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Design Organizations - Why Bother?

The business economy is a mess, the war is sort of over, clients won’t commit to projects, the job market is flooded with out of work “media designers” and printers are starting to throw in free graphics with a good print order. So what good is AIGA and why aren’t they saving us?

When I started in business, I did not feel like a grown up designer. So I joined AIGA to see what the smart adult designers in New York were doing. I also joined STA (later ACD, later still, STA again) to see what my competition was doing. I got mail, newsletters, and entered the competitions. And grumbled about how useless these dues eaters were. Then Bart Crosby made a big push for Chicago to be an AIGA chapter, and through my friendship with Bart, I experienced AIGA from a very different perspective. I was on the board—and one of the snobby elite running the thing.

I tell you this history, because without it, I would still be grumbling. What it taught me is that member organizations are fluid, are truly driven by members, and that if you don’t get involved, you shouldn’t bitch. I went on to become president of the Chicago chapter, served on the national board and still advise both. That happened because I volunteered, followed up, and did what I said I was going to do—and I brought my point of view to our industry. There is no big brain out there (similar to our government) that knows where to take our industry. The people we elect figure it out the best they can. So get involved and help. Design organizations are our collective voice, so include yours.

There are many long term and somewhat invisible benefits from Associations that are essential and need your support. AIGA and many of the other organizations are trying hard to create standards for ethics and education. They deal with issues about professional standards, lobbying with the government for more voice and visibility, and through competitions and exhibitions, raise the visual and verbal standards for all of us. Design needs a voice, a profile and someone to present us to the world, and AIGA is it.

To do all this costs money— and that is where dues, events and conventions come in. These are usually developed and run by designers just like you, and if they are great or suck it is because of the person in charge. I am not a big fan of a lot of these, but I am a fan of the things I have been involved in creating. You have the same power. Get involved. See if you can do better.

The other benefit is that you will broaden your peer group instantly. Designers are great when you make the effort to talk to them, we all have the same problems, egos and insecurities. Design organizations foster dialogue, sharing of information, and a chance to be involved in the destiny of your profession. But if you only go for the free food or the paper company t-shirt, you missed the point.

I don’t always like what AIGA does, but I voice my opinion to AIGA, not to the person sitting next to me. Call Marcia Lausen in Chicago, call Ric Grefe at national- they will talk to you, listen and do something with your input (well, not everyone’s input). But they are honestly trying to do the right thing on a tight budget with limited resources, and they need our help.

The bottom line is that I wouldn’t pay $20 to go to designer bowling. I still haven’t found out what the cool guys in New York are doing. But I wouldn’t trade my experience with my profession and my peers that I gained though AIGA for anything.

Did I mention get involved?

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ARCHIVE ID 1666 FILED UNDER Business Articles (Admin use only)
PUBLISHED ON Jun.14.2003 BY steve liska
Armin’s comment is:

My first question, right off the bat, is how does joining the AIGA (or any design association) help my business? I am not questioning the valuable activity of talking and meeting designers, but it's hard to think that many new business opportunities would come from sipping wine* with my competitors.

* Big-false generalization, just going to the extreme to make my point.

On Jun.14.2003 at 12:15 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

>I was on the board—and one of the snobby elite running the thing.

Steve: Why do you think this perception exists?

On Jun.15.2003 at 07:18 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

Seems like a fine bit of commentary. Note that the comments apply to *any* professional association, and even some other orgs (like democratic society, for instance).

To answer your question, Armin, I think the immediate benefit of any professional organization is simply a broader range of networking opportunities. Remember that business is all about WHO you know...

On Jun.16.2003 at 11:18 AM
Chris Gee’s comment is:

In a way I can understand Armin's concern. While there is an obvious benefit for a new business owner to network with others, why should an owner of a young design firm join the AIGA as opposed to the American Marketing Association, where they may have the opportunity to network with individuals who may turn out to be clients -- not competitors?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that every designer you see is a competitor. It's just that if a start-up design firm has limited capital, would they really be better served by joining the AIGA than the AMA or their local Chamber of Commerce for that matter?

Having said that, I'm more excited about the direction in which the AIGA is headed than I have been in the past.

On Jun.17.2003 at 12:44 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Five years ago, I was a business owner of a fledgling design firm. I was also on the local AIGA board, and eventually served as a vp, then a chapter president.

Somehow, I never questioned the relevance of the org to my business. I always assumed the intangible benefits were there for me to reap and exploit. I wasn't wrong. Being a part of AIGA can only be an enriching experience, even more so if you have your own business. I was able to network, leverage contacts to find new client avenues, better vendors, and better design recruits -- all possible through AIGA. My office hosted a number of small events and my staff was eventually also folded into the AIGA whirlpool. As an indirect result, our office gained visibility and good PR in the local design community -- which tangibly resulted in clients that seeked us out through word of mouth.

And most importantly, AIGA involvement also greatly bonded our office -- and reminded us that our company wasn't just a business, but an entity in a vibrant creative community.

Sure it can put a strain on your time. Yes, it can be taxing on resources -- financially and hourly. But if you manage it well, AIGA involvement can be a great thing -- especially in an economic downturn.

> would they really be better served by joining the AIGA than the AMA or their local Chamber of Commerce for that matter?

You should do all of the above. Join the AIGA, the AMA, and the APDF (association of professional design firm), along with a number of other trade organizations. Each org has its merits and gives value at different touch points. The key is to involve yourself, as Steve said -- and not just sit back and expect for the orgs to cater to you.

On Jun.17.2003 at 01:55 PM
Steve Liska’s comment is:

To Answer Armin's question- you won't get work from other designers while sipping wine. You will get a network of peers to help you as your career changes, as you open a business (where you need all the help you can get) or when you need a resource. Plus, you pay more attention to the changing culture of design. Peer help and peer pressure- both good for you.

To answer Debbie's question- I think you tend to see the same people being on boards and being in charge. It was a constant criticism of most AIGA chapters that there was this "old boys designer group" that used to dominate everything. Some of that may exist, but the reality is that the successful people tend to volunteer more. The hardest thing about running a board is to get people to help that are dependable. Get involved now and you will be president in a few years- if you want to be.

I agree with Chris- I think if you have limited funds, join anything you are going to get involved in. AMA or PRSA or all the other groups are valuable --if you network and have a presence. AIGA is your peer group, the others can be that but are more marketing opportunities. While a Chamber of Commerce may sound strange to some- it is a great idea. No clients know how to find a designer, so don't be invisible.

On Jun.17.2003 at 02:16 PM
felix’s comment is:

I'm with Gee (sounds like a button slogan, eh?)- the AIGA is doing much better- trying harder, doing more with less.

My main concern, or beef, is the new rulebook regarding 365. I know it sounds self - concerned bringing up the Annual, but the way things are currently drawn, the little man has little chance to compete with the bigger "corporate" design firms who actually have time and resources to creat a binder full of "strategic brand strategies". Just take a peek at the 365 Annual. Its slightly embarrasing and I know many people here in NYC who are fairly disturbed.

But, at the end of the day, the book reflects the board. The board (often) reflects the power hungry firms who want to tweak the rulebook and stifle singular entities. My little logo for the Grey Dog coffee shop will never see the light. Take the Sam Goody piece in this years annual on page336 and 337. It fake and terrible design. I mean terrible! Jurors comment: "..this is really good thinking, but its really well-described.. especially to theme and customer experience".

Do we judge "description" or "design" at the AIGA ? The wordfest has got to stop!

On Jun.24.2003 at 10:57 PM