Seventy-five years of AIGA
By By Steven Heller and Nathan Gluck, 1989
Seventy-five years of AIGA
By By Steven Heller and Nathan Gluck, 1989
Seventy-five years of AIGA
By By Steven Heller and Nathan Gluck, 1989

Editor's note: In 2005 AIGA changed its name to AIGA, the professional association for design.


AIGA began as the old guard of a new profession. Its charter members were not the rebels typically associated with a cultural avant garde but veteran professionals—craftsmen and artisans—and outside their sphere of influence.

AIGA was conceived during a time of worldwide cultural and social flux when print was decidedly the most important communications medium. Old commercial systems were being replaced by highly competitive markets, and industry and business were furiously producing goods and services as never before. All this required more intense salesmanship, and so advertising came into its own as a profession. Printing presses ran around the clock producing reams of ads, promotions, periodicals and books.

Professional “designers” emerged from the large print shops to make order out of the visual clutter that characterized the ephemera of the 19th century. Though new technologies gave rise to new, more sophisticated standards of graphic presentation, some practitioners harkened back to simpler times when typography was a high art. Fearing that the classical methods were becoming endangered, members of the graphic arts communities in Boston and New York were attracted to the Arts and Crafts eclecticism of the 19th-century English designer/philosopher William Morris. His philosophy was adopted as a means to produce a graphic art based on the integrity of materials and workmanship, which was both of its time and inextricably wed to historical models. This was most apparent in book design but soon influenced advertising, too. The renaissance men who led the way, among them Daniel Berkely Updike, Frederic W. Goudy and W. A. Dwiggins, soon became the most active members of an institute created for the propagation of their ideals and the exhibition of their wares.

Early in 1911, fourteen people, graphic artists and kindred souls interested in the advancement of printing as an art, decided to meet twice monthly at the prestigious National Arts Club overlooking New York's exclusive Gramercy Park. Calling themselves the Graphics Group, they held informal meetings every other week without bylaws or minutes, simply to exchange ideas about production and aesthetics, grouse about the marketplace and listen to prominent guest speakers talk about their specialties, including Max Weber on poster design and Alfred Stieglitz on photography.

Located only minutes away from the Lexington Avenue Armory, site of the legendary “Armory Show,” which introduced modern art to America, the National Arts Club was a rather conservative group of easel painters and sculptors. Yet the club enthusiastically supported the graphic arts by making its facilities available and, for several years, had even organized an exhibition of “The Best Books of the Year.” In 1914 the board of the National Arts Club realized that some remarkable cultural achievements were happening in the graphic arts and proposed to form its own organization dedicated as a “source of pleasure and intellectual profit.” William H. Howland, publisher and editor of The Outlook, was elected its first president. The name, American Institute of Graphic Arts, was suggested by Charles DeKay, who wrote a constitution and bylaws whose foundation was:

To stimulate and encourage those engaged in the graphic arts; to form a center for intercourse and the exchange of views of all interested in these arts; to publish books and periodicals, to hold exhibitions in the United States and participate as far as possible in the exhibitions held in foreign countries relating to graphic arts; to invite exhibitions of foreign works; to stimulate the public taste by school exhibitions, lectures and printed matter; promote the higher education in these arts, and generally to do all things which will raise the standard and aid the extension and development of the graphic arts in the United States.

Among the founding members were pioneers of American typeface, poster and book design, including F.G. Cooper and Frederic W. Goudy, as well as the masters of fine and commercial printing, Hal Marchbanks (The Marchbanks Press) and William Edwin Rudge (the Rudge Press, which published Print magazine for its first decade).

Upon moving from the National Arts Club to private offices, annual dues of $25 were charged to pay for rent with only one other requirement for membership: each member had to buy his own Windsor-type chair. The $25 fee was soon after reduced to $10.

AIGA eventually absorbed the Graphics Group and began a campaign for broader national membership. A recruitment prospectus announcing that eligibility included “those interested in the graphic arts throughout the United States, including artists, printers, publishers, etchers, engravers, photographers, lithographers, and electrotypers” caused one of America's leading draftsmen and charter AIGA member, Joseph Pennell, to write: “By what stretch of the imagination could photography be included as one of the graphic arts?” The term graphic art, however, became an umbrella covering all forms of print communications. And in the early 1920s when W.A. Dwiggins, writing in The Boston Globe coined a new professional honorific by referring to himself as a graphic designer, AIGA became even more liberal in its definition of what was graphic art.

