Your “rugged, heroic individualism” ethos ain’t helping.

Canadian designer Mark Busse, while suffering from volunteer fatigue, asks some critical questions about the role, and perhaps the obsolescence, of professional design associations. Ric Grefe, Executive Director of the AIGA, publicly responded last Friday via the AIGA web site and RSS feeds.  Unfortunately, Grefe’s response was defensive and missed some of Busse’s main concerns. Numbers mean nothing without action. A repost of Busse’s editorial is below. The original is here: click me. A repost of Grefe’s response is below. The original is here: click me.

In All Fairness to Grefe

One part of the problem is that Grefe’s AIGA cannot do much in terms of advocacy as this steps beyond the legal bounds of of the organization’s 501(c)3 non-profit tax status. The Graphic Artists Guild, with membership numbers fractional to those of the AIGA is able to do much more in this arena because of their 501(c)5 non-profit, “union” tax status. However, the AIGA could “adopt” or create a 501(c)5 group like the Guild to get these things done.

Another part of the problem is outside the realm of associations, groups and guilds altogether. Our educational institutions do not produce professionals. Why? Our profession involves making odd and witty connections as well as technical skill. We thrive in groups where ideas bounce. Yet, our educational structure is geared towards the needs of the industrial revolution, not the informational one. Well integrated programs that throughly address technical skill, design theory (including color, type & composition) and concept generation are nearly impossible to find. Programs that also include basic business skills are non-existent. Small, apprenticeship-style education, such as that of Cranbrook, feels a more appropriate model. Trade associations cannot address professional competency if schools do not address professional competency.

Still, Busse’s Questions Remain, Along With Others
  • What are our trade associations, Canadian or otherwise, doing to put our industry’s concerns such as foreign competion, education, copyright, standard practices and taxation before our legislators?
  • Why do we allow the lion’s share of young grads to drop out of their chosen profession within 5 years?  Is it because we don’t want the competition? What are we doing about this problem within our trade associations? Clearly it devalues our professional image as a group.
  • What are we doing to formulate and apply the professional standards that will lead to market differentiation, a natural culling of the field and a focused educational structure? (Attending a NASAD accredited school and adding trade group call letters behind your name are not enough.) Contractors have managed to do this. Designs don’t fall down and kill people but still, you would think we could get together on this.
  • Further, why aren’t trade associations advocating for art to be taught in American schools? Even if art “class” is held, it is not often taught as a formal line of inquiry or given the same weight as math or history. Art requires skills that can be learned and integrative thinking. Despite Busse’s contention, design jobs, in particular, are not easily exported as they rely upon cultural associations, demographic knowledge and layers of meaning. Why aren’t we investing in our next generation on this one. Look to Korean and Scandinavian schools for a counter example to the US system.
  • Why can’t designers set industry standard pricing using time scales as plumbers and mechanics do without running into anti-trust actions by the federal government? The work is very similar. All these trades are given a problem to solve that is unique in some ways but familiar enough to know what tools are needed and about how long it should take. Seriously. A large branding contract is very much like a large electrical upgrade. Junior and senior electricians work similarly to junior and senior designers in that the seniors are given more creative challenges while the juniors do more production work. Why can’t we bill out in a similar way? What is being done about this?
  • Why aren’t trade associations working to standardize professional practices in the smaller cities where many of us work?
  • Also, what are our professional groups doing to protect us from and remunerate us for copyright infringement in the US? A fractional penny of tax on hosting bandwidth and photocopies redistributed to arts specific copyright education, as is done in Scandinavia, would make a heck of a difference.

Clearly, group action is required. These problems are too large for the individual practitioner. Why are we spending our collective time putting on contests?

Designers, Tear Down These Walls

by Mark Busse

Design is in chaos, and leadership is sorely lacking It’s time for those with the ability to take the reins of power and haul the industry into the modern world.

So often I hear experienced design professionals tell younger designers to get involved or join the local chapter of a design association. Good advice, right? Of course it is.

Wait a minute. I’ve been heavily involved in our national design association for almost a decade now, and when I look at the best and brightest in our field, most of them are not even part of that community. Not only do the experienced among us generally not lend their time and energy as leaders, but most don’t even see the value of membership. What the deuce?

