Making Change a Priority

The pivotal moment in my design journey came in 2002 when my seven-year-old daughter, Maya, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Through this traumatic crisis, my wife, Lisa, and I recognized a glaring need for kid-friendly, visually oriented, human-centered tools to help us, and Maya, adjust to our complicated new life. As designers, our intuitive reaction to this crisis was to develop a creative solution—a line of simple, design-driven products for families living with Type 1 diabetes. Over time we launched a business called Healthsimple, with a vision of filling the design gap that has become an epidemic throughout health care. This unexpected personal and professional journey has completely transformed how I see myself as a designer, businessperson and global citizen, and has illuminated for me the opportunity designers have to impact the world around us in a powerful way.

As I step into the role of president of AIGA, I see many parallels between my own design journey and that of the broader profession of design. As a culture, we face a crisis not only in health care, but also in our economy, politics and environment. For people with the right skills, creativity and vision, this time of crisis can become an awesome opportunity to influence the world around us. Designers possess all of these qualities, but we cannot assume that we can seize this opportunity by working in the same way we have always worked. This is true as we build our individual careers and design practices, and it’s also true as we build AIGA as an organization.  With AIGA approaching its 100th anniversary in 2014, we have a rare chance—in fact, I believe we have an imperative—to rethink what AIGA can be: to reconnect with our traditional audiences, but also to envision what new audiences we can attract, and ultimately to position AIGA as a relevant, essential and central force.

In June I attended the AIGA Leadership Retreat in my hometown of Minneapolis. This is an annual event where leaders from each of our local chapters (currently 66) come together with national board members and staff to share, learn, envision and connect. I’ve been to many leadership retreats before as a chapter leader and national board member, and it has always been my favorite AIGA experience. However, the Minneapolis retreat absolutely blew me away. The innovative programming happening throughout this organization every week—produced almost entirely by volunteer members across the country—is staggering. From the Clockwork program produced by AIGA Blue Ridge, where designers are paired with nonprofits in need of their services, to AIGA Austin’s Design Ranch, a world-class design conference held in the hill country of Texas, the common thread through all of the chapter activity I saw at the retreat is designers’ desire to do work that is not only successful visually, conceptually and strategically, but that is also meaningful personally and that makes a positive difference in the world around us.

Combine these local efforts with similar programs on the national level, like the recent relaunch of as a dynamic hub for content and conversation, and “One Day For Design,” the passionate Twitter-enabled dialogue on April 13, which saw more than 3,900 people contribute upwards of 30,000 comments about the state of design. Through events like “New Contexts/New Practices,” AIGA continues to emerge as a center of vital conversation in the community of design educators. Through the Living Principles for Design, AIGA has built a framework for sustainability for designers. AIGA, with our more than 22,000 members, is a leading force in the expanding and evolving landscape of design.

Designers are no longer content to be intermediaries between information and understanding—we strive to also be agents of social change. This is an ambitious aspiration, but one that is an unmistakable priority for the emerging generation of young designers now entering the profession. This vision was documented at the 2009 leadership retreat in the form of AIGA’s mandate for 2014, which called for designers to assume a broader role in business, social and cultural environments—to contribute our skill, creativity and vision not only to the logo, poster or website, but to influence the core solutions to complex social problems (oh, and we can design effective logos, posters and websites, too).

The central question for me as I step into the role of president is: How can AIGA help members make the changes necessary to remain relevant professionally and also become influential leaders in this complex new world?

Like any design business in this difficult climate, AIGA faces challenges: We must make sure AIGA meets the needs of designers across the arc of their careers; we must find ways to be a clear leader in the increasingly cluttered airwaves of the design world; and we must consider how we can connect with an expanding global audience of designers and design enthusiasts. With the leadership of Richard Grefé, executive director, and the efforts of our remarkably overachieving staff, spectacularly talented national board and energized chapter leadership, AIGA is in a strong position to make a bold and powerful move.

This October in Phoenix, AIGA will have its own pivotal moment with its biennial national design conference. At “Pivot” we will launch AIGA Design for Good, an initiative to mobilize AIGA members as catalysts of design-driven social change. Design for Good will provide an array of resources for AIGA members motivated to combine their creativity, skills and vision to do meaningful work for the causes and issues that are most important to them, and it will be a bold new platform for AIGA as an organization to demonstrate the value of design in a forceful way. The success of this effort to position designers in social engagement—to complement AIGA’s traditional role in inspiring designers and communicating the value of design—will be one of my personal priorities.

I’m thrilled and humbled to assume the role of AIGA president at this critical time in our institutional history, and I eagerly look forward to working with all of our members to envision what AIGA will be in our second century.

About the Author:

Doug Powell is a designer and Design Principal at IBM in Austin, Texas where he is helping to build the vision for IBM Design, a global effort to bring design into one of the largest and most successful companies in the world. Prior to joining IBM in 2013, Doug was an independent designer, strategist and entrepreneur leading successful projects for a wide range of clients and collaborative partners in health and nutrition, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Lifescan, and Pepsico. Doug recently served as consulting Creative Director for HealthSimple, working in close collaboration with the Johnson & Johnson Global Design team.

Doug is the immediate past national president of AIGA, the professional association for design. With more than 22,000 members in 66 local chapters, AIGA is the largest and oldest design organization in the country. He has been a leading force in the successful launch of Design for Good, the AIGA initiative to ignite, amplify, and accelerate design-driven social change.

A 1988 graduate of the School of Art at Washington University in St. Louis, Doug is a lecturer, commentator and thought leader on design issues, having presented at a variety of national conferences and forums including Bright Ideas on Minnesota Public Radio, the 2011 Mayo Clinic Transform Conference, and the 2012 TEDx ArtCenter.