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Lynda Weinman: Hello! I'm Lynda Weinman, co-founder of lynda.com, an educational Web site that offers computer skills and design training. I've also been a teacher at Art Center College of Design, and I've authored many books on Web design and graphics. Last year, in 2009, I was elected to the National Board of AIGA, and while it was a great honor, I realized that there was a lot I didn't know about the organization, from its history, its role as a national association, and the benefits that it provides to members and the design industry as a whole.
I was traveling to New York to attend the annual AIGA board meeting and its Design Legends gala, and decided I would use this opportunity to learn more about the organization and to document and share my experiences. I started at AIGA's National Design Center on Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan, where I met with Ric Grefe, the executive director of AIGA, to ask about the organization's history and structure. Well, tell us about AIGA and how it was formed originally, and maybe a little bit about its structure.
It's mostly a volunteer organization. Ric Grefe: Absolutely, and it's a fascinating story how it started. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson received a letter from the German government, asking if he would send books to the Leipzig Book Fair. He asked his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, to do something about it. Herbert Hoover wrote to the National Arts Club, which is just a couple of blocks from here at Gramercy Park, and said, "What are these graphic arts?" And so 14 people got together to talk about how they would put together a U.S.
entry for the book show in Leipzig, and became the founding members of AIGA, the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Lynda: So AIGA no longer is an acronym for something, correct? Ric: No it isn't. I mean, it was the American Institute of Graphic Arts, but in fact, as the profession has morphed, so has the organization. So now we're the Professional Association for Design, which is much more inclusive. Lynda: That's an exciting direction. Can you talk a little bit about how Design is changing and how AIGA is changing along with? Ric: When you think of it, AIGA was founded in 1914, so it's almost a hundred years ago.
And then it was people who were in the graphic arts. The graphic arts then were typographers and the publishers and lithographers, photographers. And as communication design has changed over the years to include editorial design, corporate identity, interaction design, film and television, clearly AIGA had to move along with it. So the core, the DNA of AIGA is really about communication design, the purposeful use of words and images to communicate messages, but in fact, media had become less important in that, so it's not so much graphic design as it's around its core communication design.
And then, in the last decade or so, we've added a whole new dimension to design, which is design thinking, the idea that designers see problems differently and can be applied to many different problems. So AIGA is moving along with profession, as it has over the decades. Lynda: And so how many members today, and how is the organization structured? Ric: It's 22,000 members today. The chapters are interesting because everyone becomes a member of AIGA with the national organization, and then where there are enough members to create a local organization, we encourage them to do so.
So we now have 64 chapters, and we are on 200 college campuses with student groups. Lynda: So I am a little bit interested in the governance, in the structure of the organization. It's clearly a non-profit, and there is - you're part of a small, paid staff. Is that correct? Ric: That's right. So there is a small staff of 15 to 20 people here in New York, but the heart of a professional association is really the members, and I think that as a philosophy, we don't believe that there should be a large central staff because frequently what happens in an organization like that is that the staff begins to think they are the profession and acting like it.
And we believe really strongly that the passion, the heart, the soul is in the members themselves. And so what the paid staff can do is enable them to achieve their own aspirations and successes. And that's what we do. In a highly-leveraged way, we encourage the volunteers, as either chapters or as taskforces, to take on the things that are important to them. And we try to see that they not only get achieved, but also that we can then take them and give them greater voice. Lynda: And to become active in AIGA, what do you think the benefits are for those local groups that are self-forming, in a way? Ric: Well, for any of the members, over the 15 years I've been here, whenever we survey them, they always give us four answers on why they joined.
One is that they want a sense of community because designers tend to work alone. So there is a sense of community they gain out of being part of a large organization. A second reason is that they want to share information, and they want to discover what's going on around them. Again, because they don't necessarily work in large groups of designers, they may in studios, but then they even wonder what's going on beyond the walls of the studio. The third reason is that they want people to understand what they do, and the fourth reason is they want respect for it. So with these chapters, why do they join a chapter? They join a chapter for probably two reasons.
One, they want us to give voice to their ambitions, with a louder voice. And we can do it collectively with 22,000 voices. The second reason, though, is they do want that opportunity for networking, to come together and to share, not only the experience they have, but also share information.
Lynda's journey introduces us to the professional association for design, through the eyes of some of the most talented and influential designers of our time. Lynda visits AIGA's National Design Center on Fifth Avenue, home to the breathtaking design archives (dating back to the 1920's) as well as this year's premiere of 365: AIGA's Annual Design Exhibition. She also touches down at New York's School of Visual Arts and at Sterling Brands, the largest brand consultancy in the country, located in the Empire State building. Those interviewed include executive director Ric Grefé, national AIGA president Debbie Millman, former president Sean Adams, and editor Steven Heller from Voice: AIGA’s Journal of Design.