What Kind of People Are These?

AIGAWe 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.

Polling People

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.

Survey Says…!

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.

Q1. Are you an AIGA member?

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.

Q2. Why did you attend?

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.

Q6. What media do you 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.

Q8.B. Is this subject matter what you’d expect from AIGA?
Q8.E. Should AIGA cover more topics like this in the future?

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.

  1. This is interesting stuff Khoi, thanks for the post.

    I’m not a member of AIGA but I’ve thought about it often and have attended a few events here in Seattle. Part of my reluctance is exactly what you talk about here — the idea that AIGA doesn’t really get what I do. That and that it’s much too focused on Print and “flashy” interactive design as opposed to good, usable interactive.

    These numbers tell me I should take another look.

  2. Olav: Thanks for pointing that out. The numbers for non-members and lapsed members were transposed in the table to the left. I’ve fixed them.

  3. These are surprising findings indeed, but I do wonder to what extent these local statistics represent the national whole of the organization. If AIGA is serious about addressing both the print and the interactive (as well as motion, environmental, etc) design constituencies, I’d like to see a calculated response to results from polls across the country.

  4. Hey Khoi–as a previous member of the NY Chapter Board, I know how complicated it can sometimes be to elicit change. That being said, it is a real accomplishment that you were able to bring this event to both the membership and the public in the first fews months of your term. It was an inspiring evening, and this analysis is really interesting. Thanks for both.

  5. Debbie: Thanks for the kind thoughts. I have to be honest that it wasn’t that much of a struggle really, as the other board members received my suggestion to bring Jeffrey aboard pretty enthusiastically. Which isn’t to say change is easy, but at least the people I’m working with are open-minded.

    Rob: You have a great point there. I can hardly speak for the rest of organization, and I do expect that you’ll see different results in different chapters. But like anything, effecting change requires small steps before running. Not to come off like a PSA, but the best way to do that is to get involved with your local chapter.

  6. I think your original working theory about interaction designers being outside the fold is still primarily the case, despite these local findings (I echo Rob, above, and would love to see results from different chapters). The response from ALL of my co-workers (we are a small firm that do mostly digital, some print) when I mentioned the Zeldman event was “What the hell is Zeldman doing at the AIGA?” In my web circles, I’m one of the few who pays attention to what print designers are doing — the vast majority of my colleagues do not feel that organizations like the AIGA benefit them in any way.

    My point is not to bash the AIGA, but to emphasize that bringing the two communities together is going to take more than the occasional design-celeb lecture. If the AIGA actually wants to play a serious role, it needs to work much harder to present ongoing items that bridge the gap, whether via more lectures or via online interactions, articles, etc.

    I loved the Zeldman lecture (and participated in the survey) but he wasn’t there to talk about ways in which the two communities can work together (I know some people groused about this, which I think involved unfair expectations, considering his topic Selling Design was established and even discussed beforehand on this very site). Listening to his responses to inquiring print designers, I was unsatisfied. One woman in particular asked about entry points into web design, the larger translation of her question being “How can print designers access this intimidating and unfamiliar world of web design?” — Zeldman, though I love the man, is far too entrenched in the web community to be able to give a productive answer to this question. If a portion of designers really are working successfully within both communities, as the survey suggests, then those crossover stories are the ones that need to be told and discussed as resources.

    Khoi, from your comments here and what little I’ve had time to read of the Subtraction archives, it seems you are encouraging and taking excellent steps towards a future where the AIGA (and by extension, the larger print community) acknowledges and absorbs the interaction design community. That is heartening, especially in a world where the “elite” print designers seem so dismissive of quality web practice (the AIGA’s rep for catering more to the elite is certainly contributing to the overall gap problem). I hope your efforts take root and that the AIGA seizes the opportunity to be a bridge.

  7. Thanks Khoi, both for initiating the session and this discussion.
    For what it’s worth: I am a print-turned-web designer, was a member of AIGA when I started out in the early 80s, fell out when it got too expensive for me and I couldn’t figure out what I was getting for my membership, and re-joined after meeting and talking to Liz Danzico at a couple of An Event Aparts.
    (I still sometimes wonder what I am doing at professional events but that’s probably more a discussion for therapy…)

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