It’s time for a new generation of design organizations

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

When is the last time you really got something out of your AIGA membership? Like, really? You pay how much for membership and what, you go to a monthly mixer, and then what? Well, I suppose that depends on your level of success outside of AIGA and your level of willingness to be an extrovert. But other than a free drink or so every once in a while and a place to vent about clients to a target audience, what has the “professional organization for design” ever done for you? That’s a real question and it may have both good and bad answers. I am not trying to elicit only one kind of response.

As you answer that question do a quick physical check of your surroundings, your bank account, your gender, your skin color, your physical abilities. Ask yourself again what specifically AIGA (or, let's be more general, any design organization, there are others out there) has done to get you to where you are. Inevitably, there will be some success stories and even more inevitably, some of those success stories will, upon further investigation, not hold up when it is remembered that somewhere along the line an inheritance—whether it is money or simply a family name—came to play a big role in one’s ability to take on risks, and those stores may not hold up because, as it turns out, you just got lucky.

I think it would be safe to say that for many—I’m not going to venture a percentage—the membership fee exceeds any return on the investment.

Like many organizations that have been around for over a hundred years, the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) was founded primarily by successful white men. And like any white-founded organization of over 100 years of age, it was founded chiefly to preserve the status quo. In 2019, a census was taken of its members, which found them to be 71% white. George Aye wrote powerfully here about decolonizing the AIGA and rebuilding it to be a more diverse organization that works to the benefit of all it’s members, so I won’t attempt to say more. Give it a read.

A new era

Before we go too far, I’m going to use the word “design” a lot in this essay and it is going to be kind of a blanket term. When I say design, loosely, I mean any industry or practice for which an individual crafts a solution to a problem with a user or consumer in mind. More specifically, I’m referring to any of the commercial arts: graphic design, UI/UX design, illustration, video, package design, industrial design, etc. So, let’s just clear that up; if you use your skillset to solve problems presented to you, the below will probably apply.

It’s time for a new generation of design organizations; groups built by and for designers of all types. Now is the time to truly consider building something that from day one does not just include people of all races, but is, in its DNA and founding documents, anti-racist. An organization that is feminist, by design; inclusive of all gender designations, by design; and one that is accepting and supportive of all sexual orientations, by design. An organization that demands equal pay for all, and one that doesn’t discriminate for any reason at all, including religion, financial situation, spoken language, or education level. Full stop.

These human requirements come before anything design-related because until we can all have the ability to succeed, the successful few will reap that success at the expense of others. That being said though, little will be said here about how these civil rights standards will be enforced for two reasons; one, I’m a straight white male and we’ve set these rules disastrously in the past; and, two, being respectful of all people is basically the golden rule and damnit, we don’t need an explanation of how that works. This essay is about how such a welcoming and accepting organization would operate within the world of design and commercial art.

Before we get started—and honestly, this whole piece is nothing more than a start—I want to preface this with a concept that Mike Monteiro mentioned in his book, Ruined by Design. The concept comes from John Rawls and it helps us determine the ethics of a situation; it is called the veil of ignorance. I’ll quote Monteiro’s description of the concept at length:

In short, a veil of ignorance is a way of determining whether what you are designing, be it a startup, a dinner plan, or a system of government, is just. It’s very simple: when designing something, imagine that your relationship to that system gets determined after you’ve made it. For example, if you’re designing a system of government that allows slavery, you might end up being enslaved. If you’re designing a ride-sharing service, you might end up as the driver or the rider.

I mention this because as a person that has no doubt been able to get by solely on the privilege of being a straight white male, I cannot take lightly the responsibility that this privilege bestows on me. I’m proposing some ideas here, but I’m thinking of the system as one in which, as the example of the ride-sharing service, I will be a driver or rider, not the CEO. This list of ideas is free. It’s not about me, it’s about creating a support system for designers that benefits all, not just the board members or executives that run it. With that, here’s what I’ve got, let’s build on it.

Professional Standards

This future organization will have to uphold professional standards and promote an ethical system that will help creatives both succeed and know their value; that means that we’ll have to adopt policies or practices that will open doors, not close them. One way to do this will be to change our mindsets around the platforms that we create in and on.

The future of design will need to be platform-agnostic, for both hardware and software. The stigma surrounding non-Apple products in the creative world is actively suppressive of people who can’t afford (or do not want) a Mac. I’ve actually lost job opportunities because interviewers knew that I had a PC (it came up in conversation and I couldn’t avoid it). The same goes for software; Adobe does not have a monopoly on quality and the industry should stop pretending it does. Any new design organization should be fully aware that not everyone can afford expensive software. Affinity’s suite of programs, Figma, Sketch, etc. can create work that is just as good. Quality is discipline-based, not hardware- or software-based.

