An Open Letter to Ric Grefé
Remember the ’60s TV western
Now, if one wanted to brag about things, one might be tempted to point to the AIGA. You’ve been changing its focus, recently partnering with Worldstudio in a scholarship program for design students, joining the international design organization ICOGRADA, and participating in a coalition of professional organizations working to pass the Orphan Works Bill, among other accomplishments. The AIGA seems to be working overtime promoting the interests of its constituent members according to the organization’s mandate. Perhaps most appropriately, AIGA member victims of Katrina were assisted through its Displaced Designer program.
Step back to the recent past, December to be precise, to an event that occurred in cyberspace. During a visit to www.aiga.com, the following announcement appeared near the top of the page:
“AIGA partner in international design award (five $125,000 prizes): AIGA will partner with INDEX in promoting U.S. entries to an international competition for design projects that significantly improve life for a large number of people. One prize of 100,000 euros will be given in each of five categories. “
This refers, of course, to the new Danish award first granted in 2005 and thereafter every two years to five winners culled from 100 top nominees worldwide. Anyone can become a nominating body (Design-Altruism-Project has nominated a semi-finalist), and, in an era of online networked populism, the nominating process is an international free-for-all. The AIGA has apparently paid a sponsor’s fee to join a select group of companies and organizations involved in the INDEX Partner Lounge who are entitled to promote, nominate, attend, and otherwise deliver awards in 2007.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this is the same AIGA that sponsored the Business Perspectives for Creative Leaders at the Harvard Business School ($8,000 per person registration; $1,000,000 in receipts over the last four years), the ICOGRADA Design Week in Seattle ($575 per person registration), the GAIN Design Business Conference ($850-1,050 per person), and the venerable Aspen Design Summit ($1,550 per person)? Overlooking the fact that since 80% of the recent nominations for INDEX were from Europe and America (275 of 335), with 53 (15%) from the U.S. alone, begs the question whether U.S. entrants need any assistance from the AIGA, my dilemma is this: Can an organization hell-bent on extending its own brand penetration by perpetuating capitalist standards of professional practice seriously claim to partner efforts to promote design “to improve life for people everywhere?”
On another note, as a part-time resident of Oregon, it didn’t surprise me that the Oregon Board of Elections decided to hire a designer, considering that Oregon is the only state in the union whose elections are conducted entirely by mail. You’ll forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but a widely praised initiative, like Design for Democracy, seems to focus inordinately on the details of ballot redesign while casting a blind eye to the fact that many AIGA members work for the very corporations that control the outcome in the majority of American elections. And wouldn’t it be a shame if AIGA member marketing fieldtrips to Chinese enterprise zones jeopardized the organization’s recently acquired UN consultative status, which allows it to file “non-partisan comments (usually not more the 500 words) that are consistent with design’s potential to advance the Millennium Development Goals of the UN.” Perhaps they ought to consider visiting a few forced labor camps just to balance the act?
For those other than AIGA loyalists still reading, if all this frenzied AIGA activity feels a bit like ExxonMobil’s support of Masterpiece Theatre when it needed to clean up its sullied image, I urge you to trust your inner voices. In our opinion, the AIGA is nothing if not an organization at eternal cross-purposes. On one hand, we have its ambition to become the bespoke design organization of the known universe, using every ploy imaginable to cheerlead design into a sort of secular religion. On the other, we have its “global advocacy” through social outreach that we feel is better described as using its profitable membership fees and conference receipts to 1) peddle influence, 2) patronize an urbane and conforming membership that is generally committed to the business-as-usual model of design, and 3) claim credit for the social efforts of others. To paraphrase Cameron Tonkinwise quoting philosopher Albert Borgmann: “…in a society dedicated to business (individualism), it’s rather difficult to get much attention for anything else.”
To the extent that Appropriation, Acquisition, and Aggrandizement are the Triple-A Way of Life in modern America, the “The Professional Association for Design” is batting 1000%. But where Appositeness is concerned, we have serious doubts. In fact, where social issues are involved, we think the AIGA would be well advised to back off its self-congratulatory grandstanding altogether.
At the Design-Altruism-Project, when we talk about improving life for people, we don’t mean comfortably well-off professional peers attending design conferences in Havana or Mumbai. The top of the pyramid is for tourists planning a visit to Egypt. We’re more interested in those people on the ground all around us. That’s because the A in our acronym = Altruism, nothing else. This is our mission, our vision, and our passionate cause. No hyperbole, no sound bites…
1 “No brag, just fact.”
David Stairs is founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project