student members and no organized student groups. Educators had abandoned AIGA to create their own association.

These, and other observations, were a perfect environment to help transform an esteemed 80-year-old organization into an influential voice and supportive institution for creative professionals who were changing business, technology, media, and culture.

Read the rest of this interview on Core77. Coroflot is proud to be a decade-long partner of the AIGA, and Allan Chochinov served on its national board for the past three years.