Tue 27 Jun
As of the beginning of this month, I became a member of the board of directors for the New York chapter of the AIGA. Notwithstanding the fact that I find their recent, subtle re-branding efforts confusing — mothballing the explicit translation of the organization’s acronym as “American Institute of Graphic Arts” and opting instead for a more global-minded, less literal tagline: “The Professional Association for Design” — I’ve always had great respect for the AIGA.
Over the past several years, I’ve been involved with the organization at various levels, including designing micro-sites like Gain 2.0 and helping to re-architect their Design Forum (a job that, in retrospect, I wish I’d pulled off better), and I’ve been good friends with some of the staffers at the organization’s national office.
As corny as it is, I really do believe in the AIGA’s mission: “To identify and define issues critical to its membership and the graphic design profession; to explore and clarify these issues for the purpose of helping to elevate the standards of the business of graphic design; and to create a forum for the exchange of information, views, ideas and techniques among those engaged in the profession.” In many ways, the organization is uniquely positioned to do a large amount of good for graphic designers and to create the conditions under which great design can flourish.
That said, I’ve been a little concerned as I’ve watched the AIGA miss many opportunities in the evolving world of design. Chief among these, in my mind, has been the chance to really play a central role in the ongoing development of interaction design.
Now, I think the AIGA does a very respectable job of keeping up with digital media, but it seems particularly odd to me that the organization really isn’t at the center of most of the conversations we have about design as it’s practiced online. It’s kept something of a distance — maybe purposefully, maybe inadvertently — from the online design community. Admittedly, I measure that distance not so much in the effectiveness of its activities and outreach (AIGA has produced several well-conceived attempts to engage Web designers, it’s true) but rather in the fact that most Web designers just don’t think that the AIGA has much to offer them.
I strongly disagree with that notion, of course, but I can empathize with the perception. Those of us who practice design on the Web have no shortage of rich resources to go to for help, advice and community. You could make an argument that, in some ways, the AIGA’s mission has been usurped by other, scrappier entities — A List Apart and Speak Up, for instance, are a better AIGA.org than AIGA.org itself. And the association’s bi-annual design conferences, which in the past have been hotbeds for debate, discussion and visionary declarations, now cater mostly to more traditional practitioners of graphic design; the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, in many ways, is exactly what the AIGA Design Conference should be.
In some informal conversations I had with young designers finding success on the Web, I was struck by the reverence that many have for the organization, but also by the out-of-hand dismissal for anything meaningful the organization might offer. One designer told me, “I hate paying for nothing,” meaning he saw no reason to pony up the annual fee for AIGA membership. When pressed further about this, he elaborated, “I just mean, I don’t like the idea of paying for status. They tried to feed us AIGA in school, and it seems like a great idea on paper, but you really didn’t get much out of it.”
It’s a harsh assessment, but it seems fair at least in how pointedly some designers view the association’s value — which is to say, some take a dim view of it. And these aren’t cynical, narrow-minded designers, either; in at least this one case, the designer is active in the professional community and as deeply passionate about the history of the profession as anyone I know. It says something when some of the exact people you’re trying to target — deeply committed designers working in a new medium — see nothing of value in what you have to offer.
I’m not saying that I can fix that with just my one board seat at the New York chapter, but I’m certainly going to try my hardest during my two year term. In the meantime, if you want to help me better understand why Web designers aren’t as keen on the AIGA as they might be, I’m all ears.