AIGA makes a turn for the better hopefully

design orgs

I was happy and proud to hear via twitter that Debbie Millman has become the new President of the AIGA. This is a kind of make it or break it time for the organization and if there’s anyone out there that can turn things around it’s her. I don’t think Richard Grefé has made things easy by turning back the strong stance the AIGA used to have on Spec work, and a post about what his words mean nor the head in the sand attitude to the economy in his post How Is AIGA Helping Designers Survive the Recession? My post about that can be found at What Graphic Designers need to understand. That laissez faire attitude that things will get better so sit tight attitude ultimately was the reason why I quit the AIGA. In any case I’ve seen the influence that Debbie has had on the broad graphic design community which no doubt will benefit from her vision.

As someone that is looking from the outside in now, I started thinking about what the AIGA on a National level today might be missing. Of course this is coming from the pov of someone that isn’t seeing what is going on in the background nor actually doing anything to help that out. But from a strategic overview there’s a lot of philosophical design points that don’t seem to be in parallel with what is going on today. 1. First and foremost there’s a generational shift/gap that no one is talking about. A lot of the older designers didn’t trust the computer when it made sense to use one and fought it hard. The extension of that thinking today is the web. The same denial is back. I find this attitude to be more prevalent on the East Coast than the West Coast. 2. Designers are in denial of how people communicate today. It’s not through the craft of the stationery package. No one denies that every element counts but in today’s instant messaging world the art of craft doesn’t cut it. 3. DIY—this kind of seems obvious but it’s actually a bit more severe. Professional DIY is not about those weekend hobbyist that are full time scrapbookers. I’m talking about the business people, scientists and other professions that have adapted design thinking and left the graphic designer in the dust. What’s up with that? 4. Nostalgia—graphic designers love getting sentimental about the past glories of old designers. It’s great to know about the past so you don’t make the same mistakes blah, blah, blah… The thing is, we really are in an unprescidented unprecedented time of commerce, technology and communication and by listening to old designers that originally shunned the computer are not going to help right now. It’s ironic that design is supposed to change things for the better and create something out of nothing, yet designer’s aren’t willing to do the same for themselves. 5. Art is not design, and design is not technology. Graphic design is many things yet those terms get intermixed and confused all the time. 6. Selflessness—there’s a great question out there. “Who would you rather see succeed, the client or yourself”. If you would rather win every time over as opposed to the clients goals, why not just be an artist? 7. Definition—while it’s almost pointless to try to define what graphic design is, or even design for that matter, yet the typical graphic designer is very quick to point out what they don’t do. Sadly that only creates walls that the real world tends to ignore and the only people left in the dark are the wall builders.

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  • natearcher

    Great post Michael. A little introspection never hurt anyone. I am also very curious to see where Debbie feels the role of the AIGA belongs. In todays world, as you hinted at in some of your points, the designer is less tied to the industry as a whole and works as more of a free agent. Despite this, there lies a great opportunity for design organizations to unite these disparate designers.

  • Joe Clark

    Michael, how am I expected to read your nine-million-word single paragraph above?

    You understand you have actually created an unordered list without knowing it? So why not know it and actually create it?

    I’m pretty sure you are capable of learning the five or six HTML elements your structurally simple blog posts require. Why not actually try?

  • Robert Little

    A wonderful post. Regarding the comment on East coast holding on to the old perhaps more than the west coast, its an interesting perspective especially since I've just come from the West coast (SF) to NYC. For me, there is quite a lot of new for the sake of being new happening on the West. People don't always consider the real value of what they are building or designing. A blatantly generalist comment but I guess thats the point :). I've loved the sense of balance I've seen so far on the East coast. My two cents…. Oh and speaking of AIGA— oddly enough the organization is even more old school on SF than it is here in NYC.

  • designthinker

    I agree with the whole gist of your argument, Michael, but wish you had given more careful attention to spelling and grammar.

    It's “stationery” package, and the word is not “unprescidented”, it's unprecedented. I know this sounds picky, but poor grammar and spelling tends to undercut the credibility of one's message, and reinforce a lot of people's views that designers are not high on the brights meter.

  • jonathan selikoff

    I finally read AIGA's revised stance on spec work and am pretty surprised. I appreciate that they don't want to preach to the membership, but this is a pretty fundamental issue – getting paid for and owning your work. To essentially say, “well, we can't stop you, but if you get burned, we told you so” is a cop out. I want to know if any designers are making a good living off this crowdsourcing baloney. Who has that time to work for free?

  • michaelsurtees

    Thanks for pointing out those errors out—I've made the corrections. Once in a while Canadian spelling slips in, though that wasn't the case above. If anything else grammar wise really bothers you , please let me know. I don't mind editing stuff on the fly…

  • Robb Smigielski

    Hey Michael

    Great post. I am an active member and volunteer in the organization, so in many ways I speak from the inside. I admit I am a cool-aid drinker and am passionate about communicating AIGAs value to everyone, as I think it is significant.

