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AIGA National Conference: A Non-Review

Guest Editorial by Jimm Lasser

On Friday I am in an elevator with two strangers.

“So,” No.1 begins, "Any big plans for the weekend?"
No. 2 looks up from his hot bag of takeout sandwich, and starts into a long "Well, my folks are..." answer that I ignore.

Mentally I ask myself the same.

Here I am, riding the corporate elevator in a corporate tower. Here I am, wearing my Monday through Friday Levis and a thrift shop western shirt. Here I am, standing out; a designer with a capital D at the branding agency. So why am I not on my way to Boston, to the AIGA Supershow, like all the rest of my kind?

Because I don't know if the AIGA wants me there.

If they did want me there, why would the Supershow outprice the budgets of the junior, intermediate designers (reference the AIGA 2005 salary survey)? Why isn't it economically more inclusive?

I have fond memories of the Supershow. I went as a student in 2001. There was a nice discount rate, and it was one of the more inspiring experiences I've had: I got to see Stefan Sagmeister, Dave Eggers and Milton Glaser speak. We got to go on illegal postering raids with Robbie Connal. I sat with my girlfriend in the lap of a gigantic Abe Lincoln sculpture made of white chocolate and took a bite out of his thumb. In a word, it was an awesome weekend in Washington DC.

Then I went pro, and I always found some excuse (i.e. money) not to go.

And now I need to go more than ever.

Every year I practice, I get beat up: clients, bosses, budgets take the breath out of my creativity. It is an event like the Supershow that serves to rejuvenate.

Furthermore, it's cool to gather together a rather lonely profession into some semblance of unity. By nature we lock ourselves to drafting tables and computer monitors far too often. This is a rare opportunity to let some light in and share with others. It's a beautiful thing.

Most of all, we've got to stick together. When the economy takes a dive, marketing budgets are the first to be cut. The disrespect we grumble about from clients is nothing compared to the disrespect the economy gives us. It is therefore a priority that we assemble in force, and support the AIGA Board's efforts to spread the gospel of what we do, and why it is essential—not just a luxury to business. Our vulnerability then as a profession should make the Supershow the even more important event than we might realize.

Attendance at the Supershow then is imperative. This is what worries me most about the high cost. And I know there is a steep financial overhead to put on a fine Supershow: rooms and projectors and nametags. And to be fair, the AIGA tries to make it affordable. They know it is a sensitive issue and they delicately address it: "The fees are set to make the experience both memorable and affordable...This year, we have tried to reduce the cost to encourage as many people as possible to attend."

I don't want to blame the AIGA. It's not their fault we aren't young bankers or surgeons. We're a smart, stylish, yet broke-ass bunch. And we go into this profession knowing this, yet we love our craft so much that it doesn't make a difference. Nervertheless, love can only take you so far.

I feel the AIGA has to further address the issue of economic inclusiveness. Broad attendance at the Supershow should be a priority. It should be the evangelical tool to solidify their base. Talk to Ralph Reed. Talk to Karl Rove. It's your base, stupid. The long term success of any organization depends on that base's involvement. If the keys to the revival are beyond their means, you've got trouble soon enough.

I still wish I would have gone. I can only hope for the next Supershow. I think I'll start saving now: tap water for Lattes. Brownbagging PB&J....

AIGA. It's about sacrifice.

Jimm Lasser, Esq. (1974-    )
On the stormy morning of Sunday, December 9, 1974, Nancy Lasser, wife of Alan, gave birth to a boy. He was born on a bed of poles covered with corn husks. The baby was named Jimm, after Comedian Red Foxx. The birth took place in the Lasser's rough-hewn cabin in Winnetka near Chicago, Illinois. Alan Lasser was a dermatologist and a farmer. Nancy Lasser had little or no accounting schooling and could not write french poetry. Jimm spent a short amount of time in a log schoolhouse, before graduating from the University of Michigan, Vanderbilt University School of Law, and the Portfolio Center. Jimm attended school dressed in a raccoon cap, buckskin clothes, and pants so short that several inches of his calves were exposed. Jimm earned his first dollar ferrying passengers to a steamer on the Ohio River, and designing T-shirts for the 84-year old James Toast at sharpastoast.com. He was a member of the charter class of John Bielenberg's Project M, spoke out against the Dred Scott Decision, and has won many decorations for valor in battle.


Seems to me you got something out of the conference. Hell, a guest editorial out of Speak Up at least. Don't let the hype get to you, do it for your self and see what happens next.

