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  • Why celebrate design during a recession?

    Editor's note: The 2009 AIGA Design Legends Gala took place on Thursday, September 17, at The Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, and honored the 2009 recipients of the AIGA Medal, the AIGA Corporate Leadership Award, the AIGA Fellow Award and the Worldstudio AIGA Scholarships. At the event, AIGA President Debbie Millman reinforced the importance of the design profession's continuing recognition of great design and designers, and placed both the event and design's role in the context of challenging economic times. Below are Millman's remarks reprinted in full. 

    AIGA president Debbie Millman addresses audience at the Design Legends Gala (photo: George Delgado)

    AIGA president Debbie Millman addresses the audience at the Design Legends Gala (photo: George Delgado). 

    Several years ago, when working on a book about how designers think, I was challenged by an enormously talented designer who confided that he felt designers talk to ourselves and about ourselves way too much. He pointed out how we have conferences where we talk to ourselves, we give each other awards, we publish each other's work and words, and basically, we pat each other on the back. I was reminded of these statements early this morning when the man who did this fabulous up-do seemed surprised when I told him that I was attending a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. “Wow, he said, are people still having those? In this economy?”

    It was a good question. We committed to this Gala way before the recession officially began, and had no idea that a financial tsunami would hit the world so hard. Even at last year's Gala, we had no way of predicting that in one year's time we would be in midst of the longest post-Depression economic decline ever. The current recession wasn't actually designated as such until December 2008, but because at that point it was determined to have started in December 2007, in 13 days we are about to enter the 22nd month of what is now being referred to as “The Great Recession.”

    Not to be too much of a buzz-kill, but the current recession is also more widespread than any other since the Depression. The Federal Reserve has declared that 86 percent of all industries have cut back production since last November—the most widespread reduction in the 42 years since the Fed has tracked the figure. And every state in the union has reported an increase in unemployment, the first time this has happened in the 32 years that records for unemployment have been kept.

    So in the midst of this… do we really need to celebrate design and designers? And ask you to pay for it?

    I think the question is especially relevant given that the 18-month freefall in household wealth has been larger since any on record since World War II. Household net worth has fallen a record 11 trillion dollars since the start of the recession. And, according to most economists, it's unclear when the economy will really recover. Though our Gross Domestic Product seems to have stopped declining, economists universally agree that this isn't a great indicator of a recovery.

    So I ask once again, in the midst of the greatest recession of our time: Do we really need to celebrate design and designers?

    My answer to this question is unequivocally, unmistakably loud and proud: yes. Now more than ever. More than any other discipline, designers are in the unique position of being able to impact our culture in significant and profound ways. Designers are creators and innovators; we find solutions where none previously existed. We imagine ideas and opportunities, and we realize those ideas and opportunities! We are currently living in a time where every gesture we make is cinematic and becomes swept up in a swift sequence of gestures that precede and follow it. We cannot waste this opportunity and we cannot shirk away from our responsibility to it.

    If you were to look back at the last three great recessions, an interesting pattern emerges. It seems some of our greatest inventions and innovations have been created during these bleak times.

    In the Great Recession of the 1870s, an American designer and inventor named Cyrus McCormick created a device to more efficiently cut and harvest crops. A hundred years later, the Academy of Sciences determined that McCormick's “designs and inventions accomplished more for the cause of agriculture than any other living man.”

    At the very same time, Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Steel Company. By the 1890s, the company was the largest and most profitable industrial enterprise in the world. In 1901, the company was renamed U.S. Steel and it is still, to this day, the largest domestically owned steel producer in the United States.

    History is peppered with these recession-era innovations: Southwest Airlines was founded in the recession of the 1970s; Costco was founded in the recession of the 1980s; and Apple first introduced the iPod on October 23, 2001, a little over a month after 9/11.

    So I say yes—yes—we must continue to celebrate, and we must honor the design innovators of our time. We must celebrate their accomplishments, and we must constantly, steadfastly and ardently recognize their impact and their contributions. The condition of design has become the condition of our culture, and ultimately, brilliant designers such as Carin Goldberg, Doyald Young and Pablo Ferro—and progressive organizations like JetBlue and Patagonia—have the ability to make the world a better place for everyone. No matter how bleak the situation into which we have been thrown by the global economy—it does offer opportunities. Designers need only invent them. By understanding our living and working context, we blow open avenues of opportunity and innovation not yet charted or explored.

    Welcome to the sixth annual AIGA Design Legends Gala. Thank you for coming tonight, thank you for helping us honor the great practitioners of our time, and thank you for your continued support of AIGA.

    About the Author: 

    Debbie Millman is a partner and president of the design division at Sterling Brands, one of the leading brand identity firms in the country. Millman is president of AIGA, and chair of the School of Visual Arts’ master’s program in Branding. She is a contributing editor to Print magazine and host of the podcast “Design Matters.” She is the author of How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (Allworth Press, 2007) and Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design (HOW Books, 2009).

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