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Guest Editorial by David Stairs

Amid all the excitement and anticipation in the run-up to the AIGA biennial, I thought it would be easy to describe my reasons for skipping this years’ bash in Boston. After all, I hated the Vancouver conference. Turns out, it’s a little more complicated than I thought.

For a number of years now I’ve been teaching graphic design at Central Michigan University, and have always mentored a student design club. When I first began, the group was affiliated with the ACD, but in recent years it has emerged as a stand-alone AIGA student chapter. Last year, while teaching a course on contemporary design issues, I required my students to participate in a current design blog. Unfortunately, the course coincided with a nasty exchange between me and another AIGA member over certain comments of mine about branding right here on Speak Up. This directly followed a complete failure on my part to recruit another long-time AIGA luminary to come speak to my students. In fact, after attending the ICSID Interdesign in South Africa, where I got along extremely well with the industrial designers, I’ve begun to seriously question my relevance to our profession. So perhaps the question is not, “Why attend the biennial convention?” but rather, “Why be in the AIGA at all?” Good question.

For starters, as currently configured, the AIGA seems more interested in branding than in almost anything else. One needs look no further than the organizations’ efforts to position itself as the undisputed arbiter of “value-added” for the profession. If this seems an unfair statement, just review a few recent AIGA announcements. I think you’ll find an organization that takes its own rhetoric very seriously (“THE professional association for design”). Trouble is, as corporate spending for branding increases, corporate spending on wages shrinks. In spite of all its posturing about improving wages for designers, the AIGA has elected to traverse this slippery slope via the exemplary corporate path of hustling to position and expand its own brand. Viva la causa!

As one who generally applies an altruistic paradigm to design practice, it offends me to see the AIGA promoting marketing to the Peoples Republic of China as a form of cross-cultural awareness. In such a context, the economics of enlightened self-interest ought to take a back seat to the demands of international development. Development takes many forms, opening markets being one of them. But banging the globalization drum has become typical of AIGA jingoism.

Then again, the AIGA considers itself a “professional” organization, largely devoted to furthering its membership. No clearer indication of this could be found than in the September 2nd response to the hurricane Katrina disaster from the Executive Director about a relief task force for designers and the subsequent Displaced Designer initiative. In this the AIGA is far more limited than service organizations, like Kiwanis or Rotary. These organizations provide worthwhile assistance to their communities with a wide range of scholarships and volunteer programs. Of course, the AIGA does self-promote highly touted community projects, like Design for Democracy, or its apparent collaboration with the Worldstudio Foundation. And Mr. Grefé did mention something about discussing emergency evacuation signage during the conference in Boston. But such showcase projects are the exceptions in a long roster of schemes more often linking creativity to economic exploitation.

A final example would be the way in which the AIGA has taken to endorsing design-related events. From San Francisco to Beijing, Denver to the Azores, all an AIGA sympathizer need do is organize a conference, seminar, or natural disaster and, sure enough, national hq will endorse it (two hundred and fifty displaced designers is unfortunate. Ten thousand dead is, well, you catch the drift of the comparison). One could almost believe the AIGA was attempting to unseat that ultimate endorsing entity of longstanding, ICOGRADA. Trouble is, such endorsements are facile, often mattering little to the larger world. But for the AIGA they function as, you guessed it, a secondary form of branding. So, “Alright!” you say, sounding a lot like the ever-frustrated George Kostanza, “Whaddaya want from the AIGA?” And at the expense of sounding like a tape loop, so often have I repeated this tired litany, I’ll attempt to account for my criticisms.

If I could change the AIGA, while still serving members’ traditional expectations, I’d bust my gut to make more than specious talk about how design can aid in the development of just societies. The business model of design, in which I feel the AIGA is over-invested (GAIN business conference, Harvard Business School Advanced Leadership Program, Design for New China Markets etc.), would not be eliminated, but it would be downplayed. Instead, I’d remind the membership that they are privileged citizens of an imperfect world and that, while working to correct the imperfections of our own society is a necessary endeavor, about four-fifths of our fellow human beings are the victims, not of imperfection, but of gross and active negligence. Travel abroad initiatives might include visits to South American orphanages or African refugee camps rather than global trade delegations.

If I promoted a national design education initiative the main themes would range through the Cs and Ds — community, conservation, development, diplomacy, rather than the Ps and Ts —professionalism, profit, typography, technology. My notion of “good business,” although it has nothing to do with shareholders, would be to institute a design scholarship for aspiring and worthy students from the developing world who can’t otherwise travel to Europe or North America to study. My idea of a biennial conference is a fund-raising event where 2000 members forego five days of back-slapping design revelry and instead donate the equivalent of the conference fee to a charitable cause. West African hunger relief anyone?

While I agree the present moment requires Americans to focus on one another and the necessary relief efforts down south, you may detect more than an outward leaning glance in these proposals. That’s because I believe that, even at times of catastrophe, Americans are still fortunate enough to take care of themselves and then some. Since 9/11 we’ve become a nation of navel-gazers, more self-absorbed and isolationist than is either healthy or absolutely necessary. As a people we are at our very best when we make generous efforts to assist other people outside of our own familiar context.

So, if my vision of the future of your friendly neighborhood professional organization sounds a bit too idealistic, like elderly Kiwanians handing out peanuts beside the local Safeway store; if I have offended your practical sensibilities with my bush-shaking “America Leave It And Love It” mantra, then we have clearly experienced a failure to communicate. Never fear; life is good. Have a great time in Beantown.

But if the idea that the WSO is at least as important to our future as the WTO strikes a chord in you, then maybe we do have something more to talk about. It can’t happen in Boston; I’ll be at home. But feel free to give me a ping at [email protected] It’s easy to find me; I’m always there —even when the bridge is out.