This really brings up what I have seen as barrier between me and the ol' organization ever since I became a designer. Cost vs. Value.

And save the "its not what AIGA can give to you, but what you can give AIGA". Please.

Not saying that we don't all need to do our part to help the organization but seriously folks embership is "effin" expensive and the AIGA could really do more to increase the percieved "value" to its members. I mean they discontinued both the printed directory and the magazine. And that little flimsy membership card is without.

As I see it, right now I get nill from the national organization for my membership and the local chapters don't do shit but throw more damn networking mixers. And the member rates are still a little high for any kind of rare educational event that comes this way.

For an industry built on creating the perception of value, we could really come a long way for ourselves. I want being a member of AIGA to "feel" cool as well as actually be worth the money and effort.

Anyway, I am glad everyone had such a great time in Boston.

I am going to start by agreeing with you, then swiftly disagree:

Agreed: AIGA should do more to increase the perceived value of membership. That suggests to me that there is real value that you're just not being made aware of.

Disagreed: You get nill from the national organization. As a national organization, AIGA pools the resources (financial and otherwise) from 18,000 members and 52 chapters. They use this collective power to advocate the profession to government, business leaders, educators, even the United Nations. To pick just a single example for each of the above, these advocacy efforts include election reform, improving the quality and focus of design education, engaging business leaders in the dialogue on design though editorial arrangements with magazines like Business Week, and applying for NGO status with the UN — which would require AIGA review and input on that organization's design-related concerns.

These are but a few of the advocacy efforts the AIGA offers on behalf of its members. One need only visit the virtually unnavigable (sorry) national website realize that there are countless more activities and efforts being undertaken at the national level. These initiatives are open, democratic, and transparent — any member anywhere is invited to participate. In fact, they are derived from the input of members at local roundtables on an annual basis. If, as you request, we save the "its not what AIGA can give to you, but what you can give AIGA" argument, it can be said that, as a member, you're pledging your dollars and not your time to these efforts. It should not also be said that the organization is elitist and exclusionary (although those elements — or their perception — do, in some cases, remain).

In addition to advocacy, the organization provides a wealth of resources and content to help support your professional development. From business courses with Harvard Business School, to the creation of a Center for Practice Mangement that provides free business information and support to members through regular articles and the Design:BusinessNewsletter. Publications for busines porfessionals, as well students, educators, and others.

At the local level, the quantity, quality, focus and philosophy of programming and opportunities are varied — and generally reflect the interests and values of their local culture. Your local boards are comprised of 100% volunteers (who, it should be noted, pay the exact same price for every event and opportunity as every other member). They meet monthly to discuss the guidance and governance of the chapter and have committees that convene separately for more tactical purposes. The local chapters rely on the feedback (if not the direct support) of local members to determine the kind of programming their constituents want and value. I'm guessing you are in Seattle (?) so you should make your preferences known locally.

Given the above (and more that I have not the time nor the presence of mind to articulate at this moment), I think it is a mistake to measure the value of membership on a dollar spent for dollar returned ratio. But if we must look at numbers, consider this: The AIGA essentially matches your membership dollars with sponsorship, effectively doubling the value of your dues. Of those dues, by the way, about $75 comes back to your local chapter (about $20 for student members).

If it helps, think of your membership as two memberships: $220 to support all of the national work mentioned above, and $75 for all of your local programming and initiatives ($70/$20 for students). Now, imagine you had a design hero, someone whose thoughts and work you value and admire. Let's say this person lives and works in San Francisco, New York, or Mexico City. Now try getting that person on the phone. Tell them you'd like them to fly out to where you are and spend a couple of hours discussing their ideas on design with you. Tell them you'll give them your entire annual budget of $75. Now call your local AIGA and see what happens...

kick ass response. And the easily dismissed idea is actually, "its not what AIGA can give to you, but what you can give the profession"

To bring the discussion back to the conference as opposed to general membership...

Jimm is right when he says that we need design conferences more than ever. Beyond rejuvenation, conferences both promote our industry and broaden the scope of the design discussion. I just attended a conference in New York and returned feeling inspired and newly challenged.

A few factors helped make the trip affordable. Firstly, I went with two other designers, one of which had her workplace sponsor her trip. So we crashed in her hotel room and that took care of accommodation. Secondly, my workplace was good enough to pay for the conference fees - even though it would have been easy for them to refuse on the grounds that the conference was a little more "artsy" than the marketing-focused work I usually do. But being a smart organization, they recognized that professional development is as vital to my happiness and growth as my paycheque. (I should also mention that the conference was on the cheap end of the scale).

