Remembering Bill Drenttel

It is with great sorrow that we announce that William Drenttel, AIGA president 1994–1996, died on December 21, 2013, after a year-and-a-half struggle with brain cancer. He was 60 years old. Bill was an extraordinary force sweeping through our profession; his many lives touching on design are well-documented in an article in Design Observer, which he co-founded. He hired me as executive director for AIGA in 1995. My earliest recollection is a series of voicemails at the public television job I still held  before starting my new assignment, a harbinger of his impatience to constantly keep moving: “Ric, where are you? I cannot find you!” Rarely in the next two decades were we out of touch, constantly looking for the unexpected ways to link his searching imagination with the institutional advantages of AIGA.

His leadership of AIGA as president resulted in setting a course for AIGA that resulted in 20 years of stability and growth.

We explored many ventures together, among them: Poetry in Motion, linking poetry, design and public transit; a joint venture in showing “50 Books/50 Covers” with the Library of Congress; No Designer Left Behind, reassuring designer victims of Katrina with new opportunities; publishing to increase awareness of the Bush National Security Policy; the Polling Place Project, documenting designers’ election experiences on the New York Times and AIGA websites; building interest at Yale School of Management in design and design thinking; a series of joint activities with AIGA, including the Winterhouse AIGA Writing Awards; and probably most influential, the 2009 Aspen Design Summit as a partnership of AIGA and Winterhouse, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which led to relationships that thrive today in a cadre of designers committed to social innovation. No one reflected as well the melding of head, heart and hand—a designer’s capacity to create value in terms of strategy, social change and craft.

Individually and together, as designers, we have all lost someone who has influenced our lives. Bill was a remarkable individual­—intellectually curious and rigorous; articulate and widely read; emphatic in his observations; incisive and resolute in his ideas; and committed to designers and design as a means of changing the human experience.

Others have shared the journey he traveled to the point when each of us first encountered him. None of us could have been left with the impression he was the same person the last time we saw him that he was when we first saw him; nor were we. He was forever moving several steps ahead of us, forging new impressions of what needed to be said or understood to really grasp what was currently important in life (or that could be changed by design).

The beauty of his character, which we all know could feel very intense, was that he focused intently on each of us and the challenges we face. In a manner that was both intellectual and personal, he influenced us and our way of thinking about whatever was of the moment without our necessarily realizing we had been changed.

He was an advocate of design at the most effective level: he demonstrated the value of the design mind by doing valuable things. He was a designer, yet he could speak with the confidence of a peer with those centered in business strategy; he could write, design and publish books; he was capable of serious research; and he became leading voice for the role of design in social change.

The most appropriate criticism I heard leveled against him was, “He has too many ideas!”

As an advocate, he respected institutions as well as creating them, inventing means of doing what should come next for our profession, just before others understood the need.

He transformed AIGA, both as president and as an eager and continuing partner in encouraging AIGA and our members to find new ways to make a difference. For me, he was the friend and counsel I turned to first when a possibility bordered on the audacious, simply for a reality check; or when I sought strategic context as we assembled clues from the experiences of thousands of designers.

I will miss him deeply. We will all miss him. And we extend our deepest sympathy, support and love to Jessica Helfand, his extraordinary partner, and his children Malcolm and Fiona.

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.