We all love to wax poetic about “back in the day” (a term I only now feel old enough to use), but it’s scary how much things have changed in the last 20 years. Another phrase I find myself using these days is “in the real world,” when talking to design students about the realities of what we deal with in our day-to-day profession. It occurs to me that I haven’t been giving my students the whole story about our industry. And it occurs to me that the opportunities for learning, networking and advancement via design associations aren’t what they used to be.

Enough of that. We need to tear down the walls of complacency and lead by example.

Times Are Changing

When I entered this profession, the designers I learned from illustrated with brushes and paint, drew typefaces by hand and set type on a Linotype machine. Looking back, it felt like at that moment (1989) everything began to suddenly change. I remember the fear and trepidation so many of us felt as we realized how much of our training was already obsolete. Thankfully, we brought with us new skills and perspectives as well as our classical training, and together with the established pros, we forged ahead, evolved, and kept the design community afloat.

But times are changing once again. And nobody likes change. It’s scary as hell. But change is a constant in the design field—like it or not.

Some say that Canada’s reputation as a leader in our field has waned. Many argue vehemently that design has radically evolved beyond “graphic,” with designers around the globe adopting a new perspective and identity. And yet despite all this, Canadian graphic design associations cling desperately to old paradigms, terminology and mandates.

It’s time we told the younger designers entering the highly competitive (and saturated) communication design industry the truth about what skills they’re going to need to thrive—or even survive.

Stop Whining

I’m guilty of it too, but really—let’s grow up. I’m about as sick of hearing about spec contests and crowd-sourcing as I am talking about it. And the debate over what we call ourselves and describe what we do? An important discussion, but god I’m bored of it.

Sure, we can stomp our feet in protest every time a government ministry engages in a practice we view as disrespectful, but have those that represent us adequately secured the attention of Canada’s federal government, educating and collaborating with them? Not so much. Have regional association chapters stepped in front of the various legislative assemblies in the provinces across Canada? Nope. Have we even reached out to our local boards of trade with the message of the value we bring to business through design? Not to my knowledge.

The reality is, the immaturity with which we’re viewed will never go away if all we do is whine about everything among ourselves, resorting to the equivalent of shooting spitballs from the sidelines. And seriously, do you think the best and brightest among us get caught up in discussions about what they call themselves? Or about the quality of typeface choices in James Cameron’s latest movie or how much they love or hate the latest logo designed by Peter Arnell? Of course not. Who cares? Are we artists or are we business strategists? Or perhaps both? Do we really even know anymore?

We need to start looking beyond the ivory tower of design. There are more issues at hand than the improper use of Trajan.

The Associations Are Failing Designers

It’s been an exciting few years in the design industry. But when I look at the broader industry and the leadership within its ranks, I am ashamed. The associations are bursting at the seams with young designers, but there is an embarrassingly low percentage of experienced, successful design professionals among our leadership ranks.

For the most part, Canada’s best designers don’t seem to understand the value of membership anymore, let alone feel compelled to step up and volunteer their expertise, intelligence, creativity and influence.

In this time of change, made worse by economic uncertainty and the threat of overseas competition (when I was in China last year, there were nearly one million students studying design—one million), we need brave leadership, now more than ever. We don’t need the status quo, and we certainly don’t need to cling to old ways of thinking, trying to rebuild cosmetic meaning in an industry that has fundamentally changed.

What we need is unity. Let’s be honest with ourselves, Canada’s national graphic design association isn’t really national at all. Until old differences are set aside and Ontario and Quebec properly join the leadership of this industry, we’re going to be burdened by fractured administration and provincial thinking. If we want to truly make change, we need to quit bickering and navel-gazing, band together and get to work.

There are a growing number of professionals in our field who believes that unless our national association radically alters its trajectory, the only answer is to form a new group. This is a risky approach that would mean discarding more than 50 years of history. But this is the design industry; old things die and new things are created in their place. I’m not sure it’s the right path, but at least somebody’s making an effort—and if things don’t change soon, I’ll be right there with them.

Designers Are Failing The Associations

Most of these well-known designers who have abandoned the associations have elevated themselves beyond the level of merely producing graphics. They’ve acquired business acumen, expanded their professional networks and accumulated significant influence. They’re too busy producing results for their clients to get caught up in issues that don’t seem to relate to them anymore. Few of these successful designers turn their attention, time and energy to leading the Canadian design industry forward.

