AIGA Launches Design for Good, Asking Members to Donate 5% of Their Time to Social and Civic Causes

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.'"

new Gap logo

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.

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  • Nick

    I'd like to congratulate the AIGA on their initiative to give 5% of time to pro-bono causes. For me though, the challenge is not giving time or resources, it is ensuring the sustained prosperity of those to whom the time is given.

    For example, feeding hungry man in a soup kitchen in Alabama has an immediate impact on that persons life - it improves his life for a short time. Yet, the man will be hungry again the following day and return to the soup kitchen for a meal, he will tell his hungry friends about the soup kitchen and soon they will also join him at meal times - so the cycle continues. There may be no reason for the man, or his friends to break out of the cycle of dependency, no reason for the recipient to find another way, a self reliant, sustainable way.

    At Red and Gold, we believe that beyond providing for basic necessities (clean water, medicine, medical care, shelter) philanthropic giving should take the form of a 'contract' between the giver and the recipient. Whereby in accepting the offer of help, the recipient agrees to do something to help themselves. Something real, tangible and measurable.

    Studies have shown that removing dependency and encouraging change instills a 'can do' culture amongst piers, a culture that creates the momentum of change in communities.

    It is up to us as innovative thinkers and communicators to find new ways to address imbalances in our world. Charity does not work as it was. New thinking is needed to force change and help those most in need. We ask you to support the initiative, but to consider how and who you give your time to. Ask yourself, 'is what I am doing having a lasting and positive impact on the recipient, or is it perpetuating dependency'. Then go ahead and make a difference

  • Jay Perdue

    Really? That's the best "good" that design can do? Help the government make better ballots? Help the Gap see how bad their new logo is? Really? These do not qualify as social and civic causes in my book. Come on, AIGA. "Design for Good" needs to find a worthier "good" to serve than this. Otherwise you risk continuing to be seen as simply a persnickety "creative" with your beret askew.

  • Richard Hollant

    If all AIGA were to care about is the form ideas took, then it would antiquate quickly. However—an exploration of context might be valuable here.

    Redesigned ballots: this was a huge media issue during an infamous election that AIGA seemed to anticipate while working on the redesign of the ballot system. Core to the initiative is the idea that democracy matters. The right to vote—the right to be counted in the manner of one's intention—is at the heart of democracy and what AIGA was working toward. AIGA has engaged in "get out the vote" initiatives and documenting of the electoral process as a means of perpetuating the dialogue around "one person, one vote" at a time when "Rock the Vote" approaches were losing their measurable impact. Favoring a sustainable dialogue about the gravity of our voter responsibilities and rights instead of taking a "flash-voter-mob" approach is a move toward enduring relevance in the election mentality. It's a big culture shift that certainly can't be tackled by AIGA alone. AIGA is contributing to traction here. The ballot is just one of the byproducts of the initiative. It references a great intention.

    GAP logo:
    From the article, it appears AIGA may have had some serendipitous influence over the outcome of the GAP logo debate. This isn't AIGA's stated intention upon entering enter the discussion. AIGA stepped in, as it has on multiple public occasions, around the idea of crowdsourcing. As a brand designer, I'm delighted about AIGA's intervention here. It's worrisome when companies like The GAP—strong design ambassadors with substance behind their social conscious programming—panic and misstep. The implication of this crowdsourcing request was profound. And let's not kid ourselves: it's not just a designer's issue. It challenges another of our country's formative ideals: A fair wage for a good day's work. The GAP would probably not have taken my call to discuss a fundamental business misalignment. But they took AIGA's call and the corporation was reminded of one of its core values and ultimately, reaffirmed that value publicly by retracting their crowdsourcing request. There doesn't seem to be anything superficial about this to me.

    Design for Good:
    5% is an impressive starting point. From attending AIGA events, I can assure you the range of work done in the context of "good" by AIGA chapters is uplifiting. From helping the homeless to organize in under-supported communities to providing replicable and inspiring ways to reuse the discarded products we create to urban renewal projects to enduring rural initiatives in the Appalachian region (not just another helicopter project), AIGA designers are doing remarkable things that enhance the fabric of our humanity and stand as clear markers of what we can all do with our minds, our talents and the force of our good intentions.

    Unfortunately, the article soundbite can't possibly capture half of what AIGA is doing. And certainly, the context of what AIGA is working toward requires engagement in the organization to really get it. It does seem to me that AIGA is working to clarify that message. If you haven't been to the website lately, you might give it a spin: More to the point—if you haven't been to a gathering lately—you should check it out. You'll find sleeves-rolled-up folks... not a beret in the room.

    Rich Hollant / co:lab / founding member / president, AIGA Connecticut / development director compass youth collaborative