Does the NEA consider design to be part of its mandate?

Editor's note: The following is the text of a letter sent by Richard Grefé, AIGA executive director, to Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), on August 25, 2010, in response to a request for public comment on the NEA's Strategic Plan Framework (click to see a PDF of the strategy map) for FY2012–2016. AIGA has not yet received a response from the NEA.

AIGA is committed to supporting the interests of professional designers and strives to play an authoritative role in promoting and communicating standards for ethical conduct and professional practice in the design community. The full content of our letter has been republished here; as always, we welcome your comments and questions.

Dear Chairman Landesman:

On behalf of the 350,000 communication designers in the United States, who are a critical force in our nation's competitiveness as well as its popular cultural reach and achievement, AIGA, the professional association for design, would simply like to raise the question that the framework makes manifest:

Does the NEA consider design and designers as a core constituency and interest within its mandate?

The vocabulary and strategic perspective of the framework suggest that the NEA is focusing on the “arts,” “artistic” objectives, and culture. We realize that there is a focus on film, television and radio; and design in the sense of place-making. There is also a director of design (and we have tremendous respect for Jason Schupach and his vision), yet the mission of the NEA does not suggest it is focusing on the power of the creative spirit or creative professions more broadly defined. It speaks of artistic objectives, the arts, and artists. I do not believe the word “design” appears in the strategic plan framework and occurs only in the first sentence of the five pages describing the goal.

This focus, if intentional, is clear. And one which we would accept with disappointment.

Design—communication design, product design, motion design, interaction design, experience design—is a powerful expression of American creativity and global competitiveness. Increasingly design and design thinking are seen as the engine of innovation within the business world. Design can be a bridge between creativity and the human experience for many citizens. In many countries in the world, the public commitment to design is as strong as the commitment to the arts and culture.

We cannot divine the intention of the NEA toward design from the Strategic Framework, Mission Statement or Vision Statement. If the NEA feels that support for design should be as strong as the support for other activities, then you may want to consider making that more explicit in the language of these documents.

If the policy intention is to focus on the arts and culture, with only marginal consideration of communication design and other design disciplines, that is the council's prerogative. However, we feel it compromises the potential for support to a robust element of the productive creative community in America and the opportunity to focus on a wonderful aspect of the American character. I believe the American design community is unparalleled in the world as a source of creativity, innovation, and spirit, reflecting our culture as well as creating it.

We believe a commitment to design as well as art would actually strengthen the perceived role of the NEA as well as helping the design professions to project the role they play in American civilization.

Richard Grefé
AIGA executive director

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.