Accessibility

Accessibility is key as well. This future organization should be free (or nearly free) so that everyone can take part. AIGA’s few tangible benefits do very little for anyone not in it—and those benefits aren’t what they once were. Once upon a time, discounts on Apple products were part of AIGA’s benefits package but have since been dropped, making what was at least some return on the membership investment moot. This organization will not be able to offer as much, materially, for sure, but no one is forking over a lot of money either. The value would come from community and acceptance.

Another accessibility feature is that any new organization will need is that it should be almost exclusively digital and web-based. For a number of reasons—the cost of travel, monetarily and environmentally; the cost of renting a large enough space; the possibility that a space may not physically be accessible to some individuals; and most pressing for this very moment, the possibility of the transmission of COVID-19—physical conferences will have to be something that is relegated to the past. We’ve learned in the last few months that it is quite possible to have conferences online and that holding them online means that fewer people are being left out due to any of the costs listed above. Not to mention the fact that many conferences (free or paid) are recorded and then shared digitally afterward for paying members to view in repeated watchings. We commercial artists work on computers for a vast portion of our responsibilities and all feel pretty comfortable on them, so this change should not be too jarring.

Conspicuously, AIGA’s 2020 Virtual Conference is $500 for members this year; $700 for non-members with a few other discounts for students and such, details here. The pricing is insane and in a world where thousands (to be very conservative) of people are in danger of being evicted the second that landlords can do that means that young and poor designers aren’t going to waste the money on potentially learning the skills taught at the conference, that knowledge will go to those not at risk. We need to stop catering to the top and hoping that the benefits will rain down on us.

In contrast, this new organization will live online where it can be more easily interacted with and will be more democratized. Accessibility will mean that as more people can participate more decisions can be made that benefit all of us, not just the few who can afford the entry fee. Additionally, content published online is easily translatable to other languages and can be beneficial to more people.

The big differences

This future organization will be focused more on lifting up those at the bottom, not perpetuating the status quo of those at the top. Sure, AIGA and other organizations use their influence to create standards for everyone, and that unequivocally is a good thing—their free-to-use contract standards are very good, for one thing—but much of what AIGA does affect in terms of progressive change is not at the expense of their own comfort. (This is not rare, many groups that are progressive but mostly white work to affect changes that whites are comfortable with, but that is a different conversation.) Any organization that normalizes the non-standard will reduce the stigma around members that don’t fit those standards. Reducing stigma and stress will help members feel more open and trusting.

One big difference that this future design organization should make is that it would be made up of diverse people from the beginning. It isn’t lost on me that I, as a straight white male, am making these suggestions, but importantly, I’m also not offering to run any future design organization myself, though I would love to help. I have an idea, but I won’t pretend that that means I can imagine all the possible pressure points on which this organization will need to come up against. An organization built by Indigenous people, transgender people, womxn, people who have known poverty (of which I do qualify), people who have known racism, and people who have any number of other perspectives that will enrich all of us, will be vital to the success of this new group, and one that will work to help all designers move from the bottom to the top.

Another difference is that by being free (or nearly free) this organization will open more doors to a community for members that wouldn’t have been able to participate before. By lowering the bar to entry, we can raise the bar for standards, communication, and output for all. And if one of the outcomes of design is that it solves problems, consider these some of the first steps to solving these problems and improving the lives of designers and consumers.

This new organization will be defined partially by what it stands for, not what it stands against, or doesn’t take a stand on. It stands up for the consumers of the products that designers create and gives designers a strong support group when they stand up against unethical practices. This new group stands up for diversity, it craves it, in fact. It stands up for justice. Climate justice is my personal main driver as a graphic designer, but in my mind, designers can stand up against a system without the strong backing of an international community made to knit us closer together.

What’s next?

This essay isn’t necessarily a prescription for how to bridge the gap between the organizations we have and the ones that we need, but I hope that it can be a skeleton or framework. I’m sure that others have started as well and so perhaps this can add to that conversation. I’m well acquainted with latent privilege, whether I want to use it or not. But I am, in my small way, familiar with disparity on a personal level as well. I grew up poor and many of the things that I do now are still, on a subconscious level, affected by that (especially if you ever see me at a table with free food, I’ll eat way past full because somewhere in the back of my head I worry about food insecurity, even though it isn’t a problem right now). I can’t just shed my privilege, but I can help fight disparity. This list above is part of that effort. Is it complete? No. You can help fill in the blanks. What else is missing? I’d love to be a part of the conversation. Let’s make something new. Reach out in the comments.

Graphic/Web Designer | Portland, Maine. Writing about ethics in design and working on a book about the intersection between design activism & the climate crisis