An Open Letter to Ric Grefé

Mr. Grefé,

Remember the ’60s TV western The Guns of Will Sonnett? Airing from 1967-’69, it featured a 73-year-old Walter Brennan in a ridiculously oversized 10-gallon hat, stomping around the Old West with his grandson, out-riding, out-talking, and out-shooting all comers. When I think of a classically overplayed boast, Will Sonnett’s signature rejoinder 1 usually rings in my memory.

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, 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

8 Responses to “Bragging Rights”

  1. rprucher Says:

    Dear David,

    If and when you receive the insuing backlash from your open letter to Mr. Grefé, I hope you remember that there are people standing behind you. I will proudly lend my name to the letter. A good friend once told me, “They aren’t principles unless you are willing to practice them.”

    Thank you for being candid, for connecting the dots, and for putting your principles into practice. You have my utmost respect.

    Raymond Prucher

  2. ukpong Says:

    Dear Daivd,

    Increasingly, we seem to live our professional lives in the tolerance of capitalist professional associations/organisations — more concerned with creating potentially elitist agendas for themselves. AIGA’s professional development partnership(s) with the global public needs a review.

    I see designers across the globe benefitting from an AIGA that contributes to symbiotic design partnerships — with the kind of resources at its disposal.

    I definitely share the same sentiments as Mr Prucher.


    Ukpong E. Ukpong

  3. michaelhersrud Says:

    Dear David,

    I find your articles a refreshing change from the usually commentary of the 8-10 ‘ellite’ design writers that our profession seems to put on a pedestal. I also find it refreshing to hear a voice that is questioning the seemingly untouchable AIGA organization. Although I have appreciated the fact that a professional organization such as the AIGA has attempted to gain legitimate profession recognition in order to stand behind and support the thousands of mostly voiceless designers, I have also found it disturbing that not many people have publically challenged or questioned its orginizational goals. Especially since in recent years the AIGA has become the dominate organization in the Unitied States and often sets the standards for design conferences and education.

    Personally, I find myself some where inbetween on respect for the AIGA organization. I do think they bring a voice to an otherwise silent populace, but I often wonder if that ‘voice’ is the correct voice or the voice that I stand behind (which in most cases I do not). I also think the AIGA has attempted to structure what is important in design education and develop support systems for undergraduate education. In many areas around the United States, they have set up student chapters and portfolio review sessions that would otherwise not take place. Elite design schools often can support their own portfolio review sessions or senior preparation seminars, but in school less fortunate the AIGA does help set up this framework. I state this as a point in which I think the AIGA has helped the design community. Perhaps this could be a positive aspect that transfers into their new ‘world-view’ organization.

    However, with that said, I am alway apprehensive about the motives of the AIGA in creating the student chapters and often think it is more of a marketing ploy than legitimate concern for the students well-being. Personally, I never benefited from any AIGA event. I felt that the AIGA sponsored portfolio reviews I was a part of as a student were very surface oriented and felt more like an interview for a corporate marketing position more so than a dialogue about the design profession and how it may benefit community. I believe this mostly comes from the fact that often the people who belong to the AIGA as professionals come from elite or ‘rock-star’ design firms who have become who they are on the merits of their clientele, not necessarily thier contributions to the profession. They are the ones who participate in the reviews and a sort of trickle down effect or what constitutes ‘successful’ design happens.

    I too have payed attention to some of the recent activity by the AIGA and wondered what their motivation is. World domination of design business? The WTO of graphic design? Or maybe the optimist in me is hopeful that they are turning a corner, albeit about 10 years behind as usual, and are moving away from the business of branding themselves and promoting American consumerism and moving toward a world-community view.

    Perhaps your comments will open the door to more constructive criticism of AIGA in hopes that the people of the design community, educators, practitioners, and students alike, will keep them in check as they infiltrate design organizations around the world. I also hope it will promote others to comment and start a discussion about successes and failures of the AIGA to help them better represent the populace voice, or expanded voice.

    Perhaps the AIGA will take off that well designed 10-gallon hat and put on raggedy bandana and get their hands NY hands a bit dirty.

