David Stairs

As the AIGA gears up for its annual conference, I find myself pondering. In a year of magical thinking, like everyone else the AIGA has reinvented its conference schedule for online delivery. If this is just a matter of the new normal, obviously this cannot be an issue. What, then, makes the organization so damned annoying? Actually, I’ve been struggling to figure this out for years.

I used to think it had to do with leadership. Ric Greffé was Executive Director for many years, a polite éminence grise who was always diplomatically defending the AIGA. But, as with many things in life, he was unable or unwilling to address the organization’s foibles. Then came a leadership change in 2016, just as I was attending a DEC event at Bowling Green University in Ohio. This, apparently, was a bit less successful than Ric’s extended tenure as recently, for the second time in five years, the organization has undergone a change at the top.

So, perhaps aiming at a figurehead is the wrong way to go about critiquing an institution. After all, the AIGA is more complicated than that, a membership organization boasting 70 chapters and over 18,000 members. Ah, I did use the “b” word didn’t I, and not unconsciously. Because one of the things that makes the AIGA most irksome is its tendency to brag. After all, it promotes itself as “the professional association for design,” as if in a world of design organizations there were no other.

Let’s ignore that pretense for the moment. There must be something more serious to justify criticism of what many would call a benign if not beneficent institution. Before I can myself be targeted for being perversely self-righteous, let me say that I generally sample a product before I critique it. To this end I have attended AIGA conferences large and small, have posted to its sites, lectured at AIGA regionals, received its emails, and, last year purchased one of its recent publications.

Big Sister is watching: EOD Utopian issue designed by Na Kim

Eye On Design or, as the editors like to refer to it, EOD is the fancy print version of the gossipy email news log mailed out on request. I generally disregard 85% of what appears in the online version as promotional fluff, but something about the EOD “Utopian” issue caught my eye, and I thought it might be useful in an upcoming class.

It arrived, beautifully printed, securely packaged, sufficiently branded, and, at $20, exorbitantly priced— costing per copy what some periodicals, like The Baffler for instance, now charge for an annual subscription, indicative of a small but fancy press run. I suppose that’s what will eventually make it “collectable.” But for all its die-cut mylar indie chic and editorial razzle-dazzle, even considering that it was largely written, illustrated, edited, and designed by an entirely new generation of young women, it still carried the mark of AIGA original sin. Self-describing as “a decidedly different approach to design journalism,” the product disseminated an air that it serviced beds everywhere, a veritable design-world superstudette.

This cocksure attitude that you are simply the non-plus-ultra must, in some mysterious way, hide a deep-seated insecurity. You simply won’t find anyone working for the AIGA, from executive director down to student intern, who refers to it in anything but the most glowing terms. And AIGA members are among the most devoted evangelists anywhere. For the AIGA plurality is the password to world domination. And EOD #6 tries mightily to manifest a sense of hegemony, from its interview with three young female Muslim publishers in London to the Cyberfeminism Index which closes it out.

I’m certainly not intending this as an attack on women designers. That the majority of graphic design students these days is female can only be to the good in my mind. The class I ordered EOD #6 for was comprised 90% of young women. But the AIGA brand, with its century-long track record of crony excellence, infects even a new feminist generation with an overwhelming air of superiority and self-importance, a hubris that it would be nearly impossible to live up to in anything but an uncritical universe.

This got me to wondering just what it is that drives the organization to constantly overstate, and that’s when I thought of FOMO. For as long as I have been aware of it, for over 30 years now, the AIGA has striven relentlessly to be all things to all people. Put another way, there is not, and never has been an issue the AIGA would not be happy to extend the umbrella of its professional expertise over.

Back in the day, way back in the now-glorious-but-then-not-so-much-digital-desert-of-the-early-90s the AIGA was deeply concerned about the technological changes the profession was undergoing. Then there were (as there still are now) the endless member surveys of that changing professional landscape and its job prospects. Enter the multi-culti 2000s, and the AIGA pivoted to the flavor of the moment: social design. By the 2010s, it had become very concerned about design criticism (one of EOD and its sister publication Dialectic’s primary reasons for existing). And let’s not forget decolonization? OK. Human-centered design? Roger that. Branding? Always. Sustainability? Yello. UX design? Natch. Ethnography? Gotcha. Social justice? Uh huh. LGBTQ issues? Simpatico. History and Education? Of course. Racial inequality? I feel you. Seriously, is there anything the AIGA won’t dog-pile onto? Uh, poverty maybe? Yeah, that’s not on their radar yet, not fashionable enough I suppose. Give it a month.

Some will argue that, for a membership organization to survive, it must respond to the current interests of its constituents. But remember, the AIGA is manifestly not a political party (even though it weighs in on democracy too). It’s not a religion either, just a professional organization, and a fairly small one at that. It represents a branch of the professional empyrean that refers to itself as “creative” and “problem solving” and, in all probability, “underpaid,” at least by the standards of other professionals like podiatrists, investment bankers, and nuclear engineers. Yet, even though no set of bylaws in the world entitles the AIGA to meddle in everything, like Google, it just does (try to imagine here your lawyer weighing in on the typography of legal briefs).

Others surely believe there is strength in numbers. And I’ll be the first to agree that two heads are better than one, and most groups are much more creative than individuals, with the rare exception of cranky geniuses. For those who look to the AIGA as an opportunity to swap ideas, I have no antipathy. What I’m complaining about is the sense of self-importance that adheres to membership in a specialized group, what Illich famously called a “disabling profession.” At best it engenders noblesse oblige. At worst there’s that brand of smug ostracism Frank Lloyd Wright observed in the Chicago architects of his day, banding together out of a need for professional approbation while snubbing Louis Sullivan.

When you set the bar so high, when you presume too much, when you pretend to be the omphalos— the navel of the universe, or in this case the Eye of Agomotto, you are exhibiting symptoms of FOMO, a predictably alphabetical psychosis for an acronymed organization obsessed with letterform.

In a way, I suppose I should feel sorry for the AIGA, in so far as it’s possible to have sympathy for something as conventional as a creative Kiwanis. And maybe one day I will, on the day the AIGA stops thinking of itself as my Mother surreptitiously inquiring about who I’m going out with tonight. When that day arrives I might even consider renewing my long-dormant membership—

Fat chance!

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

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