Graphing Design [updated]

This is a response to Paula Scher’s excellent rant against the latest changes to AIGA’s national design competition, and their abandonment of 50 Books/50Covers. I highly recommend reading her post. 

I also recommend you read AIGA president Doug Powell’s response on his own blog. As I mentioned in class today, the one exception I take to Paula’s post is that she implied that these changes represent a deliberate agenda being championed by Doug.

For context, I am a former AIGA chapter president (San Francisco) and 365 judge. I have been an AIGA member for 15 years. Updates below.

Graphing Design
In a time when design publications, organizations and independent design concerns increasingly turn to the veil of “competitions” to generate content, revenue and publicity, AIGA has remained an example of integrity in an otherwise turbid field. To me, AIGA has always stood for excellence in design — as seen and appreciated by designers. Some see that as insular and self-congratulatory, and to an extent it may be. But if the professional association for design can’t stand for great design, who will?

I appreciate the impulse of designers to want to justify the importance of our work. We’re an insecure lot after all. We’ve never been content to be labeled as “graphic” designers; constantly arguing over the merits of ‘Big D’ Design versus ‘small d’ design, racing to define our ‘unique’ (and obliquely named) proprietary processes, and relentlessly jockeying for ownership of the latest euphemism for what we do (branding, design thinking, etc.). Justified seems to me to be another symptom of our professional insecurity. We believe that design matters, but we don’t think others do so we try to validate our work by the metrics we think others will understand.

Yes, design must serve a purpose, but often that purpose is subtler than benchmarks, click-through rates, conversions and ROI. Of all people, AIGA should know this. Of all people, AIGA should fight to make this understood. Metrics may be a measure of the business-effectiveness of design (though I would also argue that such measurements are often shallow and incomplete), but they make no account for the role of design as (to use AIGA’s words) a cultural force. They make no account for the reality that design is made by people, for people. Design is made by makers who are driven not only to satisfy the needs of their clients but to also contribute to our shared visual culture. Design is experienced by users/viewers/customers who are attracted to it not for its analytical merits, but who are drawn to it for its emotional and visceral rewards.

Attempting to determine the effectiveness of design on a simply quantifiable basis reminds me of this scene from Dead Poets Society in which the class attempts to measure the greatness of poetry:

The 365 competition has an authoritative legacy. Although it’s been accused of being elitist and New York-centric in the past, I was encouraged to see the organization address these criticisms in 2009 by diversifying its judging (an effort I praised in my column for STEP Magazine). 2009 also saw the return of the Annual, thanks to Paula Scher who designed in on the condition that it be a big, beautiful book. The book is indeed beautiful and inspiring — a worthy catalogue of design excellence. I felt AIGA had rediscovered it’s voice.

The following year I judged AIGA’s 365 competition, revamped with new categories that in retrospect signaled the move away from the evaluation and celebration of artifact. It was perhaps fitting, then, that the 2010 competition did not yield a physical annual but instead produced this — a tepid experiment in digital publishing and a faint echo of the annual’s former glory. To judge its aesthetic merits would be almost impossible. It’s design effectiveness? Let’s just say that the ratio of total views (19,300+) to Facebook likes (53) begins to tell us something.

When an organization’s focus swings so radically year-to-year it’s a good sign that it’s in crisis. This year’s shift from 365 to Justified seems to be further evidence of that.

As AIGA struggles to maintain (or regain) it’s relevance, I’d offer the same advice I’d offer most clients: do what you do best. Do it better than everyone else, and don’t pretend to be something you’re not. The revamped AIGA website didn’t turn it into hub of discourse. We have Tumblr accounts and twitter and Facebook for that. Design Envy is a solid addition to AIGA’s digital lineup, but Designspiration, Pinterest and FFFFound do it better. Mashable stays out in front of technology, FPO celebrates the printed artifact, Brand New gets every scoop on the latest branding efforts, Change Observer asserts the design relevance of a host of peripherally-related concerns, and everybody has a fingerhold on the sustainability bandwagon. Watching AIGA chase the evolving trends of discourse, taste and communication is a little like watching Google+ try to be Facebook. Embarrassing.

Make no mistake, AIGA has a lot going for it. At nearly 100 years old it is imbued with institutional wisdom and the authority and respect that comes from generations of influence. Paula Scher herself says that she owes her career to AIGA. In part, I do as well. Unlike many of the virtual experiences with which it seeks to compete, AIGA has physical offices and public gallery space. It has a network of 66 chapters and a community of 20,000 members who can be mobilized (selectively) for special initiatives. It has NGO status with the United Nations and inroads with the US Government that have allowed it to influence ballot reform, the potential impact of which is practically immeasurable. The Center for Practice Management has been an invaluable resource to countless design professionals as they start and grow their practices, and the GAIN Conference (until this year) provided thought leadership around the business case for design. AIGA’s competitions have (historically) established the benchmark for design excellence and its medalist program honors the legacy of some of our most influential practitioners.

And it has leadership. Dedicated, intelligent leadership — particularly at the chapter level.

These are the things that AIGA does well. Uniquely well. While it behooves any organization to ask itself how its offering(s) can be improved, and to examine how to best maintain its currency with an evolving constituency, it’s important to remember that change isn’t always the answer. Neither is innovation. Communities and technologies will come and go. No one is duty-bound to embrace them all. I think AIGA would do better to stand firmly for its beliefs and advocate for its mission through the resources that are legitimately at its disposal. With that in mind, here is my unsolicited (and largely uninformed) prescription for AIGA:

1. Take advantage of the chapter model. Give them more power, more autonomy and let them keep more of their money.

2. Continue to inspire the public with (well-promoted) exhibitions of compelling and beautiful graphic design in the National Design Gallery in New York.

3. Recognize that 40% of all U.S. designers and virtually all digital innovation is on the west coast. Open a west coast headquarters (and gallery) as soon as possible. Preferably in San Francisco.

4. Continue to work with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Department of Elections and other US agencies to appropriately define the profession, improve the democratic process, etc.

5. Continue to update the resources available through the Center for Practice Management. They are fantastic.

6. Keep GAIN focused on business (AIGA San Francisco already has a very successful sustainability/social change conference called Compostmodern). Consider, as Paula suggests, making ‘Justified’ a supplemental competition centered around the business-effectiveness of design. Use the competition to build case studies which can be presented or otherwise showcased through GAIN. After a few years, reposition GAIN as a conference about design for business leaders, not other designers. Use it to advocate the commercial power of design and provide a framework that helps businesses engage design as part of their overall strategy.

7. Continue the legacy of 365 as a vehicle to celebrate design excellence at all levels — including (perhaps especially) craft.

8. Don’t give up on books.

9. Endow a significant scholarship program to encourage economically disadvantaged students to consider a career in design.

10. Join and participate in new communities, publications and other platforms rather than trying to replicate them.

All easier said than done, I’m sure. But still worth doing.

1. Paula clarifies some of her points in comments below
2. Imprint has posted a follow up article from Paula
3. AIGA has posted it’s own editorial and a call for suggestions on its website
4. Marc Levitt writes a post about his studio’s involvement in the branding of “Justified”
5. Read our official Justified entry form (presented as editorial)
6. Oh shit we won!
7. Oh shit, they want me to judge!
8. Well this is awkward, now I’m charing the competition.