Some attendees of SXSW might have wondered what Ric Grefé, the executive director of AIGA, was doing here. After all, the almost 100-year-old organization originally known as the American Institute of Graphic Artists had begun as a club for print designers, and Austin was currently hosting a gathering of thousands of proudly un-ephemerate creatives.
But for the past two decades, AIGA has worked especially hard to define "design" as more than a touchable end product, Grefé told me during an interview on the PepsiCo Plugged-In stage. "Before design was ever on the cover of Fast Company," he said, nodding to the magazines stacked to the right and left of the stage, AIGA was talking about design as a trans-media, strategic tool for business.
The advocacy work that AIGA is doing on behalf of its over 20,000 members and designers as a whole seeks to engage three specific audiences: That business audience, where AIGA hopes to help bring designers to the decision-making, C-suite table; the general public, whom AIGA tries to educates about the value of design in daily life; and most interestingly, government, an area where AIGA is engaged in several initiatives that prove designers can create widespread impact in policy.
Long before the disastrous Miami elections in 2000, AIGA had discussions with election boards about what they perceived to be confusing and poorly designed ballots. After their worst fears were proven to be true in Miami-Dade County, they helped to launch an initiative named Design for Democracy that would not only document the thousands of different ballot designs across the country, but eventually come up with recommendations for how to make the election process more clear and fair for Americans. This went beyond just a graphic refresh of the ballot, said Grefe. "Design for Democracy hopes to redesign the entire voting experience." Counties across the country have adopted the recommendations, and the government has been paying attention: AIGA is now working with the treasury department to apply similar changes to mortgage agreements and credit card statements.
In another example of its quest to elevate the profession, AIGA was also at the forefront of one of last year's biggest design stories: The redesign (and then un-design) of the Gap logo. After debuting a new logo which was met with incredible opposition, Gap announced a crowdsourced competition where designers could submit their ideas for what would eventually become the "real" logo. This was disappointing to Grefé, who pointed to AIGA's strict no-spec policy that has empowered many of its members to ask for fair compensation for design work. "Crowdsourcing is not going away," said Grefe. "But we reached out to them and said, 'We can help you do it right.'"
Grefé sent a letter to Gap on AIGA's behalf, outlining their concerns and offering assistance, which Gap accepted. "At one point we were trading emails about every eight minutes," he remembers. In the end, Gap ended the competition and reverted to the old logo. When I suggested that it may have been AIGA's intervention that helped Gap to realize the error of their ways, Grefé agreed. "We absolutely did, and they acknowledged it."
While the outcry over a logo competition snagged the biggest design headlines last year, of growing importance to AIGA and its members is how they can help demonstrate the value of design to society. That's why AIGA is launching a new program this spring, Design for Good, which will ask designers to dedicate 5% of their time to pro bono causes. As part of this initiative, local chapters will highlight areas where designers can join together to solve civic problems (like local election design), but designers can also work independently on causes they care about. Or, he said, just volunteer at a soup kitchen. They hope to somehow collect stories about the projects designers complete during this 5%.
But with most firms emerging from one of the worst economic periods for their business, running low on resources and operating with skeleton staffs, is this really the best time to encourage firms to give their time away? (5% is also more time than any other industry; lawyers donate 2%.) It has actually never been more important to show that designers are thinking about more than their own clients, said Grefé. "Designers prove their value by doing valuable things." He pointed to a new sustainability initiative that AIGA launched named The Living Principles, a framework that expands the triple bottom-line to a quadruple bottom-line, asking designers to examine economic, environmental, social and cultural sustainability in their work. This goes far beyond a guide for recycled paper stocks and soy-inks and challenges designers to think of their roles in a much larger context.
And the quest to use design to improve lives on a wide scale is another reason that AIGA has also made what some perceive as a controversial move. With 65 chapters and more added every year, AIGA has been expanding throughout the country. But few years ago, AIGA opened a chapter in China where there are a million Chinese residents currently enrolled in design schools. This was a surprising move to members. "Some might ask, 'Why are we helping the competition?'" Grefé acknowledged. But the reason is that sharing certain methods and practices with Chinese designers—especially concerning intellectual property and sustainability—could have a tremendous impact on the products produced there. That's affecting the consumption habits of the entire planet.
For those in the audience who only thought AIGA was a place to meet book designers (which, it should be noted, it still is), it was obvious by the end of our conversation that AIGA was making real headway in positioning design as a tool for systems-thinking, problem-solving, and creating real change. And that's something any designer could get behind.