Recognized for his commitment to championing the rights of designers and increasing the awareness of the value of design in our everyday lives through his leadership at AIGA.
When considering the events and accomplishments of the first 50 years of his life, it may be difficult to imagine that Richard Grefé would go on to lead AIGA for 20 years and direct the organization into the 21st century. Born in Buffalo, New York—where his grandfather, a former circus acrobat, was the city’s fire chief—and raised in Wayne, New Jersey, in sixth grade he moved with his family to a post-war Munich that was still strewn with rubble. When he returned to the United States, he majored in economics at Dartmouth and later worked in naval intelligence during the Vietnam War. When his tour of duty ended in 1971, he hitchhiked from Saigon to Cape Town before making his way back to the States to work as a journalist for the Associated Press in the South Bronx and as a business writer for Time magazine.
After earning an MBA at Stanford, he worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and later became an independent consultant for cities, studying the environmental impact of transportation systems, among other things. He joined the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1983 as director of policy analysis and planning, bringing public media up to date with new technology and strengthening its role in education. Later, when public television was under fire from conservative lawmakers, he was its advocate on Capitol Hill.
While this résumé may not be typical of a person who would later oversee the world’s largest professional design organization, some scattered clues did hint that Grefé would one day be immersed in design. He studied calligraphy during his junior year abroad in England and discovered letterpress printing through Ray Nash (1956 AIGA Medalist), who ran Dartmouth’s graphic arts workshop. The day after graduation, Grefé could be found at his new job, hand-setting type at the Stinehour Press in Vermont. The stint was brief but influential. “I was obviously sensitive to design,” Grefé says now. But what made him especially right as AIGA’s executive director were his years strategizing for the public good—doing effectively what many have come to see as an important component of design practice.
The technological and economic upheavals of the last two decades necessitated the skills of an urban cowboy riding a mechanical bull. Those who practiced design in 1995, Grefé’s first year at AIGA, will remember a recession that shrank studios down to stubs. The Macintosh computer had been around for a decade, making as much trouble as opportunity; new desktop tools made it easy to clumsily distort type and images, allowing untrained upstarts to snatch clients away from the pros. Women were making important contributions to design, but continued to be marginalized on the job and patronized in trade magazines, and the field was (as it remains) overwhelmingly white. Though designers were spread out across all 50 states, true authority seemed to be concentrated in only a handful of cities—particularly New York, home of AIGA’s national office.
“It was still this tug-of-war between East Coast and West Coast, and between new media and old media,” says Clement Mok (2008 AIGA Medalist), the Bay Area design and technology leader who was AIGA’s president from 2001 to 2003. “But Ric was able to recognize that transition and started to bring practitioners into the digital field.” When Grefé took over, AIGA had 7,900 members spread across 36 chapters. Today, thanks to his stewardship, there are 70 chapters and 26,000 members, including affiliates in the Middle East.
A professional organization has many responsibilities. It defines and upholds standards and practices, provides educational and networking opportunities, showcases members’ talents, and makes links to allied groups and services. Those duties are complicated, to say the least, especially when the profession represented is reshaping its identity. From the start, Grefé saw that AIGA’s name, American Institute of Graphic Arts, was losing relevance as the field expanded to include digital design, animation, experience design, service design, and design strategy. In 2005, the name was changed to AIGA, the professional association for design. The idea of what it meant to be professional, he decided, would be unwavering. The definition of a designer, however, would be “inclusive and open, welcoming many kinds of stories.”
In response to this more dynamic, multifaceted way of practicing design, Grefé supervised the launch of several new programs. Designers seeking greater influence in business were offered executive training at Harvard Business School and later the Yale School of Management through AIGA’s Professional Development programming. A sustainable design initiative called The Living Principles established guidelines for exercising environmental responsibility in professional life, a push that goes hand in hand with Design for Good, a platform encouraging design-driven strategies for social change. AIGA’s Diversity & Inclusion and Women Lead initiatives seek to celebrate the achievements of underrepresented designers, cultivate awareness of issues around gender and diversity, and create professional opportunities.
Under Grefé’s direction, AIGA not only turned inward to support its members, but also outward to underscore design’s importance to society. Even before a poorly designed Florida ballot affected the 2000 presidential election, Grefé paved the way for Design for Democracy, an initiative that sought to streamline and clarify communications between citizens and the different branches of government. After the 2000 election debacle, he oversaw a project to clarify and distribute best practices for ballot design and polling place instructions. In 2000, the Get Out the Vote campaign launched with a series of nonpartisan posters intended to spur the public to engage in the electoral process. Every four years, AIGA members are invited to contribute their designs, which are then archived on AIGA’s website.
Grefé has also taken a public stage in the fight against spec work, championing the right of designers to be fairly compensated for their work and upholding the integrity of the design profession. Most recently, he issued an open letter to the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee challenging their competition to design the logo for the 2020 Games.
The evolution of design from its physical embodiment in print to a larger digital existence has inevitably left its mark on Grefé’s AIGA. The organization’s journals, competitions, and exhibitions now live online, with physical archives in New York City and at the Denver Art Museum. Members now have more opportunities than ever to meet and exchange ideas, not just at the annual AIGA Design Conference, but also at the more than 1,000 events hosted by chapters each year. His commitment to expanding AIGA’s reach and righting the balance of power in a federation of design may be the most important mark of Grefé’s long, productive tenure.