    That is not to say that there are not a lot of things I wish were different. Yes, AIGA has ignored the interests of digital and interactive designers for much too long. Yes it can be an old boys club and incredibly clique-ish. And yes the position on spec is a little confusing.

    As a side note, the purpose of the revision to the spec position was two fold. First, to clarify the definitions of things like “spec”, “competitions” and “volunteer” work, which were previously undefined. Second, to clarify that while the organization officially stands against spec, it is not going to make the issue grounds for membership. It's a personal responsibility issue, and the organization is ultimately about the individual members. It's up to you and that's all they are trying to say.

    Indeed Debbie Millman is going to be an amazing president, but change in this organization does not happen from the top. It comes from the bottom. The volunteers at the chapter level and the members themselves create the organization they want. By stepping up and making a difference.

    So I want to let you and everyone else that sees this post know, that AIGA is changing in incredibly significant and powerful ways, but these changes are only going to be meaningful if the worlds designers decide to support the organization that continues to tirelessly support the issues that matter most to them. You only get out of AIGA what you put in. That is the very definition of selflessness.

    Anyway, people are going to see much more emphasis on new technologies and how it is affecting modern communication. The organization has pretty much decided to minimize or discontinue all printed communication with the exception of show pieces, merch and the like. The fact that this is coming from an organization historically seen as a “print designers” club is no small development.

    There is going to be an increased emphasis on designs value to business, community and culture. We are all working to emphasize design's value. But you can't just say it. You have to demonstrate it.

    Your going to see much more activity and programming that focuses on the everyday member and the issues that most effect them. Less rock star, more community. Much more bottom up.

    And there is a concerted focus on the generation gap and the organizations relevance to young and future designers. Though I will say, at the chapter level, the people on the ground, sweating it out for the members everyday in every major city, are an amazing, energetic and youthful crowd. If anything I think AIGA suffers less “mid-career” appeal than to the new and upcoming designers.

    Also your post is a little off in that the diagram says design organizations need Nostalgia but the text of your post says the opposite.

    I hope this was a little clarifying.


    Robb Smigielski
    AIGA Kansas City

  • michaelsurtees

    Hey Robb—

    First off, thanks for taking the time to thoughtfully respond. I can't really say that I disagree with much about what you're saying. I also appreciate what you're saying about the spec clarification on definitions but I still disagree with the softened approach as a cop out.

    One thing I should have been clearer about in my post is that my problem has been geared towards the over reaching national level and not the individual chapters that make up the organization. Hopefully that makes sense. I'm 100% behind you that it's not top down but the bottom up that makes real change. However the bottom pays for Ric to pass on the credo of what the AIGA stands for on a National level and I wasn't willing to have my dues pay for that.

    Even if half of what you mention does happen in the not so distant AIGA future, it sounds like Kansas City is lucky to have someone of your energy level. I just hope that the National Executive has the foresight to see that.

  • Robb Smigielski

    I am interested to hear more from you about this…
    “However the bottom pays for Ric to pass on the credo of what the AIGA stands for on a National level and I wasn't willing to have my dues pay for that.”

    From my insider viewpoint, there is much to love about what national is doing. Carbon Neutrality, Design thinking advocacy, Design exhibition space in NYC, Great conferences, Design for Democracy, Center for Practice Management, Design Thinking advocacy, Aspen Design Challenge, The Center for Sustainable Design, an amazing amount of content generation, and on and on.

    While it could always be more, what they do with very little staff is impressive.

    So I would really be interested to hear about what kinds of things do you see AIGA pursuing or advocating that isn't inline with how you would want your dues allocated.

    I am not attacking you at all. I am really am interested, so that I can work to advise the organization to correct it.


  • michaelsurtees

    All your points are completely valid about what your AIGA National is doing. And I'm not taking anything you say as attacking—they're good questions. I don't know if you know any of my design organization history in Canada or not, and to be honest it's probably not that relevant to this conversation. But I feel to give a bit of context about what I'm going to say next it may help. At this point I'm very much interested in the larger conversation and tone that is set for others to feed off of in a design organization from the leadership level. In Canada I started as a student member and did basically every position there was until I couldn't go any further. I was mildly successful on a small scale. What I specifically look for is how the “figure heads” are sailing the ship. The messaging and writing that comes from the main AIGA site about policy is what I'm trying to understand.

    All of the events you list off are quite worthwhile and impressive in their own right. I haven't taken part in most the design events you listed off which is my own fault. But if I look at things on a broader plain about policy like I listed in my post about how designers should deal with the economy and spec work, it's really a backwards step. There's nothing there to help a designer to get better. It status quo at its worst. Being progressive by challenging conventional assumptions by asking tough questions about what we've been forced fed by known “design stars” is a start. And I doubt that anyone in National up until know is willing to do that. I don't know Ric and I'm sure he's a great guy. But as someone that has his name attached to a lot of the communication that I think is wrong he's the first person that I'm going to mention.

