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The Name of Action
by Matthew Porter

Face it–creative people are caring types. We’re sensitive. We’re doers. We want design to matter. And why not? We are uniquely qualified to communicate messages that inspire others to positive action. best do we put ideas to work for philanthropy? Should we join causes? Clubs? Nonprofits? Should we offer unsolicited advice? Create a service organization? One thing is certain: Committee meetings to “talk about it” don’t help others. Seize the name of action.

I once offered to help my local AIGA start a community-focused project. After six months or so, we had accomplished five things: five interminable meetings. Our caring idea drowned, bound by red tape in a sea of frustration. I vowed never again.

The difficulty with AIGA and other volunteer organizations is this: Cap’n Crunch has a longer shelf life than their unpaid administrations. When leadership changes, so does energy and focus. One man’s vision is another man’s blind spot. Still, AIGA cares and works. Doug Grimmett, president of AIGA Atlanta, reminds, “The big initiative at the last national AIGA leadership conference was a call for designers to commit five percent of their time to pro bono. Based upon a 40-hour week, that’s two hours a week. Anyone can do that.” Doing what? Prayer and meditation?

Past AIGA president Sean Adams says AIGA deserves more credit: “In politics, it has been said, ‘Take credit, deny everything, blame others.’ I could give you a long list of my accomplishments as president but that would be misleading. In reality, an enormous amount was achieved, and continues to succeed, through the hard work of the AIGA board, Ric Grefé, Denise Woo, staff and chapter leadership, and 25,000 members.”

Some AIGA chapters are more effective at community programming than others. AIGA Seattle has two success stories worth noting, The AIGA Link Program and Art with Heart.

Since 1994 Link has been helping high school students connect through nine monthly creative workshops a year. It is also worth replicating; the program has been launched with success in San Diego.

Seattle’s Terry Marks has been involved since the beginning. He credits the program's sustainability to four things: 1) dedicated founders/volunteers, 2) funding, 3) an experienced, determined administrator and 4) a tight focus with broad appeal. “You really need a dedicated, paid person or persons for progress and continuity. Since the beginning, Link’s has been Donna Verretto who provides the critical skills we need to keep things going,” says Marks. He also says Link doesn’t exist to propagate designers. “It exists to help students understand that they have the raw talent to put ideas into action.”

Art With Heart (AWH) is another Seattle success story. It started as an AIGA Seattle initiative but since 2001 has been a standalone 501(c)(3). AWH creates and distributes therapeutic books designed to assist high-risk children channel stress and emotion in healthy ways. Designers, illustrators and artists by the scores have contributed. The publications are effective, finite creative assignments that get produced and put to use. They don't involve committee meetings.

Steffanie Lorig is AWH’s heart and soul: “As a designer and art director, I am used to creative briefs, balancing budgets and getting people on the same page. These are skills I still call upon, except now I’m dealing with prospective donors rather than designers. The key to both is the same: Be clear about expectations and deliverables and you will be successful.”

Nothing will spoil a giving experience like a recipient who turns their nose up at your contribution. When you are young and rising, you have to put up with a lot of crap. When you’re a grizzled warrior, you don’t. Take Fred Cisneros for example.

Cisneros Design of Santa Fe lies at the summit of New Mexico creative agencies. Fred Cisneros is a big man with a big heart who has helped scores of New Mexico social service agencies for twenty-plus years. But, he has rules of engagement: “We identify issues that we can endorse and we set limitations on what we will and will not do. We assemble partners that facilitate our process and can contribute specific skills. Most non-profits appreciate the opportunity we offer them.” Leaning over to feed his pet tarantula a mouse, Cisneros adds, “Some nonprofits don’t. To them I say, ‘Eff ’em.’ I’m too impatient to beg anyone to take our ideas for free.” Porter
Matthew Porter is a writer, critic and creative consultant who lives in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. His company is PorterWrite Design Consulting.