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Over the past few years, articles, essays and tweets have accused design organizations of irrelevance, racism, mismanagement, not providing enough value for the cost of membership and just plain being out of touch with designers’ needs. Comments have ranged from angry rants—“I quit!”—to predictions that the future of the organizations is “perilous.”

I set out to find out the truth and uncovered many truths, some at odds with each other.

It’s inarguable that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of income from in-person events at nonprofits including the AIGA, Type Directors Club (TDC) and Society of Typographic Arts (STA) has resulted in financial hardship, restructurings and mergers.

But that’s nothing new. More than five years ago, the Art Directors Club of New York (ADC) became part of The One Club for Creativity, which now has eight national and international chapters. “The ADC was under financial pressure with overhead and expensive galleries,” explains One Club CEO Kevin Swanepoel. “With economies of scale, organizations eliminate duplication in everything from accounting staff to awards teams. This makes them stronger and able to weather financial hardship, so they can focus on programs and initiatives. After all these months of hunkering down, people want to gather. Organizations will rebound.”

“We reject the notion that the future of design organizations is perilous,” says Carol Wahler, executive director of the TDC, which became part of The One Club this year. “In fact, the demand is greater than ever. In the face of challenges, we halted operations, rethought the future and chose to merge. We took stock of how we needed to change, reorganized our board, and now take advantage of The One Club’s programming that promotes critical issues of diversity, gender equality and inclusion.”

What are you paying for membership? What are you getting out of it?” —Ron Tinsley

Is there any profession in the United States that hasn’t been tainted by racism? From baseball to medicine, there have been formidable barriers to entry and success. Design is no exception. While CEOs and directors outline their organizations’ initiatives, designers of color relate disappointments and snubs. Ron Tinsley, who’s devoted part of his career to helping other Black and Brown designers, says he joined AIGA/Philadelphia as a student at University of The Arts. “I got some positive vibes,” he told me, “but it was hard to build relationships. I’d drive to an event from my office, one-and-a-half hours away, and people would say things like, ‘Are you a member?’ I come from a working-class background and don’t appreciate snobby attitudes, so I canceled my membership.” He went on to earn a master’s degree in urban studies and change his focus to marketing strategy. “To make a good living, I had to pivot, to be more than just a designer,” he says. In 2014, he gave AIGA/Philadelphia a second chance. “Nothing changed.”

I’m willing to bet that no one in that chapter can remember treating any designer of color with anything but respect. But these things are subtle and deep-rooted. “It’s called ‘impostor syndrome,’” Tinsley explains. “Even when you’re all degreed up, you feel you don’t belong.” He does feel he belongs to the African-American Graphic Designers Group on Facebook founded by Austin-based designer-illustrator Terrence Moline; it has 2,400 members and “embraces everyone, including those without a degree” with mentoring, portfolio reviews and information about business practices.

“Designers look for groups that speak specifically to their needs,” Tinsley points out. “What are you paying for membership? What are you getting out of it?”

In Los Angeles, experience designer and chapter president Sam Cabrera has been dealing with the same questions. The daughter of immigrants from Nicaragua and Mexico and the second woman of color to lead AIGA/LA, she extols the racial awakening that’s happening across the country, in editorial coverage and in advertising. “The design profession is maturing,” she says. “We aren’t solely defined under ‘art’ anymore. Most innovative companies are design-led. Designers are more than a service: we are essential to business success. We belong in executive spaces. Some people may not feel like they belong in the AIGA, that enough hasn’t been done on critical issues, particularly diversity. So we’ve been holding listening sessions, asking how we can better serve.”