What other things could be done to increase attendance? Sponsored hostels or dormitories? Organized carpools? Scholarships and grants for interested parties who can't afford to make the trip? Sliding-scale cost structures? Partial, intermediate, and "VIP" passes to events? And lastly, are people demanding professional development perks from their workplace?

I no doubt understand the advocacy/professional undertakings AIGA engages in do or will have some influence on our profession, but when professionals start saying its combined cost is expensive how is that in line with the accessible, transparent attitude of the AIGA?

Design Camp, the event that happens each year in Minnesota, generally ends up as a professional event. Sort of a mini conference recharge for the local area. Students are invited, but when the combined cost goes for $250+, did many of you have that much to drop plus transportation(car)in college to go to such events.

I guess my wish would be in cohouts with the local chapters, that the gob of talent that was collected in Boston, be distributed more evenly across the US throughout the year. As in Paula Scher should come to Minneapolis and Joe Duffy to Texas, etc.

Then instead of having to fly half way across the country to see Milton Glaser once in my lifetime for a months salary, i could see him for a tankful of gas and a bad cup of coffee near my home.

After we save the world, can we get on that?

I can relate to Jimm's scenario on many levels, especially the opening scene and just getting beat up in general from the daily grind.

Typically I don't find the conferences themselves expensive, what kills it is travel and accomodations. As I mentioned before, I've tried to have employers pay my way in the past to no avail. However, I'm trying to remain positive about it and bring to their attention that this is a necessary activity to keep me rejuvenated and turn out consistently good work. If it works, great. However I've come to the realization that no one can advance my career more than myself. If I have to pay to attend next year, I'll figure out a way. The last design conference I attended was while I was still in school over 6 years ago, due to it being in my home town and receiving a student discount.

I'm finding the AIGA discussions quite interesting, because I've recently thought about joining again. In fact, I'm planning on it. My previous experience left me a little burned because, as others have mentioned, I don't feel they provided me with enough 'value'. Jimm was right, this can be a lonely profession, but if you don't put yourself out there, you'll never get anything back. That's like sitting at home and waiting to make friends, it's just not going to happen.

Events like this are going to cost a lot. Maybe in the future they can get more from sponsors to keep the cost reasonable, but unfortunately, plane tickets and hotels will remain the toughest obstacle. If you value yourself and your profession, I think you gotta just buck up and do it.

Also of note, I recently popped over to the site of my local chapter and was surprised to find out that there are events going on locally that are either free or very cheap. I kicked myself for not taking advantage of these sooner, but that will change.

As I believe other, more experienced, designers have noted about the AIGA in this forum, membership is what you make of it. I feel the same goes for conferences.

Robb — I don't remember if you are a coffee drinker, but if you are, I assume you spend about $3 on a latte, probably 3 times a week. Well, that comes out to be about $468 a year.

What about cable TV? Let me guess — about $60/month minimum, or about $720/year.

In comparison, AIGA membership costs $295/year, which when divided by the average number of work days a year (265, minus holidays, weekends, and vacation), comes out to about $1.11 a day.

So it costs about a buck a day to belong to the professional organization that gives you networking opportunities, access to professional resources, subscriptions to periodicals and a design annual, and the knowledge that you're supporting advocacy and development of your profession to businesses, media, and government at a national level.

That seems like more than a fair value to me.

If it makes you feel any better, just add $5 or $10 to every invoice you send out — and think of it as a standard cost of doing business.

It hard to disagree with the logic of Tan, Chris and the rest that will defend it, but for those making a wee bit more, they only have to not drink coffee a 1/4 of the year.

All right all right all right.

Admittedly my original post is now coming across as 250% more curmugdeoningly than intended.

Thanks for the many great responses.

My question now that I am interested in posing is:

How many individuals pay their own dues as apposed to having their work places cover the cost?

Many of these comments are insightful, and clearly the issue of conference fees is a complex one. But the bottom line for us (I am speaking now for educators) is simply this: for the sake of our students — not to mention our own development — we really should attend these conferences ... but we cant afford to. RISD, where I teach, has limited faculty development funds. The combined cost of registration fees, airfare, and accommodation becomes an insurmountable obstacle to faculty who may have already used their yearly allotment of faculty development funds for, say, an educational conference or research trip. I am amazed that the AIGA doesn’t have a non-profit registration fee for members involved in non-profit, pro-bono or other good-works based design/education. AIGA did well by establishing an educators membership fee but they haven’t yet carried over that compassion to the conference realm. Perhaps one day soon...

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