[Ed. Note: This discussion should not devolve into an I hate AIGA/I hate AIGA even more discussion. There are many intelligent points in this article around which an interesting dialog can be built. — Armin]

David Stairs, founder of Designers Without Borders, is secretly at work on a blog entitled design-altruism-project.org.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2416 FILED UNDER Critique
PUBLISHED ON Sep.14.2005 BY Speak Up
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
pi_skyy’s comment is:

I think the AIGA is, like, totally fun. At some of the events I've been to, there was really great food to snack on and I got to talk to other designers. One time I wanted to get David Carson to autograph his book for me but I forgot to bring it. And at the last annual paper show they had a drawing for a free poster and my friend WON! It was so exciting. That's why Im a member.

On Sep.14.2005 at 07:18 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Sarcasm acknowledged… But this is the type of comment that is not necessary in this discussion. Pi, feel free to keep posting, but as I said in my note, the discussion in this specific article needs a better, more rigorous approach. I appreciate your, and everyone else's, understanding.

On Sep.14.2005 at 07:26 PM
pi_skyy’s comment is:

Ok, ok...but I actually like doing stuff like that, and that really is the reason why I was a member (I'm not anymore, but only because I'm too cheap). I didn't join to save the world. And you know what? Hanging out with other designers and eating food seemed to be the main reason everyone else was at these events too. This is the first I've heard that there was supposed to be some greater purpose. Does the AIGA have a mission statement?

On Sep.14.2005 at 07:44 PM
Diane Witman’s comment is:

I have to admit I don't acknowledge the AIGA as much as I should. I am not a memeber and don't really see the benefit to becoming a member since the closest chapter is in Philadelphia (an hour drive to the South that I don't want to make).

Today I had an inspiration and I think many designers have a desire to not only improve on how things look but how things function, how people interact (not just with computers but with each other). I hope that one day my small town will have a center devoted to design including architects, web design, printers, illustrators and so on. Fortunately for the first time ever they are opening Goggleworks,, a center devoted to the arts with glass blowing, artist studios, etc. But as much as I am thrilled that this is opening I don't feel that it is exactly what I need to fill my needs.

I saw a historical building today on the corner of a busy intersection in a not-so-great part of downtown Reading and envisioned it as a Design Center. Don't ask me where this all came from because I have no idea. But as I said I think many designers want to help improve the world and I think this is what many of our organizations are missing. Does anyone else feel the strong desire to scream "I love being a designer!" I do, all of the time...but usually noone knows what the heck it is that I do anyway.

Maybe this is what AIGA is trying to do, maybe they have some good intentions by trying to create awareness of their organization with the hopes that it will create an awareness of design and their causes in general. Oh heck, I don't know what I'm saying anymore...I'm sounding a bit like a flower-toting hippy aren't I?

On Sep.14.2005 at 09:17 PM
Alice’s comment is:

I've heard that corporations tend to go into massive rebranding efforts when they are most vulnerable, and perhaps this is what AIGA is going through. I have not participated in their events as I find the cost of membership to be steep. I agree that design should no have to be Design. It is a process that everyone will have to participate in to be effictive. I work with academia, where the goal is to research a functional solution, which may or may not be the most aesthetic or glamorous work. Often we're just trying to get different systems to interface and communicate. I also agree that the only way to really be useful is to fully particpate in the systems in which we work for/in/with. Design is an anticipatory practice. We can make ourselves useful as a profession by offering our services and knowledge to those sectors who have the greatest impact in the quality of life. Design will be understood when it is seen in action in a public forum.

On Sep.14.2005 at 10:57 PM
danny’s comment is:

There are a lot of good ideas here about what the AIGA has the potential to be. Definitely, some folks join because their agency foots the bill, and they attend meetings to do a little networking, and enjoy some free snacks (actually your "steep" membership pays for those). That's fine.

Others are more proactive. They run for offices in their local chapter, schedule and plan local events, join discussions, and that's fine too.

Still others, like Mr. Stairs, extend their thinking beyond what the AIGA is to what the AIGA can be. And that's certainly fine as well.

I thoroughly enjoy the first two activities, but I'm completely interested in joining the ranks of designers who want to challenge what is. Is Mr Stairs right? I don't know, but it's worth my time to consider.

On Sep.14.2005 at 11:53 PM
Michael Holdren’s comment is:

Diane, you can apply to open a local AIGA chapter in the town that you live.

As for the post itself...

AIGA Mission Statement:

AIGA, the professional association for design, is committed to furthering excellence in design as a broadly-defined discipline, strategic tool for business and cultural force. AIGA is the place design professionals turn to first to exchange ideas and information, participate in critical analysis and research and advance education and ethical practice.

Notice the reference for professional and educational progress. David made mention of declining salaries, but salaries certanly won't go up if these areas are not a focus. In fact, I've seen salaries going back up since the dot com bust. This might be a result of several things, one being the AIGA's focus in the "business model of design" over the last few years.

AIGA's help for the Katrina victims is appropriate and even goes the extra mile. It's doing exactly what it should be doing: helping designers that were directly affected, and (here's the extra mile) it was doing this for members and non-members alike. If I'm not mistaken, being a non-profit organization, AIGA's only source of income is from paying members. They have no obligation to assist those who are not members.

> My notion of “good business,” although it has nothing to do with shareholders, would be to institute a design scholarship for aspiring and worthy students from the developing world who can’t otherwise travel to Europe or North America to study.

This would be a great thing for ICOGRADA to do, but maybe not for the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Just a guess.

Addressing the branding issue, I see it as the AIGA can only help it's members with the strength that it has. Meaning they need to have a large brand awarenss to be in a postion to further their mission statement.

> Travel abroad initiatives might include visits to South American orphanages or African refugee camps rather than global trade delegations.

And...

> My idea of a biennial conference is a fund-raising event where 2000 members forego five days of back-slapping design revelry and instead donate the equivalent of the conference fee to a charitable cause. West African hunger relief anyone?

I sure hope I don't sound insensitive to those in other countries who are in need, but the AIGA is not a charitable organization for bringing awareness to the victim's of third world countries. The purpose of these conferences is to learn how to be a better designer. You don't do that by donating money to be sent abroad. There are numerous organizations set up for this very thing that you speak of. If you want to help the unfortunate people in foreign countries, you don't need to lead a group of AIGA members to do so, you can lead a group of anybody to do so.