Cheryl Holmes Miller, two decades older than Cabrera, has seen and lived it all. She is one of three Black designers who received the 2021 AIGA Medal. A Washington, DC, native, her education encompassed Rhode Island School of Design, Maryland Institute College of Art and Pratt Institute, from which she earned her master’s in communication design. She characterizes herself first and foremost as a writer—most notably of “Black Designers: Missing in Action,” a seminal 1987 Print magazine piece on the lack of people of color in the field. Noting a dominant attitude among parents of color that a design career was not sustainable, she says that her father, a government executive, “never stopped me, but advised me to be the best and to have a backup plan with academics.” Her knowledge of the history of Black designers in America is encyclopedic; she’s the decolonizing design historian. Her advice to design organizations: “Accept the history of white supremacy. Apologize and move forward. The AIGA has been able to pivot and make change. So has The One Club. For me, to see this change is a blessing. I was there when it was ugly.”

Luckily, things aren’t so ugly anymore. Judging by the New York Times’s “Style” section, some influencers are specifically looking for Black designers. And one of the most promising One Club programs is the Saturday Career Workshops, initially begun by the ADC, that demonstrate to high school students and parents that there are viable career paths in advertising, design, photography and illustration. “We’re doing a lot of career development overall,” says Swanepoel, “providing opportunities for members to become the Swiss army knives employers want. Even for longtime professionals, you have to keep up and know HTML, UX, UI and Figma. If you’re not learning, you’re going backwards.”

For most of his 50 years in business, Chicago-based designer Joseph Michael Essex has been a member of STA and the AIGA. Having recently closed EssexTwo, the respected design office he ran with his wife Nancy Denney Essex, to consult to design firms and communities on how to produce their best work—he speaks eloquently about how design organizations provide members with a community of peers. “The Design Museum of Chicago plays a significant role here,” he says. “So does the Chicago Design Archives. At any given time, one or two of our
design organizations have something interesting going on.” He gives special praise to AIGA/Chicago, which he says has been keeping people engaged with virtual programming and has planned its first in-person meetings since March 2020.

For many designers—including myself—who moved to New York from somewhere else, the small Third Avenue building that housed the AIGA’s National offices was the place to gather, make friends, see exhibitions of award-winning work, and get introduced to the likes of Ivan Chermayeff, Henry Wolf and Paula Scher. New York was no longer a city of anonymous strangers. In 1994, the AIGA bought its own building, The AIGA National Design Center, in a prominent Flatiron District location, a move characterized by Jessica Helfand on the podcast Design Matters as “a grand moment in the organization’s 80-year history.” In fundraising pitches, then–executive director Ric Grefé touted the purchase as the ideal meeting place and public face of graphic design with important exhibitions in its storefront gallery. Ten years later, with approximately $3 million in annual losses, the building was sold and offices relocated to a very unpublic high floor in a downtown skyscraper. This past year, there was another downsizing to a WeWork space, with sta scattered around the country. Even before the pandemic, the community felt distant to many designers. “It’s like the AIGA lost its face,” says Mary McBride, a Tarrytown, New York–based freelancer.

“We will be remote until 2022,” confirms Stacey Panousopoulos, executive director of the 1,200-member AIGA/New York chapter for the past thirteen years. “The chapters are the lifeblood of the AIGA,” she adds, noting that, under the leadership of new national executive director Bennie Johnson, priorities have shifted from New York hegemony to supporting the 70 nationwide chapters with funds and resources. The New York chapter tagline is “championing the future of design for all,” and its stated mission is to be a touchpoint for every designer. “You don’t have to be a member,” she points out. “Your voice will be heard. We’re here with support and resources on everything from copyright law to contracts to portfolio reviews.” And yet, Panousopoulos admits that her big dream is for the AIGA to have another brick-and-mortar space where designers can once again gather and meet.

The AIGA is widening its reach by researching and responding to the ever-shifting needs of all designers—not just those who’ve historically been supported.” —Ashleigh Axios

In May 2021, David J. Leisiwal, a multimedia designer in Almere, Netherlands, posted an ad-like image headlined “Say No to Free Design!” on LinkedIn with the hashtag #respectdesign. The post garnered 7,690 likes, claps and hearts, as well as 309 responses from all over the world. John Van Dyke, who headed the influential Van Dyke Company in Seattle for 25 years, wrote: “Like most things, it’s up to individuals to establish the value of their work. When I was told I was too expensive, I asked, ‘What’s the value of a successful result?’ Too much is decided with data today. That’s where clients spend their budgets.”

