The AIGA and Web Design

AIGAAs 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.


Keeping Up with the Internets

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.

Money for Nothing

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.

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  1. My professors at least mentions AIGA as a resource about the latest trends. I stop by once in a while to read up what everyone has to say on design theories and topics.

    On web design though, AIGA did’t serve the content that I’m looking for. I’m usually searching for trends in web, optimized ways of coding in html, and photoshop/illustrator/dreamweaver/flash tutorials.

    In short, it’s techniques I’m looking for. Inspiration from others know how. Reading interviews and designer ideas is great but how do you do it? Which leads to one article about teaching software in class. To do it or to not. Most web designers who come from schools that don’t teach have to look elsewhere to learn a program, to expand that tool/skill set. AIGA doesn’t seem to be one of ‘em, in terms of software.

  2. I began attending the AIGA web design sessions here in Denver a couple of years ago. I was initially surprised by the elementary nature of the presentations but decided to give AIGA the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately my initial impressions have persisted: AIGA is a largely print-focused organization that is trying to catch up.

    Compared to the information that I can glean from conferences like SXSWi, sites like A List Apart, Vitamin, or blogs such as this, Mezzoblue and 456 Berea Street, AIGA comes across as hopelessly out of touch.

  3. I think the reason I am not as keen on the AIGA website as I am on other sites that are doing what it should be doing (like the two you mentioned) is exactly that. That AIGA should be spotlighting innovate techniques that are being used on the web, such as the remarkable work that is being done with grids these days on the web, and presenting articles about these techniques and ideas the way A List Apart does.

  4. I wouldn’t discount the fact that procedural or “how to” content is one of the things that the AIGA doesn’t do as well as others. It’s true that the Web design community craves that sort of material more acutely than traditional forms of design. I’m just not sure that that’s ever been part of its mission — for better or worse — and I’m not sure it would be credible for AIGA to try and become a central resource for technical articles. Still, the point is taken: there’s a constituency of designers who can benefit from a more technically minded AIGA. I just hope, too, that beyond technical issues, we can make the rest of the AIGA message — improving the conditions that make great design possible through discourse, advocacy etc. — somehow relevant too.

  5. It’s funny that you mention this, because this is the exact reason we started Refresh here in Dallas. Consequently, I believe it’s the same reason that it spread quickly to many other cities. It just felt like there was a huge hole around interaction design, and we wanted to fill it.

    It’s not quite AIGA, but based on how fast individiuals in other cities picked it up and ran with it, it seems that there’s a lot of us that feel there’s room for this as well.

  6. “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.”

    When I became reading this entry, my thought was “What the hell is the AIGA?”

    I think that’s all you need. Now, some older, much more experienced designers out there might know what it is right off the bat, but for me, and I think a lot of others out there, the AIGA has no interaction on any level with us.

    The AIGA needs something to appeal to the masses and (re)introduce itself to the world of online/interactive designers.

  7. I’m starting to get a pretty clear picture of what the AIGA’s “problem” is, based on the comments to my own post on their recent name change and my knowledge of the institution. It’s that they are targeted at Art Directors. Seasoned pros. Bosses.

    The high cost of membership, the nature of the benefits, the flavor of the conferences, the types of books they publish, and the lack of practical hands-on advice and tools — all of these lean heavily towards confident design leaders who are stridently comfortable with their skills and careers, and who tend to be the people who manage designers, write about designers, and lead creative teams — not the sorts of people who need to learn CSS or compare design graduate school programs. It’s a bit of an exclusive club, an executive suite.

    I put “problem” in quotes above because it might not be a problem at all except insofar as they seem to wring their hands over wanting to bring younger, cooler, and more digital folks into the fold. Maybe it’s perfectly fine for the AIGA to be a little rarified.

  8. The day AIGA chapters become something more than a monthly cocktail party paid for by a large paper company then I’ll join. Their dues aren’t cheap (almost same price as a ticket to SXSW) and that’s a lot of money to spend on a party-of-the-month-club with people who don’t know jack about Interactive design.