As far as the eating a drinking at social functions, those are the things that most designers like to do in their free time. It's not too far out of the question to do so when large groups of designers get together for a social function. And Pi, if that's all you got out of it, then you might not have been talking to the right people. Events like that are a great way to meet other designers and "talk shop," maybe learn a few things, get inspired, etc.

For those who feel the annual membership fee for the AIGA are too steep and choose not to join for this very reason, then perhaps you are not properly evaluating your financial and self-worth as a designer.

On Sep.14.2005 at 11:58 PM
Jill’s comment is:

Am I the only one who finds the points made in this piece frustratingly na�ve? The author’s complaint about AIGA’s post-Katrina effort to galvanize the design community is particularly beyond the pale; it feels gratuitous and oddly self-serving. No where in the author's screed is there a realistic proposal on how AIGA might change, nor does he offer a viable alternative. Present a model where the “Cs and Ds” are truly paramount without driving everyone to the poor house, and I’ll pull up a chair. And why not make “Ps and Ts” as integral as the former?

...AIGA seems more interested in branding than in almost anything else. One needs look no further than the organizations’ efforts to position itself as the undisputed arbiter of “value-added” for the profession.

I would hope so. Why be a member of an organization that promotes its own mediocrity?

As one who generally applies an altruistic paradigm to design practice...

Does such a paradigm really exist? Altruism in its purist form exists without an audience; expects no reward or recognition. For you to promote it as a model for design practice sullies the entire concept. Bring it down a few notches, and you might have something.

My idea of a biennial conference is a fund-raising event where 2000 members forego five days of back-slapping design revelry and instead donate the equivalent of the conference fee to a charitable cause. West African hunger relief anyone?

This one-upsmanship approach to "which causes are more worthy" permeates this entire piece (you say hunger in West Africa; I say abused children in the United States), and derails meaningful discourse. It also has nothing to do with the practice of design or with AIGA's stated mission.

This editorial raises worthwhile points, but the way they are presented here makes it tough (at least for me) to want to explore them. It fails on too many levels to be taken seriously.

Oh, and as for Michael Holdren’s comments: what he said.

On Sep.15.2005 at 01:28 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

I can't afford to scoff at any organization that addresses an altruistic purpose as well as the professional discipline.

Speaking from direct experience, so far, the Atlanta chapter of AIGA has been very supportive to get me back on my feet after being knocked down by Hurricane Katrina. I don't want to be the poster boy of displaced illustrators, but somehow what's needed is another perspective, from the recieving end. A vulnerable viewpoint.

It's helping me stabilize and I've even taken on a pro bono project out of Brooklyn, NY benefiting East New Orleans kids. That's the synergy that makes things really happen.

On Sep.15.2005 at 08:17 AM
Alan’s comment is:

I was going to make a long post here, but Michael and Jill beat me to it. To paraphrase Jill: What they said.

On Sep.15.2005 at 09:12 AM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

No where in the author's screed is there a realistic proposal on how AIGA might change, nor does he offer a viable alternative. Present a model where the “Cs and Ds”

To the defense of David Stairs, i really wouldn't call this a screed. It seems quite gently questioning to me.

Also I'm a little sick of authors of posts which ponder larger issues being called upon to provide solutions as well. To question is valid; as it is to make suggestions, without having to draft up a structure for the solution to all problems. Please, have some consideration for people's time, and spend some time yourself on thinking about the posts you read here. This ain't TV.

Having said all that I do agree somewhat that David is angling to impose a mission on an organization which doesn't quite belong.

I belong to the GDC in Canada, and sometimes I wonder what would happen if the organization dissolved or were disbanded. Well, I know that within 5 years, a new one would be formed, because people have a need to connect with like-minded people. It *is* a professional organization, designed to deal with issues relating specifically to the profession, and bring those people together.

So while the AIGA may have many flaws, and there are things which could and should be improved, I don't think David's approach is the right one. Yes, there could be more emphasis on the role of design in non-corporate environments, or there could be a component of the AIGA that connects directly with aid organizations, but I do think David is confusing the reason for the existence of the AIGA.

On Sep.15.2005 at 09:31 AM
feelicks sockwl jr’s comment is:

This is by far the best, most honest critique of the AIGA. It echoes the same reasons I don't belong anymore either. Multinational (Icograda) aside, all of the points made were spot on. Thank you!!!

the AIGA considers itself “professional”

at the end of the day most graphic designers are more poor than professional and are desperately trying to shake the branding stench. Give us inspriation or give us death. Remember AIGA: Sold Out?

On Sep.15.2005 at 09:40 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

AIGA is an networking club...like pretty much any professional organization. They have conferences to go have fun. I don't think there is anything altruistic about it, nor that there really needs to be anything alturistic about it.

FYI, Kottke is blogging the conference for those interested:

http://www.kottke.org/order/aiga-2005

On Sep.15.2005 at 09:58 AM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Thoughts from a non-AIGA member:

Any organization is better off by not being too inwardly focused, lest it become relevant to a continually smaller body of people, and eventually die. At the same time, an organization has to maintain a focus that serves the needs of its constituents in a way that no other organization to do better, or it will also die.

When I want to contribute to an organization that can meet the needs of global relief, I choose one that is well suited and structured to the challenge, such as UMCOR. When I want to make improvements to my understanding of design, I choose an organization that can assist me as such. (I’ve attended one AIGA conference, and found it to be informative, friendly, and thought-provoking.)

Altruistic good intentions aside, an organization such as AIGA can’t be all things to all people. In my observation, it is loosely structured enough to allow for individual or chapter initiatives to broaden it’s focus on a local needs-based level. If one perceives a need that the organization isn’t filling as a whole, perhaps it’s up to the individual perceiving it to start the gears going to make it happen. And the larger the initiative’s scope, the more work will be required to see that change.

I, too, share an interest in what design’s broader role in society can be (although I find the “design + branding = exploitation” insinuation to be broadly simplistic). But, like some of the people posting before me, I feel the organization best suited to addressing some of those roles may not always be the AIGA.