AIGA's membership roster from its first two decades attests to its far-reaching interests. Among them were jewelry and glass designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, illustrator and editor Charles Dana Gibson, printer A. Colish, typographer and posterist Lucien Bernhard, package and trademark designer Clarence Hornung, photographer Clarence White, advertising designer and typographer T. M. Cleland and typographer and book designer Rudolph Ruzicka. AIGA was not an “old boys' club,” either; its first women members were Frances Atwater, a typesetter at The New York Times, and Florence N. Levy, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

In those early days, fine commercial printing was the major concern of the Institute. In 1921 Goudy was elected president, underscoring a devotion to typography. The first “Fifty Books of the Year” show was started in 1922. AIGA's early exhibitions furthered the interest in lithography, engraving and etching. And for a few years the Institute awarded gold, silver and bronze medals to those deemed best in the various shows. But in 1925 it was decided that such awards were not as meaningful as a single annual medal presented to one individual for significant contributions to the graphic arts. The AIGA Medal, designed by James Earle Frazer, designer of the Indian head/buffalo nickel, was first awarded to the book designer/publisher Bruce Rogers. A “Medalist” has been announced every year since with the exception of 1936-38, 1943 and 1949 for reasons not recorded.

As early as 1923, nationwide programs were initiated and a newsletter was published. Though headquarters were located in New York (and moved often, from the Art Centre, to the Squibb Building, to the Japan Paper Co. building, to Grand Central Palace, to the Architectural League building, to the Bedford Hotel and to numerous other locations), there were over 500 members in 15 states making it a formidable force within the industry.

In 1924 AIGA lobbied for a standardization of process colors which was finally enacted in 1930 by the Association of Ink Manufacturers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies. In 1926 an education committee was formed with affiliations to the New York University which offered courses in fine printing and decorative typography. In 1927 the first showing of American book illustration was mounted, and reference works and catalogs in these areas were published. 1930 marked the beginning of the first of various design clinics, a program of workshops and study groups taught by leading practitioners. That same year the Carnegie Corporation awarded AIGA a $5,000 grant—a considerable sum during the Depression days—for its “widespread efforts to promote and enhance graphic design.”

AIGA was so active and highly publicized for its efforts that in 1929 incorporation papers were filed. The following year Blanche Decker was hired as its first full-time employee (and she retired in 1958 after almost 30 years of service). In 1931 dues were raised to a whopping $15, but the return was more than worth it, given the large number of annual programs. Throughout the decade, Institute members proved liberal in their tastes and interests as evidenced by the range of exhibits and publications. For example, the first AIGA show of comic strips was covered by CBS-TV and NBC-Radio. This variety was also reflected by its past presidents who were drawn from an expansive universe of graphic arts activity, including Henry L. Gage, vice president of Mergenthaler Linotype Co.; Charles Chester Lane, a New York Times executive; Henry Watson Kent, secretary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Arthur R. Thompson, a Bell Telephone Laboratories executive; Joseph A. Brandt, president of Henry Holt & Co., and M. F. Agha, art director of Condé Nast.

In 1948 the first issue of a bimonthly Journal replaced the AIGA Newsletter to serve the needs of its 1,000 members and broaden the coverage of design journalism. That same year, Stanton L. Catlin was named the first executive director, and he initiated a fundraising campaign to support education, research and promotion. Many of the long-range objectives at that time ring a familiar note, including: chapters throughout the country; undergraduate chapters in colleges (indeed the first student chapter was started at Carnegie Institute of Technology); workshops with presses for printing courses; establishment of a graduate school of graphic arts to supplement existing program; a speakers service; and a graphic arts information service.

After the war, a shift in the graphic arts field from a mix of fine and commercial printing to corporate communications and packaging began to be reflected in the AIGA membership and programs. The influx of émigré European graphic designers contributed to increased awareness of design as a business tool—changes in form, content and media were profound. Though “Fifty Books of the Year” was still a popular show (evidence by the fact that in 1950 it opened simultaneously in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington and San Francisco), more progressive design disciplines were being recognized as well. Advertising was emerging from the primordial clutter of early years to a modern aesthetic wed to expressive type and photography. And as evidenced by AIGA's first magazine competition and show in 1950, this field was benefiting from the influence of Bauhaus. Industrial design was also included under AIGA's umbrella, and in 1952 AIGA headquarters was designed by the subsequent year's president, Walter Dorwin Teague.

