Su Mathews Hale is the president of the national board of directors of AIGA, one of only five women ever to hold that title in the organization’s 100-year history. She is a senior partner in design at creative consultancy Lippincott, where she works on brand identity projects for clients including Hyatt, Hershey’s, and Shutterstock. Hale was creative director for Walmart’s award-winning rebranding in 2008, and recently led the team working on an updated eBay brand identity, ushering in strategic changes and a cleaner, more contemporary user experience.
Hale’s talent for design manifested itself at an early age. Create her own coloring books? Check. Design her mom’s Christmas cards? Check. Help out with dinner? Epic. “I would completely design the salad, making sure that all the tomatoes were cut in a certain way and arranged in a circular pattern, and all the food looked beautifully presented,” she says. Clearly something much larger in the world of design awaited her in the future.
Born in Korea, Hale was adopted by an Irish-American family and spent her childhood in the upstate New York town of Trumansburg, population 1,100. Her family included two older brothers (born to her parents) and an adopted Korean sister, who’s not her biological sister. “My parents were amazing about always making sure I was proud of my background,” she says. “They’d read me books about the benefits of being different from others. My mom would try to make Korean food, and I even had Asian Barbies. However, it was odd growing up and not having anyone else in my school look like me.”
Her high school advisor had some classic guidance counselor advice for a girl who wanted to be a fashion designer. That was like trying to become a rock star, he noted sagely, and what she should really do was go into fine art. “Years later, I thought that was really humorous,” says Hale. “Being a fine artist, like that’s any easier than becoming a fashion designer! I never liked to draw with charcoal or paint. I always preferred to use a pen or do things with very hard-edged lines. I realized later in life that that was much more about graphic design.”
Nevertheless, she attended the fine arts undergraduate program at SUNY New Paltz for about a year before she started looking around for a new school. Her mother encouraged her to apply to the Fashion Institute of Technology. “My mom took the train with me to New York, and said if I got in to FIT, I could go. So we went in, and they accepted me on the spot,” says Hale.
While her parents were apprehensive about her attending school in New York City, after her first year they agreed that it was “the best decision” she ever made. During her time at FIT, an advisor (who recognized her talent a bit more clearly than her high school guidance counselor) urged her to apply for an internship at Pentagram. “I thought, ‘Why are you telling me this? I can’t get in, they’ll never take me.’ But my teacher pushed me.” She went in for an interview and was, once again, accepted on the spot.
After graduating from FIT, she went home, got married, and returned to New York when Pentagram called her to work on a project. Starting as a junior designer, she continued to work her way up to associate partner over the next 10 years. When she left the firm, she planned to start her own studio, but decided to take a couple of interviews just to test the waters. Lippincott offered her a partner-level position, and she was excited about the possibilities she saw at the company. She accepted the position and was promoted to senior partner within two years—that was just a little more than a decade ago.
In addition to her current role as president of AIGA’s national board, Hale is a key part of the Women’s Leadership Initiative. Despite the fact that over 50 percent of graphic designers are women, only 11 percent hold the title of creative director, the most senior position in the field. After attending a leadership retreat where a speaker listed a dozen great designers who all happened to be male, Hale approached the (male) speaker and asked if he’d consider including female designers the next time around. She was astonished when he told her that he couldn’t think of any, and asked her to send him a few names. She responded by designing a postcard with 100 noteworthy women in design, typeset as a dense continuous block of names including Paula Scher, Elaine Lustig Cohen, Louise Fili, Jessica Helfand, and Lella Vignelli, and mailed it off. That quick little project drew attention from all corners of the design world, and Hale says that both men and women responded positively to the need to call attention to women’s achievement in the field.
Hale has taken over leadership of AIGA’s national board at a time of transition for the organization, including moving the New York headquarters from its longtime location on Fifth Avenue to lower Manhattan, seeing executive director Ric Grefé end his 20-year term, and initiating a drive to attract young designers. She says, “I usually do best in situations and in jobs when there’s a big change happening. I’m coming into this presidency probably at one of the hardest times someone can come in. Losing 20 years of institutional memory along with Ric is a bit scary for me, honestly. How do we continue to be relevant? Our organization has been built for people who’ve been members for a really long time, and many of those people are retiring or are further along in their careers, and they’ve moved on to other things.”
Part of the challenge of increasing membership at junior levels is the ease of forming communities through social media and online sources where today’s young designers find inspiration. “Younger audiences aren’t inspired the way we were,” says Hale. “Their attention is much more fractured, and they don’t understand the idea of paying to be a part of something when they can, basically, be a part of a community for free.”
But with a revved up social media strategy and the new AIGA Eye on Design blog, the organization is getting a fresh new look. “What we’re trying to do is to make some small changes that can have a lot of impact,” says Hale. Asked for the advice she’d offer to her 20-year-old self, Hale doesn’t hesitate. “Push yourself out of your comfort zone as much as you can,” she says. “Those are the opportunities where you will learn the most.”