On Sep.15.2005 at 09:59 AM
r agrayspace’s comment is:

I feel like this post is scratching an itch that is, underneath the surface, and huge dividing point between two kinds of thought. Those that see Corporate branding, international conglomerates of economic power and Global Trade agreements (including the professional designers role in them) as inherently bad for most people in the world and those that do not.

AIGA is the organization for the latter.

That may be over simplified. Watch "The Corporation" and I challenge you to feel differently.

On Sep.15.2005 at 10:04 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

Not so sure if it's between seeing branding as 'good vs. evil' but rather just people caring about branding or not. There's so much design in the profession that doesn't directly have a lot to do with branding.

On Sep.15.2005 at 10:14 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

I don’t think it is in the AIGA’s role to further itself from the professional and educational goals it has. Before they do that, as an organization, they should work on what they set out to do. There is much work to be done for our profession, such as taskforces or groups for minority groups, women in business, serious knowledge sharing and many more. There is so much more that we can do for our overall group, in which the AIGA can help and support.

In the same manner that the AIGA can further establish goals for design professionals in business and education, other groups can do to cover the other side. Forget about business, corporations, clients as we usually define them, and focus on those in need.

In summary, while I agree with many things that David is saying and proposing as an individual, I don’t think it is in the role of the AIGA to partake in such an endeavor, until it successfully accomplishes what it set out to do.

On Sep.15.2005 at 11:06 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

I don’t think it is in the AIGA’s role to further itself from the professional and educational goals it has. Before they do that, as an organization, they should work on what they set out to do. There is much work to be done for our profession, such as taskforces or groups for minority groups, women in business, serious knowledge sharing and many more. There is so much more that we can do for our overall group, in which the AIGA can help and support.

In the same manner that the AIGA can further establish goals for design professionals in business and education, other groups can do to cover the other side. Forget about business, corporations, clients as we usually define them, and focus on those in need.

In summary, while I agree with many things that David is saying and proposing as an individual, I don’t think it is in the role of the AIGA to partake in such an endeavor, until it successfully accomplishes what it set out to do.

On Sep.15.2005 at 11:09 AM
Jose Nieto’s comment is:

Also I'm a little sick of authors of posts which ponder larger issues being called upon to provide solutions as well.

Marian, I understand your point of view here, but the fact is, when it comes to the AIGA, there is a way to make things change: take on a leadership position at the local level. It's a big commitment of time and effort, but the fact is, most chapters go begging for passionate people to take part on their boards. You can't imagine how often people bring us fantastic proposals without offering to give up a second of their busy lives to make them happen. Frankly, I find that pretty frustrating.

On Sep.15.2005 at 11:19 AM
feelicks sockwl jr’s comment is:

I walked by the AIGA hqs yeaterday en route to lunch. It was empty. I stopped and looked in thinking they had folded or moved- but neither- they were simply lacking for a show/ exhibition.

That got me to thinking. When was the last time you had to go to the AIGA to see something? the Cuban revolution posters were nice and teh 50 books is always worth stopping in for but what else? anything come to mind? anything?

They've had 2 Glaser showings during the past 3 years (solo show and for the Pushpin book). While I love Glaser and would love to see his new Design of Dissent in real form it rubs me the wrong way to see the same people over and over.

the NYC space should be used for more ideas ansd more often.

On Sep.15.2005 at 12:14 PM
Andrew Twigg’s comment is:

This post comes at a time when my very first year of membership is up for renewal. I've been weighing weather or not to renew as a professional, especially in light of the fact that I am hoping to start my graduate education in about a year.

So I've been looking at what value AIGA has been to me over the past year. Since I've joined I've attended FutureHistory (the first time AIGA sponsored the Design Education conference) and DesignInquiy. Both of these things were possible because of AIGA: I became aware of FutureHistory through AIGA announcement emails and at FutureHistory met two individuals involved in DesignInquiry. In terms of getting me "out there" and making me aware of things, I can't really complain.

Living in Chicago, I sometimes wish that our chapter of AIGA was more active... or maybe it's a matter of timing for me. What events the Chicago chapter plans usually don't seem to work with my schedule. But it's not AIGA's fault that I have an unusual calendar. And any problem I have with the Chicago AIGA chapter is probably more a me problem than anything else as I've done little to involve myself.

I think the only gripe I have about AIGA is that AIGA-related events are still often very expensive, even for members. As a first-time member, I think I expected my membership to save me a bit more on event fees.

As for what AIGA is doing, I think the mission statement is just fine (though at times I wish there were more focus on design education, but let's face it: business pays the bills). I don't think the AIGA is supposed to be a charity. But if you're a designer and you want opportunities to do "good things" in the name of design there are plenty of opportunities such as:

Project Philanthropy (look at the project happening this weekend in Chicago, "DesignWrite:Empower") or

Design for the World

On Sep.15.2005 at 01:49 PM
pi_skyy’s comment is:

There is much work to be done for our profession, such as taskforces or groups for minority groups, women in business…

I think the AIGA should form a task force to help white male designers to the exclusion of everyone else. Why not? It would benefit me, after all.

On Sep.15.2005 at 02:16 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Jill, thank you for your thoughtful comments and critique of David’s points of view. Sometimes we need polarizing ideas to get us thinking.

While I don’t share many of David’s inclinations — not because I don’t care but, luckily, because there are people that do, like him, that do it with more passion — I actually welcome the challenge for a different outlook on AIGA’s priorities. As David observers AIGA is continually perceived as a single-minded (design for business) organization and it has only been last year that I have actually seen the organization dip their toes in different realms. They have partnered, smartly, with other organizations that provide different experiences to AIGA members; besides the Harvard Business School program they have paired themselves with broader topics like user experience and digital information. And lastly, they finally became a member of ICOGRADA — unfortunately, few people know about it and those who do shrug their shoulders as to what that means for them.

It will take a good decade of diverse initiatives like these for the AIGA to be considered a multi-faceted organization that has more to offer to members.

