How must AIGA adapt for the future?

This year, the country is astir with the belief that transformational change is needed across many dimensions of economic and social life. The same conditions—economic turmoil and the search for optimism and innovation—also beset the future role and strength of the design profession in the United States and abroad.

This article reveals the background we are providing to chapter leaders as we embark on a six-month effort to ascertain the interests of all members in order to restructure AIGA in time for its hundredth anniversary, in 2014.

Yet, for our new strategy to be effective, we must make tough choices. Therefore, this effort is not a request for a wishful shopping list, but a call to define AIGA's fundamental role in building a future for you and your profession.

Although AIGA is nearly a century old, one of its strengths has been to adapt regularly to changes in the profession. Otherwise, it would still be an exclusive club of white male printers, publishers and lithographers in midtown New York.

Not only does the organization need to adapt to serving new design disciplines, what professionals need from a community of designers is changing as well. Who we serve, what we do, how we communicate and how an association can support the next generation have all changed dramatically over the past decade.

Over the next six months, we will engage in a number of activities to gather the information needed to lead AIGA into the future:

JanuaryBiennial member survey conducted by email/web
January through MarchSmall but representative roundtable discussions at chapters and student groups, chaired by chapter and group leaders
AprilSpring retreat and meeting of the board of directors to consider all input, including parallel board recommendations
JuneAnnual leadership retreat of chapter and community leaders to build consensus toward new directions

Garnering thoughtful member input through each of these mechanisms is critical. The decisions on the future of AIGA will be based on what we hear from all sources, and made with chapter representatives at the leadership retreat in June. New directions will be launched as early as October 1, depending upon the resources required.

Same mission, new approach

Going into this process, we are working with the following basic assumptions:

  • We are not seeking to change AIGA's mission, which remains relevant and inclusive: to advance designing as a professional craft, strategic tool and vital cultural force. What may change is how we go about pursuing the mission in support of members. Our immediate goals, in the broadest sense, are to assure relevance, leadership and opportunity for designers.
  • Typically, as members provide feedback, there is a conflict between a desire for direct, personal membership benefits and more intangible benefits such as promoting increased respect for the profession. A clear strategy must prioritize these two options, for we will always have limited resources.
  • As we refine AIGA for the next decade of the 21st century, the focus should be on those whose association it will become. The center of gravity of activities must shift from established and mid-career professionals toward the next generation of designers.
  • In conceiving a new AIGA, the legacy should not dominate, but neither should it be ignored. AIGA's history and cumulative experience represent a validation to members who have few traditions to claim as their own, and also help to give the profession's voice greater credibility when AIGA advocates for members' interests. New ideas should appeal to today's, and tomorrow's, designers, without seeming faddish or fleeting.
  • Strategic choices should be made considering the characteristics, competencies and trends projected for successful designers in the year 2015, who must be: socially responsible, media agnostic, culturally diverse, accustomed to co-creation dynamics, etc.

What key strategic choices must we make?

Each of the following choices relates to how AIGA commits its resources beyond the basic membership function. Choosing among the alternatives is difficult because in many cases, members may want it both ways. The difficult choice is precisely what AIGA must make when it determines how to commit limited resources in response to member preferences.

These choices are included in the 2009 member survey, which was sent as an email link to all professional and associate-level members. If you had to choose, which statement from each set of options best reflects your position on the direction AIGA should take? Should AIGA focus on: 

  • Individual benefits now (e.g., discounts on products and/or services) OR long-term benefits to the profession and its future (e.g., raising respect for the value of design, raising the standards of design)
  • Issues that relate to designers within the profession (e.g., design standards, design research, design curricula) OR issues that deal with designers' role in business and society (e.g., promoting the value of design, leadership, gaining a seat at the table on broader economic, social and political issues)
  • Inspired creativity and beauty as the main criteria in design excellence OR achievement of business objectives as the main criterion in design excellence
  • Activities that provide immediate results and tangible benefits to individual members OR activities that build stronger demand for design and designers in the future
  • Advocating design's value to business by emphasizing examples of great design (artifacts) OR examples that show the contribution that design thinking has in creating value for clients
  • Allocating resources toward developing: case studies with real metrics (often hard to find) OR demonstration projects (requires much greater staff resources)
  • Maintaining commitment to (financial and staff) support of local geographic chapters only OR restructuring to create (financial and staff) support for groups of like-minded members (e.g., interaction design, educators, in-house)
  • Publishing an annual featuring works from AIGA's juried competitions OR shifting away from the competitions toward establishing a member gallery and a weekly online publication, with commentary on selections by guest curators
  • Allowing members to create AIGA published content OR publishing content that is AIGA edited, curated or juried
  • Providing design leadership only in the United States OR providing design leadership here and internationally

Share your views

We will report the results of the survey later this spring, and encourage you—whether or not you are currently a member—to share your thoughts on these choices in the open forum provided below.

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.