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The AIGA’s Passion Problem

by Jack Curry. Average Reading Time: about 5 minutes.

This year’s AIGA National competition has been dubbed “Justified“, and, in the AIGA’s own words, will be:

…examples of good design that are also described in terms of their effectiveness in meeting the client’s objectives. Entries will be judged based on their design attributes and also how well a short case is made on their effectiveness in a clear, compelling and accessible way. [Submissions should] serve as an effective tool to explain design’s value to clients, students, peers and the public in general.

Paula Scher recently posted an impassioned critique of the competition on Print Magazine’s Imprint blog. In it, she mourns over the loss of competitions that serve to present the community with design that inspires and invigorates designers both old and new (such “50 Books/50 Covers” and “365″), and wonders whether such metrics-driven competitions really serve to stimulate us as the traditional design competition does.

The discussion that Paula’s article has produced is tremendous. The comments list reads like a who’s who of the graphic design industry (Chip Kidd, Stefan Bucher, Sean Adams, Marian Bantjes, Roger Black, Joe Marianek, Debbie Millman, Armin Vit, Steven Heller, Jonathan Hoefler, Michael Bierut…), and with numerous past and current AIGA National board members, and chapter presidents (Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Seattle) weighing in, the conversation is taking the shape of a larger discussion of the relevance of the AIGA (and its decisions) in modern design.

I highly recommend to anyone interested in hearing what some of the best and brightest minds in design today have to say about one of the industry’s most recognized and august organizations: have a look. My contribution to the discussion, for what little it’s worth, is reproduced below.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to look over the newer comments from the past couple days, but I’ve certainly been mulling over some of what had been said earlier on in the week.

I’ve been having this conversation more and more with friends and colleagues about the importance of a tent under which designers can gather, but even more importantly, that such a tent be a source of pride and prestige for them.

Unfortunately—among younger designers, anyway—I’m not sure if the AIGA is really of that level. In some of the conversations I’ve had over the past few months, inevitably the AIA comes up and the point is made that “See!? Architects have a professional organization that they’re all a part of and keeps them all performing to a certain standard!” Of course, the AIA is a different beast from the AIGA, but the one thing that I have noticed is that every other architect I’ve met has proudly displayed the association, i.e. “John Smith, AIA”. Perhaps a bit pompous—yes—but such a move signals to his peers and clients that “I have moved on from being someone that is merely a dilettante to being a professional—one that is ready and able to create, contribute, and be part of a larger community that is ready to do the same.” When was the last time you saw a graphic designer’s card read “John Smith, AIGA”? I never have. I feel as if this is a larger trend of a lack of passion about the AIGA.

By way of example—and perhaps this is a Los Angeles design student phenomenon—many of my fellow classmates never saw the intrinsic value in joining AIGA. You could say “Well, they weren’t serious enough / motivated enough / etc. to join” and perhaps that’s true. But I see this lack of interest as a sign that what the AIGA is doing is no longer exciting and relevant to student designers. Now granted, some people I know have taken the initiative and joined the AIGA, but for a good chunk of their college careers, the organization itself wasn’t even on their radar. You have no idea how unfortunate I found this to be (and no idea how much I pestered them to become members and get involved).

Paula, Jonathan, and others here have said how much the AIGA affected them at the early stages of their careers; that it was a source of inspiration, and an incisive look into the world of great design. I’m not sure that the organization today is reaching the designers of tomorrow in the way that it did Ms Scher or Mr Hoefler. With the explosion of content aggregators (let’s please not call them “curation sites”) such as Behance, ffffound, dribbble (what’s up with all of the design-y sites with multiple consonants, by the way?), the world of design has no shortage of people getting their work visible and out into the world. The key for our organization is to figure out:

A) How to differentiate the work published in our annuals from the rest of the morass strewn about the interwebs, and
B) How to make this work no only rise above the rest, but to truly communicate to the young (and future) designers of today that this is what design is—and should be—about.

Now the argument could definitely be made that “Justified” fulfills Point A, but really, when was the last time that you opened up an annual and got excited about ROI, or market saturation, or “target audience”? Moreover, with this being the sole publication for the AIGA this year, do we really want younger designers thinking that “this is what design is—and should be—about”? As others have said, I think that the goals and intent of “Justified” are needed in our field; but to make it the sole competition doesn’t seem sensible.

You’ll notice that I’ve referred to the AIGA as “our” organization. And that’s because it is. I truly hope that the board is reading all of these comments and really takes them to heart. This isn’t a bunch of designers wantonly tearing down one of the largest and most respected design associations in the world (or at least I hope it isn’t). This is a group of some of the best creative people that the industry has to offer, doing that thing that designers do best: offering constructive criticism. I hope something can come of it.

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