    Take care,

    Michael Hersrud

  4. lodaya Says:

    Just like your AIGA, India’s CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) has organized a number of global events to draw the world’s attention to India’s design talents. “Business is war by other means” and each country’s AIGA, CII and other such organisations are their “peacetime armies”. From here, the view is clear – the wealthy and powerful (even those that exist within a poor & weak state) always place their own continued domination above the ‘upliftment’ of the weak and poor – and so we’re always “catching up” with the west, (and funded to do so) knowing full well that it’s an impossible chase. The learning? Get rich and powerful, using any & all available means. Thanks first to Margaret Thatcher and now to George Bush, it’s no longer uncivilised to be unilaterally self-serving and aggressive.

  5. Christopher Liechty Says:


    At the risk of putting myself in your mud-slinging sights, it seems to me that your letter to Ric Grefe is more about self-promotion than helpful criticism. The tactic of creating controversy around a well-known brand in order to raise awareness for a new initiative is not new. Controversy is an effective tool in today’s media.

    Your main criticism here is that AIGA promotes capitalist standards of professional practice and is therefore not worthy of participating in the INDEX awards. Does that make any sense? I recognize that you may have differences in values with AIGA. AIGA chooses to help designers gain recognition and economic strength by working within the mainstream economic system. You seem to shun corporations and the value of economic activity. Fine, but I know Ric. Of all the people I have had the pleasure of working with over the years, Ric is one who is most focused on benefiting the design industry and using design to benefit society economically, socially and environmentally that I have ever known. Every one of his programs is aimed at creating these kinds of benefits for designers and society. He also understands that an organization with a strong financial foundation is able to do more than and organization on the brink of collapse. He gives his all to AIGA and he has always acted with dignity and integrity. I realize that AIGA and Ric are not perfect. Everyone is due a little criticism here and there, but I don’t see a basis for your criticism here other than a difference in opinion.

    I applaud your efforts to do and to promote good works. The Design Altruism project sounds like a great thing. I wish you success in your efforts, but I question the altruism of this letter. Good will and good wishes are not news. They do nothing to raise a stir. There are other methods of building a brand than slinging mud, and they don’t leave everyone feeling filthy.

    Christopher Liechty

  6. rprucher Says:

    Mr. Liechty,

    David is holding a mirror up to AIGA, to reflect both it’s altruistic intentions and the facts on the ground of its practices and partnerships. Mr. Grefé’s character is not what is in question. He is the executive director of an organisation whose motivations can and should be examined.

    Shouldn’t AIGA be as accountable as Enron or Halliburton? Do the inflated costs of design conferences sponsored by AIGA disclude all but the affluent from attending? Is it not a conflict of interest to be a consultant to the UN and have an invested interest in the trade statuses of the nations it scrutinizes? A conflict of interest to be designing new election systems whilst employed by or lobbying for capitalistic interests?

    I say yes to all of these questions. If Mr. Grefé is all of the man you say he is, he might act to remove AIGA and dissuade its members from such practices. You are correct that noone is perfect. We are not calling for perfection. That would be absurd, as no absolute is attainable. But that does not mean that we should not all be working toward better practices which serve the common good of our communities and our world.

    We should be working toward inclusion, not exclusion, and it is the practices in action that make the differences. Preaching to the choir has thus far ignored or belittled the thousands of voices that are without privilege. Shouldn’t we of privilege and voice be working to raise these unheard voices?

    I am encouraged by this discussion. It is a practice in the classroom to critique. Why not professionally, socially, politically? We all stand to gain from it.

    Raymond Prucher

  7. david stairs Says:

    I think Raymond has put it about as well as it can be said. The words “conflict of interest” are crucial here. I have promoted the AIGAs interests for years through conference attendance, 365 competitions, and mentoring AIGA student groups, but, like Michael Hersrud, I’ve begun to wonder whether AIGA truly benefits the rank-and-file. I thought about this letter a good long while before posting it. It says some things that are bound to offend those who work intimately with AIGA, but they are things that needed to be said.

    The point I’m trying to make with it is if AIGA is purely a professional organization dedicated to the economic interests of its members, it shouldn’t be pretending to launch broad social projects, then beg that it’s only a professional organization when criticized. Overpromoting one’s half-hearted social initiatives in the face of what I’m seeing in the developing world is worse than cynical, it’s criminal.

  8. Tom Froese Says:

    Did someone already point this out:

    The acronym for Design Altruism Project is the reverse of “Professional Association for Design”.