  • Mr. McGinnis

    Design isn't art if you don't think it is – but it is art if that is your intention. Intention is everything. It's really the same in all the “applied” arts, as they once called it: illustration, cartooning, architecture, fashion design, graphic design, photography and film making. There is room for completely utilitarian thinking – but there is also room for “applied” artists to create their work with the intention of making art. Ironically, there is a utilitarian demand for people to think in such ways.

    There is room for it all – although I do think being completely utilitarian in ones thinking leads to things like cities being crowded with tall, dehumanizing and oppressive architecture as well as constant assault from crass advertising. You know – like how things are right now. There needs to be at least a few people who inject art into everyday, common life; rather than just making art that hangs in the lofty white walls of some museum or gallery. This is why I have always been interested in comics, graffiti and graphic design – to create art that isn't sacred, but is a part of life.

  • Erik

    The generation gap is key. I've been posting on the AIGA “threads” for a while now and finally gave up as Richard always would agree that existed, but denied that the current path was still causing more problems than not.

    Has anyone REALLY benefited directly from an AIGA membership? Nuts to them. I'd rather watch from the shore while the Titanic sinks.

  • EB

    more prevalent on the East Coast then the West Coast. > than the West Coast.

  • Jennifer Bender

    Michael, we appreciate your candid feedback. (And Robb, thanks for your thoughtful responses.) We've been following this thread with great interest…

    We too are happy to have Debbie Millman on board as our new president and we’re looking forward to her term officially starting on July 1. Yet AIGA, as a professional association, is not the force and will of one person but rather a collection of voices within the profession. As such, we’ve been working hard to gather feedback from our members, chapter leaders, local designers and national board members to envision a future for the organization.

    Coincidentally, the tweets you saw about Debbie originated from the AIGA Leadership Retreat, where chapter leaders from across the country gathered to re-imagine the organization through specific objectives. Among these were a decided focus on the needs and desires of emerging designers, online content, interaction design and making AIGA more a horizontal, member-driven structure than ever before. (We’ll be sharing elements of this vision publicly next week.)

    One point I would like to clear up, however, is that the decision to shift from a “thou shalt not” statement on spec work to an educational resource was the result of many conversations between Ric, our national board of directors and industry leaders (not just the whims of one person). We felt that a percentage of designers will always be involved in some form of spec work, and that by providing information on types of unpaid design work and the inherent risks to both client and designer we would be doing more of a service to designers than pretending it wasn’t happening.

    We too—and by we, I mean 20 national staff members, 16 national board members and leaders from 64 chapters—are hopeful that AIGA is making positive changes by listening and responding to members.

    Jennifer Bender
    Manager, communications and marketing
    AIGA, the professional association for design

  • chrisgee

    Wow! Debbie Millman is the new president of the AIGA! I'm hearing this for the first time right here, which is odd since I subscribe to the AIGA RSS feed, where there is no mention of her becoming president nor is there any mention of it on their home page (

    This, in a way, sums up what we need to know about the slow-moving, far-from-digital organization. How many other organizations would appoint a new president and make no mention of it on their own home page?

    Those who know me know that I'm one of the more optimistic folks you'll want to meet but I have to admit I'm a bit skeptical. While I have the utmost respect for Debbie — I'm a fan of her work, her writing and her podcasts — I can only remember how excited we all were at the announcement back in 2001 that Clement Mok was taking over as president.

    The feeling back then was that under Mok's leadership, the AIGA would move out of the stone ages and become an organization that was much more digital, much more dynamic and much more relevant in the ever-changing design landscape of today. Ummmm, not so much!

    While I believe Mok did what he could, the organization in some ways slipped right back into the stone ages, where it currently resides. Far from digital… far from relevant.

    What has changed?

    I support Debbie and wish her well. I hope in the coming weeks and months we'll hear more from her about what her plans are. But I agree with Michael that there is a generational divide. I also agree that the AIGA has come to symbolize only traditional, print design — an area of design that is not growing but is arguably contracting. AIGA finds itself in the dubious position of having a growing share of a shrinking market, ala AOL.

    I sure wish her well. Our industry needs a dynamic, viable organization to help not only in the debate of defining design in the 21st century but also to help designers to navigate this era of disruptive change.

    But as we've seen in the past, change does not come easily to the AIGA. If one had to dream up a professional organization for creatives in the 20th century, it would probably look much like the AIGA of today. But if one had to dream up an organization of the 21st century, they would do things quite differently. The best thing for the AIGA would be to go the GM route: blow it up, restructure it and let it be reborn as a drastically different, less centralized, more agile and far more digital version of its current Luddite self.

    As we saw with GM, few organizations as venerable as the AIGA do so until they stand at the precipice of extinction. In other words, Debbie has her work cut out for her!


  • Sarcasmcat

    For an organization that largely focuses on communication the AIGA as it currently stands is terrible at communicating. I've learned more about the goings on within the organization from these comments more than their entire website and e-mail newsletters combined.

    What gives? What's the AIGA for if not communicating about recent events? Oh, thanks for that article on your homepage AIGA – it was really nice to read what I heard on NPR last month. Awesome e-newsletter by the way, I should show it to my friends back in 2002, I'm sure they'd love it.