Justified and Unjustified: AIGA competitions 2012

Filed Under: Competition , Article , AIGA Insight

As you probably know, a vigorous discussion is taking place about AIGA, its role and the criteria for its current competition, initiated by a passionate article by Paula Scher and followed by a second, with a recommendation on future competitions. The conversation highlights how strongly many designers feel about AIGA and its values.

These discussions reveal several insights for the leadership of AIGA, most importantly that we must do a better job of communicating the values that AIGA firmly embodies, the changes being made to serve members better and the context for these changes. Many of the comments show that we have failed to communicate a course of action well enough, and some of our long-time advocates have felt their voices were not heard in advance of decisions.

Three primary issues were raised in the discussion:

The criteria for this year’s competition

AIGA’s “Justified” competition seeks to develop narratives about how designers approach the challenges outlined by clients and how one articulates the value great design contributes. Members have increasingly expressed interest in this type of resource for more than a decade, asking for tools that can be used to prove the worth of professional design to clients and the public.

Some feel strongly that this approach ignores the attributes of great design that drive so many designers, including, in Scher’s words, “beauty, creativity, surprise, innovation and inspiration.” That was not the intention. While the entry form calls for a more specific narrative around projects that are entered, AIGA fully expects that the jury will consider beauty and creativity essential components to a successful design.

One perspective that would help the discourse is to understand that any change is neither total nor irreversible. This year’s competition is considering how we can add to the narrative of design, and its purpose and impact. Two other traditional competitions are not being conducted this year—not because their underlying premise is extinct, but because they would benefit from rethinking their form. How do you continue to set a standard for design, based on respected opinions, while assuring that the pool of design considered in the competition is even larger and the results occur more quickly and frequently?

Whether AIGA is shifting its core values

Several people indicated that by focusing on just one competition where entries are judged on effectiveness, AIGA seemed to be shifting away from what makes great design special. That is not the case. While it is true that AIGA has moved toward supporting more than just the inspirational attributes of design, we are also experimenting with new ways to surface design inspiration—through a redesigned AIGA.org that encourages participation and portfolios posted by members and chapters, a daily curated blog called “Design Envy,” and plans, not yet implemented, to create parallel channels of juried selections and member-generated recommendations of inspirational material.

In addition, AIGA’s board of directors has been working hard over the past year to identify the right positioning for AIGA to prepare for the organization’s next hundred years of serving the design profession. The board has established a commitment to championing the aspects of design that depend upon hand, heart and head, giving equal and increasingly deep attention to craft, social impact and strategy. This positioning doesn’t emphasize one over the other, nor is it meant to diminish creativity and inspiration.

An interest in preserving AIGA’s commitment to the intuitive and emotional attributes of great design  

Many participants in the conversation indicated an interest in preserving AIGA’s commitment to retaining traditional competitions such as “365” and “50 Books/50 Covers.” The focus and criteria for “Justified” make an implied statement about the form of the traditional competitions, not their role. In an era when designers are seeking inspiration on websites, blogs and social media regularly, the idea of bringing a jury together annually to select the best design of the year based on submissions by a relatively small number of designers who pay to submit entries (750 designers entered “365”, 350 entered “50 Books/50 Covers”) seems anachronistic, particularly when there are so many other design competitions. Changing the competition this year was not intended as a statement about the value of great design; it is a statement about the means of identifying work that demonstrates it.

How the shift in competitions came about

Earlier this year we explored the role of competitions, described the changes in “Justified” and the reasons for the shift. The direction emerges from the “Mandate for 2014,” which was adopted unanimously by AIGA’s chapter leadership in 2009 and further refined in 2011. These changes are the result of listening and observing carefully and soliciting thoughtful consideration from members and the national board of directors over the past decade. The intention is to make AIGA as relevant as possible to the design community that is emerging, as well as to honor the design greats who have preceded us.

Ideally, AIGA should be judged not just by the activities of the national office, but also by what we are doing together as a whole community including chapters and members. While there was a time when national activities defined AIGA, now they are meant to complement the member and chapter experience.

Tell us what you think about competitions

We are listening, particularly when opinions are expressed with such passion. We know we failed in communicating both our continuing strong belief that AIGA is central to sharing examples of great design that others can aspire to and our concern with coming up with a process for competitions that is more appropriate to the times (including building out the narrative of why design is successful in context).

In a follow-up article this week, Paula Scher proposed a process for competitions in the future:

The AIGA creates a series of shows that are 5-year retrospectives on individual topics. For example, the past five years of data visualization, or typography and font design, or environmental graphics, or identity design, web design, or book design (electronic or otherwise), or whatever is a viable and interesting category. The shows are free to entrants and the judges are required to know about and recommend relevant work that wasn't entered. The show then becomes a fair survey of what is going on in a given area. There would be an exhibition at national headquarters, it would travel and there would be a beautifully designed catalog of the show. (The catalogs are for sale, and are not given away for free to AIGA members. There can also be an app for sale as well.)

We welcome suggestions here that propose new ways to celebrate design that are consistent with today’s media and practices.

Questions you may want to consider in your replies:

  • Should competition selections be published more frequently and immediately than once a year?
  • Should competitions allow for nominations from other voices as well as selections by a jury?
  • Should entries include a narrative that helps others understand why the selection was made?
  • Should competitions allow entries from virtually anyone? To this end, should competitions be open to all, without a fee? If so, how could they be funded?
  • Should competitions include all disciplines and forms of communication design?

What do you suggest?

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.