In the meantime, I hope we all — regardless of having an AIGA membership or not — fight for what we believe in and do what we can on our own or as a group to stand for our causes. Whether it be branding, hunger in Africa, abused children in the US, mentoring or anything else.

> I don’t think it is in the role of the AIGA to partake in such an endeavor, until it successfully accomplishes what it set out to do.

Very, very excellent point.

On Sep.15.2005 at 03:19 PM
Tan’s comment is:

In my experience, AIGA has never forbidden any member from pursuing a worthwhile interest that may be important for other members as well.

I agree with what Bryony said — the organization already has its hands full with professional and educational issues. It's unrealistic and idealistic to expect it to reprioritize itself for more global, altruistic endeavors.

And to be direct, it sounds like there's more at play here than AIGA. If you're a designer who'd rather go help dig a well in Guyana instead of pushing pixels for your corporate client —�then by all means, do it. But don't shame or lay a guilt trip on the rest of us who don't share the same passion or priorities.

And Felix — it's conferences like the biannual one that pays for the exhibitions at the HQ. If you want to see more of them, then you should've been here.

On Sep.15.2005 at 04:34 PM
DC1974’s comment is:

What about the Graphic Arts Guild -- which is far closer to your idea of a "union" and less of your deplored "professional" organization.

Personally, I don't know where AIGA should be on political issues.

But it doesn't matter if their already EXISTS a more social liberal organization.

As for why I'm NOT a member, I've always found the AIGA to be TOO national focused. Wherever I've lived, I've found the art directors clubs to be far more interesting and helpful.

So perhaps this all boils down to: how do you successively be an UMBRELLA organization when we as Americans find ourselves increasing looking to separate (polarized) identities?

I am not sure I have an answer either.

On Sep.15.2005 at 06:19 PM
itzovela’s comment is:

I have often thought about this point ever since I joined AIGA, and after weighing the pros and cons, it really is a matter of time before initiatives now really make a mark. I'm volunteering for AIGA, I often do, not because I want to "network" or for the food, but because I actually want to be involved and help. The people at the NY headquarters, for example, are really passionate about what they try to do, but it is far harder at the end of the day, and trying to grapple one aspect or initiative at a time can be a huge accomplishment when there is not a collective desire to "actively" move things. I'm in Beantown, volunteering, I see it first hand.

It sounds like I'm justifying, a little much perhaps....but it is definitely worth looking at another perspective to see if the current framework can be improved.

On Sep.15.2005 at 11:05 PM
Jill’s comment is:

To the defense of David Stairs, i really wouldn't call this a screed. It seems quite gently questioning to me.

Accusing AIGA of its own brand of jingoism; of specious talk; of facile endorsements; of promoting back-slapping design revelry; of scheming to link creativity to economic exploitation, all with the author’s pursuits as a counterpoint: this struck me as self-righteous, not a little sarcastic, and ultimately unpersuasive. I find nothing gentle about this piece.

Also I'm a little sick of authors of posts which ponder larger issues being called upon to provide solutions as well. To question is valid; as it is to make suggestions, without having to draft up a structure for the solution to all problems. Please, have some consideration for people's time, and spend some time yourself on thinking about the posts you read here.

Stairs’s piece is a guest editorial; not a random post. So I expect it to hew to a higher standard. His premise is to explore the question of why anyone would want to be a member of AIGA, “at all.” Problem is, he never does that. Instead he weakens a promising critique with low-blows and overly self-referential ideology. One regains faith when he launches into possible alternative models for AIGA, only to receive solutions that are little more than appealing soundbites. I am not asking for a fully-fledged outline of the solution, just a well-argued piece that encourages me to ponder its points. The notion that we shouldn’t expect so much of posts out of consideration for the author's time doesn't wash.

But that’s enough huffing and puffing from me. The responses are leading toward a more focused discussion of AIGA’s role and purpose, so for that, David Stairs, thank you (and Bryony, Armin, and you, too, Marian: thanks). I can see why Armin wanted to publish this piece.

On Sep.16.2005 at 12:04 AM
Horatio’s comment is:

David,

Your jaded view of AIGA conferences is much appreciated. I concur, of course, along with many others. I think it's indicative of a more dire state in the design profession in general, which I will avoid ranting on.

Specific to the topic, one noticable difference between AIGA conferences and other types of conferences is the lack of a peer-review process for accepting papers and presentations. This was practiced in the past, but the AIGA has abandoned it.

The lack of peer-review has increased the arbitrariness of presentations at the conferences, which are littered with portfolio presentations that are essentially, "look at my work and how great it is" and sometimes, "look at my grandparents work and how great it is." It does not result in quality nor rigor nor any publication that puts forth a body of knowledge.

Being cynical, I already imagine many objecting to this idea of peer review, because it injects an overly academic, rigid, and theoretical venom into a supposed creative, organic, and intuitive discipline. This viewpoint is unfortunate, and I find it odd that so many want to elevate the field of design, but are so entrenched in the crafts/guild (beaux arts) tradition, that they scoff at academic rigor and theory or anything that looks to the future.

On Sep.16.2005 at 04:16 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

The lack of peer-review has increased the arbitrariness of presentations at the conferences, which are littered with portfolio presentations that are essentially, "look at my work and how great it is" and sometimes

I've never seen anything but portfolio presentations. To be fair, we seem to like that.

On Sep.16.2005 at 11:42 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

The only profession more self-involved and narcissistic and self-important than design is advertising...having been a part of both, it can be a little discouraging. But if I focus on that so much, then I'm just as self-centered as the rest of it all and what's the point of that??

Its hard for me to criticize AIGA because its not like I'm necessarily offering up a good counter to what it does--I don't like the conferences, so I don't go. I think they're silly, at best. A lot of people don't find them silly, and that's fine because we're all adults capable of choosing how we see/use the organization.