“I don’t hear any public voices promoting the value of design,” McBride commented. “None. It’s all about the analytics. Our last great promoter was Steve Jobs.”

Other designers argued that it should be the role of design organizations to educate the public and promote the value of design.

Jeffrey Bauer of Giraffe, Inc. in Cincinnati offered this advice: “Stop the Design Thinking rhetoric and replace it with The Value of Design!” His response was followed by a long thread of complaints about how potential clients keep saying things like “anybody can do this in a couple of hours.”

I’ve experienced that myself. It still stings when I remember how an entrepreneur who claimed he “really wanted to work with me” got up and walked out when I quoted a fee. Over his shoulder, he called out those exact words: “Anyone can do that in a couple of hours.” What really got me is that his prior career was at IBM, the home of “good design is good business.”

Like others I interviewed, Bauer joined the AIGA while in school but later quit to join groups where he could meet potential clients—in his case, in the biotech and medical device industries. “I want to meet and pal around with the people I want to engage with. It’s silly to spend time with your competitors,” he says. “It’s a shame that organizations like the AIGA don’t engage with incubators and accelerators like JumpStart. That’s where designers could teach entrepreneurs how to make investor presentations, educate them at the beginning stages of starting a brand and show them what design can do at a much higher level than ‘we can get a logo for $5.’”

Is getting a logo for $5 or even $29.95 what clients really want? For millions of them, apparently so. According to documents led with the
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Fiverr International Ltd. has had more than 5.5 million buyers since its 2010 inception, and in 2019, it “empowered approximately 255,000 active sellers from over 160 countries” with an average sale of $205. Is that the kind of organization designers want to belong to? The premise offered—“we’ll bring you clients from around the world”—sounds appealing. But the reality can be disappointing. Some buyers have been sold work that was copied outright or purchased from a logo development platform and “customized,” perhaps with the color or name changed.

For too many buyers, though, “anyone can do this in a couple of hours” is now a standard phrase. The AIGA has a membership of 18,500 who might like to be considered for the next great design project. Shouldn’t they be recognized as the qualified “active sellers?” In addition to providing support and resources, can the kind of advertising Fiverr does—perhaps not the Super Bowl commercials—be an answer to meeting designers’ needs?

When I mentioned this to Essex, he described the Herman Miller ads in the early ’70s for its Action Office launch: “It was introduced not as beautiful furniture but as a business tool to improve productivity and performance.” I’ve seen similar full-page consumer magazine ads promoting the qualifications of members of interior design organizations that read something like this: “ASID interior designers are trained to deal with more than furnishings and finishes... They use analytical problem-solving skills that focus on your needs... We can help you find a local interior designer trained to help you balance your aspirations, functional needs and budget.”

Google the phrase “find a graphic designer near me” and you’ll be inundated with sponsored links from Upwork, Fiverr, Dribbble, 99 Designs, and a slick site called DesignerHire that poses lots of questions to match you with the kind of designer you think you need. Notably absent are the organizations for designers.

The typical answer to my questions about why designers joined or quit organizations was related to perceived value. As Tinsley says, “What are you paying for membership? What are you getting out of it?” If the answer were, “You will be listed as a qualified, experienced designer by virtue of your membership in and commitment to the principles and code of ethics of our organization,” the future of that organization—and perhaps the designer’s own future—could be bright indeed.

“The AIGA is widening its reach by researching and responding to the ever-shifting needs of all designers—not just those who’ve historically been supported,” says AIGA national president Ashleigh Axios. “We’re creating a collective future that is better because of its diversity. Designers may also join for professional development, inspiration, resources, mentorship, to find a job or to take advantage of the many other ways the AIGA helps designers navigate their careers.”

If one of those ways were communicating members’ qualifications to the design-buying public, I predict that there would be no question or argument about the value of membership. ca

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. The author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Allworth Press) and nearly 200 magazine articles about design, illustration, photography and visual culture around the world, Shapiro has been contributing to CA since 1991.

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