  9. AIGA has never been, and never will be (I hope), about teaching technical skills. I agree that it’s not reaching interactive designers as well as it should be, but having workshops on CSS is not the way to do it. There’re plenty of people/sites/books/conferences on the technical issues of interactive design.

    What’s missing, from the AIGA and from almost every other website/conference, is a real, critical discussion about interactive design. Not about technical issues, and not a superficial discussion about the style of the month. We’ve won the standards battle (for the most part)—now let’s get back to designing.

    The rift isn’t between the old and new so much as it’s about the design-educated and the design-uneducated. You certainly doesn’t need to have gone to design school to be a good designer, but you do need a working knowledge of design history and theory (as well as the other technical skills like typography and layout). There are a handful of bloggers (Khoi and Jason Santa Maria come to mind) who are attempting to educate the community, but we need more.

    There’s a great opportunity to teach the old-school print designers that the internet is more than just Flash sites, and to teach the new-school interactive designers that design is more than gradients, rounded corners, and html validation.

    (DISCLAIMER: I work for the New York Chapter of the AIGA. I can’t vouch for other chapters around the country, be we put on around 20 events a year that are a lot more than just cocktail parties. Welcome aboard Khoi!)

  10. Chris, you’ve pretty much nailed it on the head when it comes to my view about AIGA. I personally think other design-oriented organizations and outlets will do a much, much better job of teaching practical, technical skills than the AIGA could ever hope to do. But the AIGA does have an important role to play in creating much richer conversations around interaction design, and especially in trying to give this new craft an historical context, so that we can benefit from what’s come before, and help guide Web design with greater savvy as it continues to evolve. There’s a lot of work to be done.

  11. This is a complicated situation. I’ve been on the LA board for 3 years and have just started a stint on the advisory board. I’m a designer. I do strategy and design. Sometimes it’s web, sometimes it’s print. Sometimes it just a report. At the heart of it, I’m a creative professional and I support the AIGA because it’s the biggest thing going that helps organize, promote and support our profession (web, print, whatever). SXSW may be fun and inspiring, but that’s a profit-driven enterprise, along with most of those other awards and conferences.

    Granted, there is limited accessibility for most of the interaction design crowd, partly out of AIGA ignorance and partly out of our own problem of not becoming part of the solution. In my experience, AIGA is inclusive and supportive. Tom Dolan and I both joined as board members at the same time and our chapter is a hell of lot different now than it was before we got active. By the way, that’s the key point here: Being a member is still hard to justify for the more literal of us, but being an active member is when you can stop whining and start doing something (as Khoi is about to find out).

    As far as sponsors go, that’s even tricker. We’ve managed to get some traction with “digital” sponsors, but I think our current system of attracting sponsors is not appropriate for the new breed of sponsors we’re chasing. I’ve been told flat-out by some of these people that “we don’t do tables”. Understood. We need new models for engaging these new sponsors. It’s a slow evolution for sure, but we’re forging new ground here and we need more help.

    Regarding Chris’ point about focusing on interaction design, he’s right. We’re still struggling with that on a national level. Even in the AIGA design awards, the “experience design” category lumps websites, kiosks, physical way-finding systems and everything else that is not “on paper”. We need to get on AIGA and insist on more sophistication in this regard. And, btw, I love the historical 50 Books/50 Covers show, but how about the 50 Websites/50 Home pages show? Who want’s to help pitch that?

  12. Having worked for two years with Rob & Tom on the AIGA/LA site and chapter – I’ll chime in and agree on the desparate need for the organization to embrace interactive media. I joined to try and help transform the LA chapter into something that I would want to be a member of. But I gradually withdrew as I got frustrated at the slowness of that change. I think there are two tricks… 1) remember that it’s going to take a long time and 2) you need a critical mass of like-minded and active colleagues to help push forward the changes you want to implement.

  13. “AIGA has never been, and never will be (I hope), about teaching technical skills.”

    Amen. There are a number of smart resources out there for this kind of education already. Instead of focusing on being a resource for technical skills, AIGA is focusing on moving forward the broader profession that supports these skills. That way, it has the infrastructure to support it as it evolves.

