Design for a Brighter Future

Shortly before he passed away in 1999, Tibor Kalman, the iconic (and iconoclastic) designer and visionary, said to me, “Ric, designers have a special gift. Make sure AIGA implores them to use it in meaningful ways.”

Designers do have a special gift, one of creativity, empathy and a unique eye for novel solutions. Recently, many have also shown a deep interest in using their talents to improve the human experience—no imploring necessary. Tibor would be proud.

Now, AIGA’s role must expand to not only excite and engage designers through inspiration but also support those who want to make a difference.

AIGA is launching Design for Good to provide ways for designers to engage with concerned citizens across a spectrum of interests and professions to tackle the challenges facing us all in the 21st century. AIGA will offer channels to connect interested designers with national programs, regional events and local initiatives championed by AIGA chapters; resources to reach like-minded designers who want to start their own projects; and tools for individual designers who simply want to make an impact on their own.

Design for Good will also develop a community of designers, examples of how to manage community groups eager to solve local problems, case studies of others’ successes and ideas for new engagement.

Through its various facets, this initiative—a repositioning of AIGA—will help designers demonstrate their worth well beyond visual design of materials; it will seek to move creative professionals from the margins of their communities toward the center; it will help designers become deeply involved in solving important problems; and it will demonstrate the value of design with contributions that are appreciated outside the profession. 

AIGA is neither the first nor the only design organization committed to this arena. However, it does have an unusual strength: 66 chapters and more than 200 student groups and 22,000 members across the continent. We want current and future generations of members to be able to take advantage of this network to make a noticeable difference—individually or collectively.

Ideally, we hope that in addition to helping designers become engaged with projects of social impact, that there will be several marks of success: that eventually, more designers will be joining AIGA because it allows them the opportunity to be involved with meaningful projects; and that communities will begin to approach AIGA chapters as connectors when they want help developing interdisciplinary teams of community leaders, businesses and experts to address complex problems.

AIGA has adopted professional standards that call for all designers to contribute five percent of their time to projects with positive social impact, the highest percentage of any profession. These projects are described as pro bono, with an emphasis on the literal translation “for good.”

Nonprofits should be involved in Design for Good not because design services might be free, but because these services are extremely valuable. Many designers will indeed offer to contribute their time, but AIGA’s priority is to educate clients about the value of design to social change—regardless of pay. The ultimate goal is that when nonprofits and community leaders fully realize what designers can contribute, they will budget funds to support them from the outset.

Looking even beyond that, business thought leaders Michael Porter and Michael Kramer recently argued that addressing societal issues is now integral to increasing profits at any company—a concept called “shared value.” If that’s the case, then designers’ work in the social-change sphere could also prove key to the profession’s future.  

Design for Good will always be a work in progress. There are no limits and each day presents new needs. We encourage every designer to become involved, whether by sharing a success story, offering advice, taking on a project—or, better yet, all of the above.

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the director emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design, the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States representing the interests of 27,000 designers working in a variety of communication media and dimensions, ranging from type and book designers to new media and experience designers. AIGA, o ver twenty years under Ric’s aegis, has become a leading advocate for the value of designing, as a way of thinking and as a means of creating strategic value for business, the civic realm and social change. Currently he is teaching “Human-centered designn for social change” at Wesleyan University. Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College in economics, worked in intelligence in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following an early career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio in Washington.