AIGA’s New Positioning: Focusing on the Future

AIGA was founded as the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1914 by 40 members of the printing and publishing community. In recent decades, members have encouraged the search for a name that reflects the evolution of the profession from its earliest roots in graphic arts to the varied and diverse ways that AIGA members currently denote themselves and their practices.

In the past few years, another urgent request from the membership has emerged: to help them speak to external audiences about their roles as designers and the value of great design.

In an ongoing quest to fulfill both needs, AIGA's board and chapter leadership deliberated a shift in positioning, which began with revisiting the name. AIGA believed that updating the early 20th century language of the acronym would reinforce the relevance of professional designers in the 21st century's dynamic, evolving economy. But it also felt strongly about keeping the name used for 92 years to preserve a rich legacy of graphic design. AIGA needed a name that acknowledged the past, but one that would resonate for the next 100 years.

Primarily, the name “AIGA” needed to be more valid to its own members. The “American Institute of Graphic Arts” seems to be a limited description that fails to accurately describe the varied backgrounds of the people that AIGA represents. Each of the words is far more restrictive than the current reality of the membership and its interests, plus they fall short when representing the organization's goals for those members—those which call for an association that works in an international context to serve many design disciplines.

Also considered were the external implications of the name “AIGA.” In AIGA's experience, communicating with the media, business and government leaders, and the general public, it's struggled with explaining the meaning of the “American Institute of Graphic Arts” to those unfamiliar with the term “graphic design,” let alone “graphic arts.” Often, saying “AIGA” would prompt the qualifier the “American Institute of Graphic Arts,” which almost always required an additional explanation that it's an organization that represents design professionals. Even that was not satisfactory for most people, who would then ask the question with which many designers are all too familiar: “What's design?”

It's important to know that the initiative to change AIGA's name has been in motion for decades. Suggestions from members have ranged from revising the profession description (communication design, graphic design, information design) to the geographic boundaries (national, international, global) to the actual entity of AIGA itself (association, organization, group). The decision was finalized after extended discussions among members in informal regional gatherings, with unanimous agreement that the AIGA name itself was a source of tremendous brand equity and should not be abandoned. By de-emphasizing the acronym's original meaning and creating a powerful tagline, the AIGA name could be better used to describe our mission.

AIGA is dedicated to making sure that designers worldwide are not confined to the narrow historical definitions of their profession—definitions that have been recently challenged by those who cite easy access to the tools of design. We've also witnessed the power of the word “design” as it's evolved into cultural currency; never before have the extraordinary contributions of designers been so widely reputed in the media. With new positioning that emphasizes “design” over “graphic arts,” AIGA is positioned to achieve greater recognition for design's role in culture, civic society and business. Repositioning the organization is a step to not only ensure that AIGA members will be valued for the greater roles they are playing in society, but to elevate the profession of design by making it visible and accessible to a larger audience.

AIGA will always be the American Institute for Graphic Arts, and it remains the organization's legal name. In an internal context, AIGA can call itself almost anything and still provide the same value to members. But that identity alone may not be most useful in the other expectation, in which designers want their association to create a greater understanding of their potential role, the value of their role and importance of their contributions.

Through members continuing to use the acronym AIGA, it retains the historical significance that recognizes the contributions of every designer of the past 92 years. By providing a clear and contemporary tagline to help current members explain their affiliation, it helps AIGA to convey its message to a greater audience. But whether you want to call it “AIGA” or the “American Institute of Graphic Arts”, the organization's value is still limited to what we can accomplish together as members and as designers—and AIGA needs your support to do so.

While you're here, experience some of the ongoing initiatives that have called for a repositioning of AIGA. Explore some of the Citizen Designer programs like such as Design for Democracy, the Aspen Design Summit, Displaced Designer and our new partnership with ICOGRADA, an international forum for designers. Visit the Design Archives, where AIGA is building an archive of design artifacts from the last 100 years, as well as our Medalists program, which has been profiling the world's most celebrated designers since the 1920s. Read recent Voice articles about information architecture, experience design and design thinking. Browse the dozens of resources we provide for students, as well as resources for professionals such as the standards for professional practice. And, of course, you can always get involved locally by checking out the sites of more than 50 regional chapters.

We hope that by learning more about what AIGA is doing right now, you'll see why the new positioning fits today—and why it can hold strong for the next 100 years. Post your comments below or send direct, private feedback to the executive director of AIGA.

About the Author: Alissa Walker is an Los Angeles-based design writer focused on finding innovative ways to increase public awareness and social relevance for the work of designers, architects and other authors of visual culture.