    Where it gets tricky is in the evolution: in part the evolution needs infrastructure to remain strong, but it also requires this dialog, activity, some actual movement. And for it to be really meaningful, it can only come from the energy of the group, not from the institution. As pointed out above, there is a complete lack of critical dialog about interaction design. And therefore, a complete lack of movement forward on interaction design.

    Why is it missing? I’m not sure. Before I joined the staff, I was never a member of AIGA. I only knew the Experience Design community (an effort to advance the dialog around interaction design). And from what I remember, it seemed relevant to me, but eventually the participants dissipated in favor of other groups. While AIGA wants to support this kind of natural ebb and flow of interest groups–as well as the forming of other organizations–it’s troubling that it can’t sustain interest/participation in that area. But should it be?

    There are stacks of good things that AIGA puts forward already from publications to conferences. Now that I’m on the staff, I can clearly see how they’re relevant to me as an interaction designer. But that’s just me. They’re often not perceived as valuable by other interaction designers. Not sure if the problem is in the content, the delivery, or something else.

    Maybe AIGA is just missing the mark in communicating things that could be advancing this dialog, or maybe it just doesn’t feel like a place where interaction designers feel welcome. Good things AIGA is doing like Design for Democracy, the Design Archives, and Voice are almost completely unknown. This, to me, is a significant part of the problem and maybe a hint at a solution.

    And Khoi: I’m thrilled to see you join the NY board and excited to see what your participation brings.

  14. In my experience in working with the AIGA I have learned one important lesson. You can tell your fellow volunteers/board members about your amazing ideas for years and nothing will ever happen, even if they completely agree with you. If you want to change things you have to have the energy and stamina to personally make it happen. You have to be strategist, project manager and production artist. It’s a fight that most people are not up for (or even aware of), and that is the reason why the AIGA struggles to remain relevant.

  15. I tried to post this earlier, but Khoi’s site gremlins nuked it:

    Greg (a friend and former employee) makes his hay with his blowhard shtick, but the AIGA is more. If he got out from in back of the Xbox on off of his referrer log a little more maybe he’d have a different perspective. For instance, in mid-July I’m hosting a “shop talk” at AIGA LA with guest speaker Paul “d5ive” Drohan (of Newstoday and Digitaria), specifically addressing the issues of ‘Beyond Print’ and what the implications are for typical boutique studios. The mantra is change at the AIGA comes from within, so if you don’t like it, get involved. Props to Khoi for taking the plunge.

    The big reason for the tie to the print world is two-fold: 1) It’s where members have traditionally come from, and 2) it’s where sponsorship dollars come from. Paper companies are interested in reaching designers who do print work. It’s a chicken and egg problem, but AIGA LA has worked hard to embrace and court sponsors like 37Signals, Emma, Adobe, and MediaTemple. It’s still not easy though and real change in the organization is invariably tied to sponsorship partners and dollars. It’s the way of the world (sung to the tune by Flipper).

    Again Khoi, welcome. Liz — I owe you an email.

  16. When Clement Mok was president of the AIGA, he certainly seemed to have a firm grasp of this issue. He made a number of gestures and statements that, while dealing with design as a whole, also seemed particularly sensitive to interaction design. For instance:

    What the future requires of the design profession

    It is curious that this thinking never seemed to gain serious momentum–at least that was my impression.

  17. Clement was before his time — in a few ways, but certainly at the AIGA. Now however, it seems the time is right. It’s hard to argue the fact that some of the most intellectually interesting challenges facing design today are not on the printed page. The AIGA can say they want to be relevant to those discussions and debates, but it’s gonna take more than just dropping “graphic design” from your official name. But as I said above, change will come from within. It’s already happening, with people like Khoi getting involved.

  18. Tom, I agree that the time seems right, but it is also seemed right when Clement wrote that piece. As a lapsed member of the AIGA, I can only speculate that there were (and are) forces within the AIGA that did not wish to embrace these kinds of ideas.

    Perhaps the print vs. interaction design issue exposes an ideological distinction: many print designers (and I started as one) prefer to see what they do as a craft. And some established designers have-famously-refused to engage the computer in order to maintain this sensibility. I don’t mean to suggest this is wrong, I only point it out because I expect that most interaction designers do not have this same mindset. Interaction design is so often tied to other disciplines that by its nature it demands more process. Again, I make no judgements here. Craftsmanship and professionalism both have their merits.