To think that you can save the world is a good thing; I've always liked Don Quixote, and I prefer trying to "change the world" rather than be one of the sideline-sittas who just criticizes the actions of others. That being said, I can't expect to change ANYTHING. None of us can. The world is huge and to assume that you are somehow of such great significance that what you say or do will inherently move others to do or think differently is...misguided. You have to accept the fact that sometimes, nobody gives a shit.

It does no good either to engage a belief system or join an organization that serves more to provide you with a sense of moral security than actually throw yourself into the heart of what you believe to be wrong. I find the stupidification of culture quite disturbing; I didn't become an art director to combat that, I became an art director because its what I wanted to do. However, I do intelligent work that's respectful of my audience. Usually that's killed by someone.

Bottomline, if you're posting here you live a life of luxury. If you're uncomfortable with that, going to your design studio and making a poster promoting whatever worthy cause shouldn't necessarily make you more comfortable because you still benefit wildly from tons of other luxuries. If you want to change the world and put an end to hunger, then DO THAT. Don't be a fuckin' designer. Travel to the troubled spots on this planet and do something there. Engage in it fully and commit to it.

And if you want to be a designer, don't fuckin' apologize for that desire or for what you do. Its your choice. Be aware that not everyone gets that choice, and be grateful that you have it.

On Sep.16.2005 at 11:54 AM
Kelly Munson’s comment is:

"If you want to change the world and put an end to hunger, then DO THAT. Don't be a fuckin' designer. Travel to the troubled spots on this planet and do something there. Engage in it fully and commit to it."

Thank you for your comments Bradley, but I do feel I need to disagree with this point. I consider myself an environmentalist and I wrestle with being in a profession where I create and produce landfill material day after day. I do design work for a large retailer in Minneapolis, and if I can provide a my clent with smart design that uses less packaging and creates less waste - it goes beyond recycling, protesting, or joining Greenpeace.

On Sep.16.2005 at 12:55 PM
Josh’s comment is:

David makes some great points, albeit not consistenly cohesive from the swerving he did through his post.

I think it is quite difficult to be convincing and attentive to backing any statements, when the tone of his post feels empassioned with his frustrations. I often feel the same way and will not post or will rewrite many ideas to the point by which I just give up in fear of being attacked for my lack of Steven Heller's acumen.

Quick and dirty, if someone finds value in being an AIGA member that is fantastic. They do have positive sides on the local and national levels.

Though its not to say that they have deficiencies as well. My focus would be on the lack of action on the educational side or their influence on it as such. Am i relying on AIGA to help every student? No. I do whatever I can myself and if a joint effort comes along with the AIGA i would be grateful for the resources it could provide.

David has his beef. Dick and Jane have theirs as well. The strengthening of our profession and its organizations will come when members or not build independent projects that show vision and create value. Instead of hoping our "god" will save us.

To throw all the blame on AIGA is ridiculous. Its not a Stalinistic regime that we have to answer to. We are free to explore our own paths and if we so choose to invite the AIGA to utilize our work to strengthen theirs, i'm sure they would be welcoming and beyond excited.

At this point im probably beating a dead Bush. Haha!

All i say is...Viva Action!

On Sep.16.2005 at 03:38 PM
Josh’s comment is:

Im also waiting for DesignMaven to swoop in and write a book. Always A Good Read.

On Sep.16.2005 at 03:41 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

Kelly--I see what you're saying. But you clearly like designing, and you're just conscious of what you're doing and how you do it. Which is good. Its great, actually. But if you want to save the environment, if that's what really drives you more than anything, at some point you'll commit to that entirely. But its not like you HAVE to either. I don't believe in doing stupid ads or TV spots, so I don't. But if my true passion was teaching people and getting them to think, I'd be a teacher--I just get off on this silly industry I work in and temper it with my own values that I've developed over the years.

On Sep.16.2005 at 03:56 PM
jenny’s comment is:

> My notion of “good business,” although it has nothing to do with shareholders, would be to institute a design scholarship for aspiring and worthy students from the developing world who can’t otherwise travel to Europe or North America to study.

I'm an AIGA member, and I go to some the lectures and events here in San Francisco. But the SF chapter also runs a program called Studio 5. For 8-10 weeks each semester, they send volunteers (2 per classroom) into 5th grade public school classrooms to teach design. AIGA provides a curriculum to use, and pays for supplies; the designers devote an hour a week (during school/work hours) in the classroom plus planning time.

San Francisco's public schools no longer have art classes, music classes, etc. Many of these classes are in less than affluent areas, and a lot of the kids are minorities. They learned at least a little about design, and at least one girl in the classroom I taught in said she wanted to become a designer. In the end, I think I got more out of it than the kids did.

I guess its not changing the world, not a big scholarship, but its a great educational program, and I thought it was worth mentioning in the context of this discussion.

In my experience, AIGA has never forbidden any member from pursuing a worthwhile interest that may be important for other members as well.

Notably, this program was started by a chapter member who saw a need in the schools and in the profession - she felt that the profession would benefit from greater diversity. If I'm not mistaken, AIGASF has been running this program for over 10 years.

And I think that they should be looking for volunteers in a few weeks for the fall session if you're in SF...

On Sep.16.2005 at 05:05 PM
david stairs’s comment is:

Many thanks for all the intelligent comments. As I told Armin, "Burning Bridges" wasn't just dashed off casually; I thought about it a long long time, rewrote it twice, and disregarded my wife's good counsel to not post it.

I appreciate Josh's observation that I sound frustrated with AIGA. And Jill is right, the piece can be interpreted as self-righteous. There are certain responses one can almost anticipate from a post. But I really expected to be skinned alive here, and the fact I haven't been speaks highly to the level of civility at Speak Up.

I wouldn't have dared to voice such criticisms if I had not made a number of overtures to the AIGA. I, too, have attended its educator conferences. At one I proposed my African scholarship idea to the Executive Director. It seemed that if the AIGA could endorse a conference in the Azores, and send a group of exchange designers to Cuba and/or China that it could consider something more. I've made well-received DWB presentations to at least two regional chapters (Chicago & D.C.), but I don't belong to one because the nearest (Detroit) is 200 miles away. Thus, the stand-alone student chapter at CMU. I went to Vancouver expressly to participate in the Cross Cultural community of interest. What I encountered there disappointed me. Perhaps my friend Rob Peters is right, I just wasn't meant to bring about change from inside an organization.