To fix this, there needs to be constant change at the head of our national organization. There should be a number of candidates in the running for leadership positions. No one should be able to park in a position for years on end and win the same spot by default. Change is healthy for an organization, and I would argue it’s required to keep our broader industry evolving and moving forward.

We need leaders who won’t get caught up complaining about how little money the association has, but who will set in motion a plan to fix that. We need leaders who not only recognize the importance of getting our message in front of big business and government, but who have the experience doing this already—successfully. We need leaders who have evolved beyond graphic design.

So where are these leaders?

I suspect that most of the really influential designers in Canada have become distracted by the allure of fame. Many designers who could bring a lot to the table have opted instead to self-promote, pursuing speaking engagements at design conferences and/or publishing books of their ramblings or works, instead of giving back to their industry in its time of need. Many will offer their design services and create posters, reports, even websites for the promotional opportunities, but these often seem more in the service of exposure in their quest to become the next Sagmeister. Good for those who enjoy this kind of professional success and notoriety, but what about those who follow? Who will be their mentors?

So this is a call to those who have “arrived” and enjoyed success in their design careers. Instead of merely becoming opinion shapers worshipped by young designers, these leaders should step forward and use their experience, position and influence to create real, positive change.

Winners Don’t Make Excuses

By now, many of you are probably thinking, “He has a point. If we want things to improve, we need to put in the work. But I just don’t have the time.” Hogwash.

This issue has been on my mind a lot lately as I consider my own future as a volunteer leader within the Canadian design community. I too have struggled to find a balance between running my own busy design studio and serving on the executive board of my local design association chapter. I recently posted a thread to Facebook that read, “Why do most of Canada’s best and brightest senior designers refuse to serve their national professional association?” I wasn’t surprised by responses claiming successful designers are busy, sometimes timid and often even elitist, but seriously, give me a break. This is not the time for timidity or elitism.

I’m not negating the importance of family commitment or life balance, and we all understand the need to focus time and energy on work itself, but I asked why the upper tier of designers is absent. From my perspective, the people at the top of this game are always busy, but they’re also extremely efficient, tremendous problem solvers and often have deep resources.

The responses that resonated most with me were those centred around the confusion about the value of design associations, which seem to be run by the “old guard” (a term that makes me cringe), which has collectively lost a sense of the state of the industry. Many senior designers replied that they have little interest in lending their talents to a community that still calls themselves graphic designers—a term few of those at the top use any more. And finally, some argued that the way the design industry networks and supports itself has changed and become much more fluid, global and instant, using online tools such as Behance, Cargo Collective, LinkedIn, QBN and Motionographer.

Fine. Things have changed. We can all sit behind our computer screens and feel a sense of community via our Facebook pages or LinkedIn groups, but that’s not community. We need leadership. We need those who’ve come before us to guide and mentor us by sharing their tricks of the trade. We also need those who are enjoying success in the newer areas of expertise, such as interaction design, user experience design and brand design. They can bring to the table their unique experiences, so those who still think like graphic designers can look at the bigger picture and expand their ideas of what we do.

We need winners to put their hands up and say, “It’s my turn—allow me to help out for a while.” Just imagine how many new designers could be inspired to band together as a community if even 10 or 20 influential design leaders stepped forward to compete for a term on the executive board of our national design association?

I’m aware that my ideas don’t jibe with everyone’s point of view, but I believe in the power of design. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a coalition of the best of the design industry can bring about radical positive change, once again positioning Canada as the bright North Star of design leadership it once was.

To do that, walls need to be broken down, and tough decisions made. It’s time to tell the next generation the truth about the mess we’re leaving them, and work with them to build a better future for us all.

Will you join me?

Mark Busse is co-founder and Design Director of the Vancouver-based branding and communication design firm Industrial Brand and Past President of the BC Chapter of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC).

What if AIGA did not exist?

Richard Grefé

November 12, 2010

More than a year ago, I wrote an article on why, in the age of social media, designers should belong to AIGA. A recent article in Applied Arts engaged the Canadian design community and the Society of Graphic Designers in a discussion on what role a design association should play and the responsibility of designers to be active, not passive participants. In AIGA’s near-hundred-year history, voices both for and against professional design associations have never been louder, in part because of the many immediate channels the public can use to be heard. But I assure you—we hear you and we are listening.