    Perhaps it is also time to re-up with the AIGA. Congratulation and good luck Khoi. You have our support.

  19. Thank you everyone, I’m deeply grateful for the feedback. I find it very illuminating, not because it seems new (much of it I’d heard from friends in similar, informal feedback), but because people seem so impassioned about what’s wrong with AIGA and what needs to be fixed — they seem to have great respect for the organization and want to see the ship righted, so to speak.

    I’m going to do what I can to make a difference in the New York chapter. We met seriously for the first time this week, in a long, marathon session in which we started to plan out the coming year. It was frustrating and hard, but it was also exciting and inspiring… there’s so much good that AIGA can do. And, to be honest, there’s so much good that the organization already does… it’s a huge challenge and a huge opportunity.

  20. On this same topic.
    Check out what the boys from A List Apart, Daring Fireball, and the others have come up with for a good revenue source.

    They have developed their own advertising network:
    http://coudal.com/deck/

    This is definately something the AIGA could do throughout it’s chapters.

  21. The issue with funding is local AIGA chapters really see themselves as an event-driven organization. That’s what they do : have events. It’s how budgets are organized, and it’s how sponsor dollars are thought about. Cracking open this logjam is the harder part of the problem, and getting the more traditional members and sponsors to think of events (and non-events) in a new way. People bitch about the cost of membership, but like most organizations, the dues don’t even come close to covering the costs of providing the events and the stuff — even with so many people working so hard as pure volunteers. Figuring out how to get non-print focused sponsors to pony up significant bucks for non-print focused events is the trick. Feel free to think outside the box. Suggestions more than welcome.

  22. As Garrett mentioned above with regard to Refresh Dallas, frustration with AIGA’s lack of progress in the web design area was a major part of what motivated us to start Refresh Phoenix (inspired, of course, by Refresh Dallas).

    I don’t have anything against AIGA in principle. I want it to work, I really do. But for the time being, it just doesn’t. It’s print-oriented at some of its highest levels, and it’s missing out on what has become a dominant form of communication around the world.

    I’ve sometimes thought that I should try to get inside AIGA and try to change it, but that would probably be harder than simply starting something new. That’s why there are so many scrappy minimovements out there trying to fill the void.

  23. It is harder to get inside and try to change it, but the AIGA is 16000+ members and it’s hard to argue that there’s a more influencial organization. You can start something new and make it a viable local discussion/business group but you’ll be a long way from rivaling the AIGA as an institution with national influence. It’s the establishment, but it will change ‐ simply by designers like Khoi becoming leaders and replacing print-only old-timers ‐ one by one. It’s an organization ripe for change, but it will only happen if we grab the opportunity and make it so.

  24. I’m not sure how relevant this debate about “print” vs. “interactive design” is. We add value in our profession as designers, no matter the media, and these days, we’re kind of expected to apply our expertise across the board, whichever way will best get the message across. I think AIGA as an entity understands this, hence the attempt at the new tagline.

    If in fact, AIGA is concerned about declining membership, I think Christopher Fahey is on the mark: AIGA – and quite a few of its local chapters – has elitist aspirations, and appears to spend a signficant amount of time promoting certain design “stars” who may not be relevant to membership. A publicity machine for rarified creatures from the zoo is perfectly fine, just don’t expect to the masses to rush in with their dollars. Hollywood already has that act down. In other words, we need to focus on promoting the profession, not individuals.

    Professional associations are increasingly being asked to provide functional, tangible benefits. If we want to appeal to a “new” generation (or membership in general), we need to provide a forum (online is a perfectly legitimate place) or programs/events that address their needs.

    My participation with AIGA-LA tells me that membership is very preoccupied with career/business management and access to resources – technical and personal – that will facilitate and enhance their professional activity. We really need to speak to this.

    Programs that attempt to “educate” the designer are also critical, but if poorly presented, or perceived as the only thing AIGA has to offer, we will be written off as stodgy and “academic”.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.