By the mid-1950s, the old guard gave way to a new guard of modernists. In 1955 Leo Lionni, then the art director of Fortune magazine, was elected president. Under his tenure, the first “Fifty Packages of the Year” exhibit was planned, and Henry Wolf, then the art director of Esquire, was selected as editor/art director of AIGA's first annual (which, however, was never realized). In 1958 Edna Beilenson, a publisher and printer, was elected the first woman president, and May Masee, executive of Viking Junior Books, was chosen the first woman medalist.

AIGA encouraged some of the finest talents in graphic design to share their knowledge with students and young professionals. Lectures and workshops, often pegged to specific exhibits, were frequent occurrences at the New York headquarters and elsewhere. One of the most legendary events was a 10-week course in typography and photojournalism conducted by Alexey Brodovitch (regrettably, no record of the proceedings was ever made). In 1961 the New York headquarters moved to 1059 Third Avenue, where an exhibition of Asian graphic design was held for the first time in the United States. Chermayeff & Geismar designed and mounted an exhibition called “Graphic Trends,” distributed through the USIA to introduce the Soviet Union to American practice. And the USIA circulated other AIGA exhibits in Europe, Latin America and the Orient. Taking a cue from the defunct Composing Room Gallery, AIGA also mounted one-person shows of designers and illustrators, including Herb Lubalin, Paul Rand, Lou Dorfsman, Rudolph de Harak and James McMullan. Indeed the AIGA exhibitions have been a major and curiously untapped source of design history.

In 1970 AIGA and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts co-sponsored “The Sign and the City,” an environmental graphics exhibition, which was simultaneously displayed indoors and outdoors (behind the main branch of the New York Public Library). In 1974 Seymour Chwast and James McMullan conceived the “Mental Picture” show to thematically exhibit new directions in illustration. In 1976 “Fifty Books of the Year” was opened to an unlimited number of books and renamed “The Book Show.” In 1966 the AIGA Journal was redesigned to include exhibition catalogues, and later many other important catalogs were separately produced. In 1980 these documents were replaced by the first annual, Graphic Design U.S.A., designed by James Miho.

As a national resource for design and designers, AIGA was asked in 1977 by the United States Department of Transportation to collaborate in the research and design of a program of symbols and guidelines. The resultant DOT Symbol Signs was published as a book and introduced throughout the country as the recommended visual signage for public buildings. For its work on the DOT program, AIGA received a Presidential Design Citation. Under a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts in 1977, AIGA sponsored a national seminar called “Communications for Nonprofit Institutions.” Subsequently, AIGA published Graphic Design for Nonprofit Organizations by Massimo Vignelli and Peter Laundy with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. That same year, in conjunction with an exhibition of subway maps from around the world, a debate on urban design was co-sponsored by AIGA, the Municipal Art Society and the Architectural League of New York. In 1984 the Code of Ethics was published. In 1985 the first biennial national conference, titled “Toward a Design Community,” was held in Boston, amid the tumult of Hurricane Gloria.

In 1981 Robert O. Bach proposed the formation of a broad network of chapters and began by organizing one in Philadelphia, which became a prototype for new chapters. With “community” as its watchword, AIGA has launched chapters in almost 30 cities. In 1988 the first annual AIGA chapter retreat was held in Minneapolis to discuss programs and strategies. Local groups have taken responsibility for the programming once nationally initiated, while exhibitions of national import continue to be judged at AIGA headquarters in New York.

Throughout its 75 years, AIGA has been devoted to the principles of its founders and has indeed stimulated and encouraged those engaged in the graphics arts; and has forged a center for intercourse and for exchange of views of all interested in these arts. Continuing this legacy, the year the Walker Art Center in association with AIGA opened “Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History,” the first major exhibition on the history of American graphic design. As dedicated as it is to its past, AIGA nevertheless represents the design profession as a business and cultural force today. It documents its milestones, mirrors its trends, and analyzes its present and future. Caroline Hightower, AIGA director, has often quoted Igor Stravinsky when commenting on our past and present:

'A real tradition is not a relic of the dead past, irretrievably gone; it is a living force that animates and informs the present.' We've evolved and prospered over the past 75 years because our founders established a broad educational mission with a concern for posterity and the importance of creative continuity. In founding the AIGA they were looking to the future, and that concern still animates and informs our present. We are looking forward.

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