For those who feel AIGA should focus on something other than what we are currently doing, it is useful to step back from this institution and consider what it represents. AIGA is a community of more than 20,000 designers who have voluntarily joined together for four main reasons: community, information, understanding and respect. They seek a common voice that will help to build both the design profession and the design economy, which is of benefit to them as well as society at large.

The role of an association in a modern economy

Our members find sufficient value to join and renew. So while some may feel it is not valuable, 20,000 people do—suggesting it does have value to a significant population of creative and aspirational design professionals. The personal values or preferences of our most vocal critics do not make AIGA, the institution or its members, irrelevant. We earn our members’ loyalty by providing something that is important to them, and the relationships they form through active membership are among the most significant in their professional lives.

AIGA is, in fact, admired by the other associations for its agility, adaptiveness and scale. We listen intently to our members; we survey them and we evolve to meet their changing needs or even to anticipate them. Our mandate for 2014 is precisely this kind of adaptation.

If AIGA were to go away—not to mention what it might do to the community, its networking and its information sharing—design would lose a voice on behalf of the profession, a voice that articulates the value of design and designers’ relevance to business, the government, the media and the public. There would also be a deficit where AIGA has promoted professional standards and ethical considerations that define the profession. It would be every designer for himself or herself in explaining the designer’s role and the value design brings to business and society.

The means of collaborating on thoughtful discussion of curriculum improvements would be lost. There would be no entity pursuing a greater understanding of American design at the fundamental level among foreign markets, which will define the future of our designers in the global economy. No one would be sharing success stories among designers, seeding stories in the media about design, seeing that businesses understand that design thinking is not simply a creative term for the processes that management consultants follow but something that trained designers do well. Who would argue for designers to gain a greater role in their community, a role as a strategist rather than a wrist, and against practices like spec work that limit the earning potential for designers?

An organization of 20,000 and growing cannot be elitist. In fact, we are careful to avoid dictating style or content in any medium, and membership is not limited to any one group. AIGA seeks to be authoritative in only one capacity: to stand for the highest expectations of professionalism so that all designers receive the respect and opportunities for success that they deserve. (An example of this is the recently updated AIGA standards of professional practice, to which each AIGA member is called on to uphold in his or her daily practice.)

By the profession, for the profession

The leadership of AIGA is representative of our volunteer chapter leaders nationwide and our membership as a whole: from around the country, from practices large and small, of various disciplines and backgrounds. The current board of 16 national directors hail from Atlanta, Portland, Seattle, Berkeley, San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis, Raleigh, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and New York. Some of their names are more familiar than others, but all are accomplished, talented and committed to fostering an AIGA that serves the profession well.

We are eager to serve the interests of all designers—a group that is defined by those who decide to join AIGA, advocate for the profession and work with us to address the issues of most importance to advancing the profession.

Tangible versus intangible benefits

Designers who join AIGA expecting to receive tangible benefits equivalent to the cost of membership are likely to be disappointed. AIGA supports a range of benefits, but places greater importance on intangible benefits such as increasing the size of the design economy, the perceived value of design services, the understanding of design services and the potential of a future with respect for all designers. Within a competitive marketplace, designers need a voice that will improve conditions for the practice of design that give them a chance to grow and thrive.

Membership rates and the value of belonging

The cost of membership is an investment in our advancing the understanding of design, designing and designers. It is less than is necessary to promote the value of design effectively, so AIGA raises two to three times the amount of membership income to supplement the members’ investment.

AIGA welcomes any designer to join—at a price that is lower than most other professional associations. Recognizing the challenges faced by those entering the profession, we’ve also lowered the price of entry for emerging designers through a four-year associate membership level.

Our interest in social media lies primarily in the desire to listen to members and the larger design community, to provide timely industry and membership information, and to answer questions from members. Not coincidentally, our network across platforms is the strength that allows us to reach designers on issues that should concern them—the recent IRS notice is a good example of this—because they serve a broader design public, regardless of membership.

We hope that what we believe is important to the future of the profession earns your trust and support. If not, tell us what you need and we will see if we can work with volunteers in the profession to make it happen. AIGA is its members; it is not a monolith and it is neither tone-deaf nor elitist. It may not be for everyone; it may not serve every designer’s specific needs; however, there is little that AIGA does that is not meant to benefit every designer with a stronger future.

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design. He is generally involved in all of AIGA’s activities, although his major contributions are in strategy, formulating new initiatives to enhance the competitive success of designers and advocating the value of design.


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