is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
We were lucky enough at AIGA New York to get Jeffrey Zeldman to do a Small Talk event of his own a few weeks ago. It was a big success, but I still consider that event just one step in a larger effort to make AIGA an organization that’s more conducive to the practice of interaction design. After all, Jeffrey᾿s appearance, while a quietly momentous occasion in its own way, wasn’t the first time we’ve brought folks who work online in front of the chapter’s membership — among others, Joshua Davis has spoken in the past and Matt Owens will be appearing at our upcoming Passion/Payoff Student Conference in just a few weeks.
Effecting change takes more than just getting a few recognizable names to talk to chapter members, though. The trick, I think, is producing a sustained effort in which the kinds of events and content that are applicable and appealing to digital designers are treated on a peer level with those geared towards designers working within AIGA⁏s more traditionally recognizable discipline areas. That’s harder.
Who’s Sustainin’ Who?
To build a sustained effort that’s going to mean anything to a specific audience, though, you need to know a little bit about that audience: who they are, what kind of work they do, what they expect from the organization, etc. These are questions for which we on the New York board had only educated guesses.
Most of our ideas for better servicing interaction designers were founded on hunches: the seemingly evident idea that there’s a strong overlap between print- and digital-focused designers, and the feeling that that overlap could be better served by the organization in general. It’s a reasonable hypothesis, I think. We just didn’t know for sure.
Since Jeffrey’s Small Talk was the first event for which I was the primary organizer, I looked at it as an opportunity to dig up a few hard answers to these questions. I had the idea to create a survey for the audience and, with the help of the chapter’s invaluable staff, Robyn Jordan and Thomas Hines, we created a simple online questionnaire. Immediately after the event, all the attendees received, via email, an invitation to take part in the survey, with the incentive of a few small prizes to be handed out to randomly selected recipients.
We had about eighty-five attendees at Jeffrey’s Small Talk, and seventy-one of them responded to the invitation and answered our survey questions — making for a pretty impressive 83% response rate. That was a really pleasant result in itself, which told me, at least, that people feel passionately about Jeffrey and his role as a kind of godfather of modern Web design.
There were eight questions in the survey, with a few of them being multi-part questions. We asked attendees about a variety of topics, including their prior experience with AIGA events (most people had been to at least one recently), their employment status (more from design studios than in-house groups), their seniority (most were junior, though a sizable minority were in upper management), etc., etc. Not all of the results will mean much to readers of this blog, so I’ll summarize some of the most generally interesting findings here.
Seventy-six percent of respondents were AIGA members, with an additional 7% having been lapsed members. That was surprising, as I had actually anticipated that a majority would not be members at all. My hunch was that this would be an audience of designers that would have been drawn in mostly by Jeffrey’s reputation, that they were a demographic that AIGA should be addressing but weren’t.
As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. In fact, in one survey question that asked what motivated people to attend the event, nearly as many people cited Jeffrey’s professional reputation as those who cited the reputation of the Small Talks series — indeed, many cited the reputation of AIGA itself. This suggests that AIGA’s brand is stronger than I had anticipated among interaction designers — something prior anecdotal evidence wouldn’t have indicated.
The Here and Now of Membership
The results from these two questions together have helped shade my thinking on the organization’s relationship to Web-centric designers. My working theory had been that interaction designers, by and large, stand outside the organization’s fold, maintaining a distance from AIGA, instead turning to alternative communities (e.g., A List Apart) for professional support.
While I still think that’s true to some extent, I also happen to think that there’s a more urgent group of interaction designers who are in the fold, paying dues to AIGA and looking to the organization for professional support — right now. This data suggests that designers, whether they’re working online or not, will turn to AIGA for event programming that speaks to their needs. It’s more guesswork on my part, but I suspect they came to Jeffrey’s talk in part because they wanted to see what he would have to say to an AIGA audience.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
In fact, there’s reason to believe that the attendees obviously see a strong commonality between the creative and professional challenges of both print and digital media. Take a look at the demographic split among attendees when asked to identify what media they work in.
Aside from the one exceptional attendee at the bottom of that chart, this pretty much suggests a room split perfectly — even poetically — down the middle, between print and Web designers, with a nice, healthy contingent of those who regularly cross between the two.
It would be hard to find a more ‘inter-disciplinary’ crowd, I think. And two additional questions suggested that these folks are hungry for just the kind of discussions and community that Jeffrey so conveniently embodies.
Notwithstanding the fact that this is a technically unreliable sample size (for future events, we hope to do more similar surveys and analysis so that we can have comparative data sets), all of this suggests to me that my original hypothesis about AIGA’s role in this new world is true. That is, designers from both the print and digital worlds look to the organization to bridge the two disciplines. Whether it’s print designers looking to better understand the emergence of digital applications for their skills, or it’s interaction designers looking to connect to a century’s worth of design history and tradition, there’s a crucial role for AIGA to play. We just have to rise to the challenge. Stay tuned.+