What is AIGA doing in China—and why?

Filed Under: About AIGA , Article , AIGA Insight

In 2006, AIGA launched AIGA China to become “China's partner in design education.” We opened an office, led by director Amy Gendler, at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. An American from Omaha, Gendler, who speaks Mandarin, has extensive experience in both the United States and greater China as a designer and educator.

Design is an important part of any economy highly engaged in global manufacturing. AIGA's leadership in design obliges us to engage with the design and business communities in China.

AIGA China identity.

There are now an estimated 1,430 tertiary institutions with programs in design (up from only 450 as little as five years ago), with one million contemporaneous design students in all disciplines. By comparison, the United States has approximately 40,000 communication design students—and many members worry this is more than the design economy can absorb.

Although manufacturing in China is a robust economic sector, there are still very few Chinese multinational brands. We believe the emerging multinationals will create demand for leading, user-centered design. And while many Chinese design students are technically and creatively strong, pedagogy and society as a whole are not traditionally driven by the innovative approaches that have characterized U.S. design education for generations. Furthermore, the design educators themselves have little experience in using design in the context of free-market enterprise.

This has two implications.

  1. First, there will be a shortage of domestic designers capable of addressing the needs of enterprises in China seeking to be global players and there is a window of opportunity for Western designers to both teach and generate the kind of multidisciplinary, human-centered design that is demanded on the world stage.
  2. Secondly, AIGA designers can demonstrate a level of expertise that remains a competitive advantage in design at a level that requires skills, experience and an ethos of professionalism to which China's designers can aspire. The important message here is that design, as practiced at its best on the global stage, is not a commodity that is subject to competition on price alone (on this we will not be able to compete with the designers of China). Instead, we must make it clear that at the top of the value chain, where design focuses on conceiving solutions (form, content and context), Western designers retain a competitive edge.

We will work with faculties in China to help them adapt their curricula to changes occurring elsewhere. This effort will be reinforced by an online social network for students, where they can post portfolios and comment on the work of others.

Our program in China will involve developing a comprehensive directory of design programs in China. Through this project we will establish a means of communicating with faculty and students, and enhance our understanding of design education in China, even in geographically remote areas.

AIGA's “Design Business and Ethics” series of brochures have been translated in a Chinese edition to be published in June. By widely and freely distributing this publication in both print and digital form, we hope to influence designers in China to mature into a professional community that accepts AIGA's professional standards as global standards.

In addition, we will establish AIGA China Design Bridge in order to offer opportunities for exchange between design educators in the United States and China.

All of these programs and initiatives will be guided by an 18-member Advisory Board, comprising the country's preeminent design education leaders. The board's kickoff meeting is taking place in Nanjing on March 28–29.

Some members may question why we are actively engaging with China while human rights are being challenged in Tibet or in other contexts within China. However, AIGA's involvement is the result of an effort to build connections among designers, educators and students, with the express purpose of increasing understanding on both sides of the relationship. Our common cause is great design, professionally practiced. We believe that only through this dialogue can an understanding between cultures be strengthened. Just as many members would not want to be ostracized abroad because of the official policies of the U.S. government, we should not isolate designers in other countries who may aspire to or share our values because of their government's policies. And so we welcome the chance to strengthen international understanding as a means of advancing our commitment to human rights, not in disregard of it.

We have received a warm welcome in China among both designers and businesses, and we are eager to demonstrate the confidence of leadership by supporting designers in China. We believe that as the global economy disperses the demand for design to diverse locations around the world, we must be an active, supportive, integrative contributor in China as a way of assuring the role of AIGA designers in the 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.