Frankly, I don't see the AIGA as a charity, but as an affluent non-profit organization that could do more for the world than it does. Consequently, I am elated to learn from Jenny about the San Francisco chapter's efforts in the classroom. If members want to help other members in the wake of Katrina, that's commendable. I gave to Oxfam for Katrina Relief the same week I gave to Oxfam for Niger Hunger Relief. The world has to be seen as more than just US and our media-driven national hysterias. Unfortunately, whether well-intentioned or not, the Displaced Designer initiative, when juxtaposed with organizations like Architecture for Humanity which regularly does do relief work worldwide, felt opportunistic to me. I suppose if anyone is assisted, and we have at least one such testament, so much the better.

Where does this leave us? Certainly not with me trying to punch holes in AIGA membership numbers. The question "Why join at all?" was strictly self-directed. Rather, I hope we can admit to the need for improvement, and keep up the dialogue. Remember, criticism is healthy.

Thanks again Armin and Bryony.

On Sep.16.2005 at 07:07 PM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

Josh:

Tongue in cheek. I know when my comments are not WELCOMED. I have my own Beef with AIGA. Not a Member.

IRS Problems.=-D

I am donating $ 100.000.00 apiece AIGA and ADC to receive me Lifetime Achievement AWARDS.

I ain't stupid, I can't BASH THEM.

DM

P.S. On a Serious note, David Stairs Editorial was Heartfelt and Passionate. A little Idealistic, however AIGA is more Pragmatic.

On Sep.16.2005 at 07:41 PM
Shahla’s comment is:

Deadline January 15, 2006 to submit posters…

What do you think of this initiative, David?

The posters were conceived and designed by Tom Geismar through AIGA for the Human Development Report Office of the United Nations Development Programme in anticipation of The 2005 World Summit. The Summit, held on September 14-16, 2005, is the largest gathering of world leaders in history. Heads of state will attempt to forge a common agenda on international development, security and human rights.

…development, security and human rights. Notice how �security’ is tucked in between development and human rights, but veers to the left (because of sequencing— or rather �the right’) reinforcing �development’? I would expect the copy to start with �human rights’ because the word �development’ sounds (and this could be because it is the AIGA wording this) so commercial. Yes, it is the Human Development Report Office of the UN �Development’ program but that 3rd showing of the word rings hollow. Why not put a little passion into this copy? That last sentence could read: “Heads of state will attempt to forge a common agenda on human rights, security and, as our membership hopes for 2006’s summit agenda, the reduction (50%) [I am no copywriter : ) ] of extreme poverty by 2015.”

My question is: Who (AIGA member profile) will print these posters? Graphic Design instructors who plan to give this �brief’ as a class project? An activist designer who plans to send copies to state senators, governors and �guerilla’ post in affluent areas in the dark of night?

I agree that criticism is healthy and I hope this missive comes across as constructive.

On Sep.17.2005 at 12:51 AM
Josh’s comment is:

Design Maven

Gotcha.

I enjoyed your post on Steven's latest discussion on the AIGA site. Even though my state university education is just slightly above an associates degree in auto mechanics(an important profession i might add).

Though sometimes I admit I get completely lost in your posts. :)

On Sep.17.2005 at 01:18 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

David said: If members want to help other members in the wake of Katrina, that's commendable.

Listen up: Commendable? Commendable??? Are you &%$#@!kidding me? It's one thing to be so cushioned by affluence that giving a few expendable dollars is an ego boost. Fine.( I said there would be disaster fatigue.) It's another when the loss is so massive and overwhelming that a giant portion of my city is gone and people are suffering post-tramatic stress syndrome because of its fury. Are your fellow Americans less deserving than Africans? I don't have an answer for you. Everyone makes their choices.

If for an instant I could make you see just how gigantic the damage of the hurricane really was - the size of England, Scotland and Ireland by comparative land mass - it might change that faint praise for real praise for anyone with guts enough to creatively aid these people in the days ahead.

I knw you're talking about AIGA in a larger context, David, and I'm certainly not mad at anyone,, but hey, from down here on the bottom, sustained hope beats platitudes any day.

I won't have computer access for a while, so adios everyone....

On Sep.17.2005 at 05:12 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

One last thing: my situation as a hurrican survivor doesn't entitle me to be rude. I apologize to David and anyone who may find it offensive to have replied as I did. It's been a long stressful day...

bye, ya'll.

On Sep.17.2005 at 07:03 PM
Charles’s comment is:

It seems to me that there are a variety of needs within the design industry that can (and should) be addressed through an association of professionals. That the needs range from personal (coffee and conversation with peers) and professional (establishing best-practices and industry advocacy) to global and altruistic (as Mr. Stairs article and many replies describe) doesn't mean that they are necessarily mutually exclusive. It is just my observation, but these needs seem to be part of a continuum in which each need is partially met by addressing the others. In the end, our community should and strengthen individual designers, the industry as a whole, and the world in which we live.

AIGA, as an organization, doesn't address the entire range of our collective needs. Of that, Mr. Stairs and I are in agreement. I also dislike that AIGA positions itself as "THE professional association for designers", although as much as I hate to admit it, for the most part, this appears to be a fairly accurate description. Where Mr. Stairs and I disagree (or perhaps where I disagree with his article) is in the basic assumption that AIGA should shift its focus towards the altruistic end of the spectrum. I believe that it would be a massive challenge for AIGA to attempt to address larger social issues, and that doing so would necessarily compromise its capacity to meet the personal and professional needs of designers.

