What if AIGA did not exist?

More than a year ago, I wrote an article on why, in the age of social media, designers should belong to AIGA. A recent article in Applied Arts engaged the Canadian design community and the Society of Graphic Designers in a discussion on what role a design association should play and the responsibility of designers to be active, not passive participants. In AIGA's near-hundred-year history, voices both for and against professional design associations have never been louder, in part because of the many immediate channels the public can use to be heard. But I assure you—we hear you and we are listening.

For those who feel AIGA should focus on something other than what we are currently doing, it is useful to step back from this institution and consider what it represents. AIGA is a community of more than 20,000 designers who have voluntarily joined together for four main reasons: community, information, understanding and respect. They seek a common voice that will help to build both the design profession and the design economy, which is of benefit to them as well as society at large.

The role of an association in a modern economy

Our members find sufficient value to join and renew. So while some may feel it is not valuable, 20,000 people do—suggesting it does have value to a significant population of creative and aspirational design professionals. The personal values or preferences of our most vocal critics do not make AIGA, the institution or its members, irrelevant. We earn our members' loyalty by providing something that is important to them, and the relationships they form through active membership are among the most significant in their professional lives.

AIGA is, in fact, admired by the other associations for its agility, adaptiveness and scale. We listen intently to our members; we survey them and we evolve to meet their changing needs or even to anticipate them. Our mandate for 2014 is precisely this kind of adaptation.

If AIGA were to go away—not to mention what it might do to the community, its networking and its information sharing—design would lose a voice on behalf of the profession, a voice that articulates the value of design and designers' relevance to business, the government, the media and the public. There would also be a deficit where AIGA has promoted professional standards and ethical considerations that define the profession. It would be every designer for himself or herself in explaining the designer's role and the value design brings to business and society.

The means of collaborating on thoughtful discussion of curriculum improvements would be lost. There would be no entity pursuing a greater understanding of American design at the fundamental level among foreign markets, which will define the future of our designers in the global economy. No one would be sharing success stories among designers, seeding stories in the media about design, seeing that businesses understand that design thinking is not simply a creative term for the processes that management consultants follow but something that trained designers do well. Who would argue for designers to gain a greater role in their community, a role as a strategist rather than a wrist, and against practices like spec work that limit the earning potential for designers?

An organization of 20,000 and growing cannot be elitist. In fact, we are careful to avoid dictating style or content in any medium, and membership is not limited to any one group. AIGA seeks to be authoritative in only one capacity: to stand for the highest expectations of professionalism so that all designers receive the respect and opportunities for success that they deserve. (An example of this is the recently updated AIGA standards of professional practice, to which each AIGA member is called on to uphold in his or her daily practice.)

By the profession, for the profession

The leadership of AIGA is representative of our volunteer chapter leaders nationwide and our membership as a whole: from around the country, from practices large and small, of various disciplines and backgrounds. The current board of 16 national directors hail from Atlanta, Portland, Seattle, Berkeley, San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis, Raleigh, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and New York. Some of their names are more familiar than others, but all are accomplished, talented and committed to fostering an AIGA that serves the profession well.

We are eager to serve the interests of all designers—a group that is defined by those who decide to join AIGA, advocate for the profession and work with us to address the issues of most importance to advancing the profession.

Tangible versus intangible benefits

Designers who join AIGA expecting to receive tangible benefits equivalent to the cost of membership are likely to be disappointed. AIGA supports a range of benefits, but places greater importance on intangible benefits such as increasing the size of the design economy, the perceived value of design services, the understanding of design services and the potential of a future with respect for all designers. Within a competitive marketplace, designers need a voice that will improve conditions for the practice of design that give them a chance to grow and thrive.

Membership rates and the value of belonging

The cost of membership is an investment in our advancing the understanding of design, designing and designers. It is less than is necessary to promote the value of design effectively, so AIGA raises two to three times the amount of membership income to supplement the members' investment.

AIGA welcomes any designer to join—at a price that is lower than most other professional associations. Recognizing the challenges faced by those entering the profession, we've also lowered the price of entry for emerging designers through a four-year associate membership level.

Our interest in social media lies primarily in the desire to listen to members and the larger design community, to provide timely industry and membership information, and to answer questions from members. Not coincidentally, our network across platforms is the strength that allows us to reach designers on issues that should concern them—the recent IRS notice is a good example of this—because they serve a broader design public, regardless of membership.

We hope that what we believe is important to the future of the profession earns your trust and support. If not, tell us what you need and we will see if we can work with volunteers in the profession to make it happen. AIGA is its members; it is not a monolith and it is neither tone-deaf nor elitist. It may not be for everyone; it may not serve every designer's specific needs; however, there is little that AIGA does that is not meant to benefit every designer with a stronger future.

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.