Perhaps, ideally, our industry would be served by three organizations -- each working closely together. One would serve as a way for designers to interact socially. For many freelance or in-house designers, this is a very real need. A second organization would deal with industry needs. It serve as an advocate for the design industry, both internally and externally. The third would use design to help the world -- both theoretically (think open dialogue on environmental and social responsibility in design) and pragmatically (using the skills and resources of members to directly impact the quality of living through the world). Working together, the organizations would be able to accomplish more than they ever could alone - Imagine the first organization holding an awards ceremony for member designer that includes projects that have had significant social environmental impact (there would also be snacks, and guest speakers, and all that fun stuff). The second organization, at the same time, could be providing designers with tools for measuring the environmental impact of design projects and promoting environmentally responsible design to businesses in general -- and promoting that a professional (member) designer has what it takes to help get it done. The third organization's local chapters could be organizing designers to help local environmental issues -- maybe they are making posters to save a wetland. Anyway, environmental concerns are just an example -- the organizations would work together on a range of things.

Anyway, I'm just throwing that out -- it isn't necessarily the best answer (or even a well-thought-out one). I guess my point is that there are a range of needs within the design community, and AIGA only (currently) addresses a subsection of those needs. Should our community address the entire range of needs within our industry? Absolutely. Would changing AIGA to meet the rest of those needs be a viable answer? Maybe, but based on my own experiences and the various posts and replies on this web site, I would guess not.

On Sep.19.2005 at 12:58 AM
Christopher Simmons’s comment is:

David,

Your vision of an AIGA geared toward designing a utopian future doesn't go nearly far enough. If I were to change the AIGA, I would indeed include some of the items on your wish list (such as a scholarship that enabled students to travel to South America, as well as initiatives that address conservation, community, development, and diplomacy.

But while we're at it, don't you think the AIGA should also focus on other pressing issues as well? What about election reform for example? Why isn't the AIGA involved in using design as a tool to remove the barriers between our citizenry and our government? Couldn't we use our clout as an organization to petition our leaders (or at the very least, encourage our members to do the same? Couldn't the AIGA use its national network to help encourage Americans to become more active in the political process?

You're right, David. The AIGA is clearly far too inward looking. The organization should not obsess so much on taking care of its own —�and start providing resources to address issues like world hunger.

Why is it that we pay so little attention to the matters that affect those outside our borders? When will the organization wake up and realize that we live in a diverse world — one that requires action if we are to bring about social change?

And what of the children? Doesn't an organization like the AIGA have a responsibility to nurture the future?

All I can conclude is that you are right, we've clearly lost our way. I mean, what are they doing with my $295 anyway?

Alas, if only there was some way to do more.

On Sep.19.2005 at 11:29 PM
Josh’s comment is:

Christopher -

Thanks for linking to the AIGA spending Flash document. Been looking for that. Or rather not being able to find it. I somehow found it a few months ago, but is there an easier way to find it directly from the AIGA site?

On Sep.20.2005 at 11:22 AM
Mr.Frankie L’s comment is:

Why do we (designers) always try to think

design is more than what it is?

The AIGA is a GRAPHIC DESIGN organization.

The power of Design isn't going to feed

poor kids in Africa.

Join different organizations to accomplish

different objectives.

All this talk about AIGA becoming some sort

of hybrid Design/UNICEF/Red Cross/Peace Corps

organization, "is for the birds."

On Sep.20.2005 at 04:14 PM
Robynne Raye’s comment is:

Mr. Frankie:

It's stems from an overall feeling of worthlessness because what we do often lacks meaning or some kind of higher purpose. As we all know, most design ends up as landfill. And the “save-the-world complex” is most apparent in the education of graphic designers, which can present a lopsided view of the profession to students.

I think it’s pretty interesting, and as I type this my business partner is working on gum packaging called “fart”.

On Sep.20.2005 at 05:48 PM
david stairs’s comment is:

Thanks, Christopher Simmons, for your insightful post. Aside from all the broken links and redundancies, you've pretty well vindicated my point about the AIGA as a completely self-referential endorsment machine.

By the way, the Linda Cooper-Bowen article, which first appeared in the May-June 2004 issue of Communication Arts, quotes all the usual AIGA cheerleaders (myself included, as an "outside opinion").

Say, does anyone have an idea for another social justice poster series? They always seem to make such a big difference!

On Sep.21.2005 at 11:44 AM
cchs’s comment is:

By self-refferential you mean my reference to your points of contention, I assume? It's difficult to address criticisms of an organization's activities without referencing, say, their activities.

If instead you mean to marginalize my opinion because of my connection to AIGA, I'll respectfully disagree. I volunteer for the organization because I believe in it (while not always agreeing with it). I think a reasonable person would agree that most of the links I supplied (none of which appear broken to me, by the way) connect to initiatives that the AIGA has undertaken on behalf of others. Categorizing initiatives to teach art to 5th graders, promote sustainable and ethical practice, or make ballots more understandable as activities of a "self-refferential endorsement machine" is unfair, and fairly absurd.

Like any organization, the AIGA could stand a fair amount of improvement (a fact which it acknowledges and addresses as a matter of policy), and the organization is no stranger to my own dissent. But you're swinging your judgement widely and indiscriminately —�criticizing both the problems and the solutions without offering any of your own.

On Sep.21.2005 at 12:17 PM
david stairs’s comment is:

Christopher, marginalize you? Heaven forbid! As a person who sits on the margins taking potshots at the good conforming people in the center, I would likely never invite you to join me out here.

Pointing to posts at the AIGA Forum, or the initiative inspired by Tom Geismar's Inequality Matters poster series for the UN as effectual initiatives is really just more of the self-aggrandizing myopia I'm contesting. Having referred to both Worldstudio and Design for Democracy in my original post, I won't address them further here. And I've responded positively to Jenny's news about the SF chapter's classroom initiative. I think that's great. Having said that, I've still neither seen nor heard anything from any AIGA official, yourself included, that contradicts my observation that the AIGA's approach to cross-culturalism is mercenary at best.

If by reasonable you mean someone who pays upwards of $2000 to attend the AIGA conference, I can understand why such reasonable people would find me downright irrational. As for the solutions I've offered, well, you've already weighed in on their value with your asides. Let me say in self-defense that while my judgements may be wide, they are never indiscriminate.

On Sep.21.2005 at 03:07 PM