13 November 2006
Ric Grefe, Executive Director of AIGA
Ric Grefe, Executive Director of AIGA

Jacques Lange recently asked Ric Grefe, AIGA executive director and Icograda board member, to place AIGA's initiatives in reaching out to international communities and other disciplines in perspective, given AIGA's deep roots in graphic design and its only occasional involvement in Icograda. This article is drawn from Ric Grefe's letter to Jacques, who had expressed an interest based on the curiosity of earlier champions of Icograda.

After nearly a century representing a mainly print-focused, US-based group of designers, AIGA has spent the past several years revising its strategy to serve an increasingly diverse membership. This is represented in AIGA's new mission statement: to advance designing as a professional craft, a strategic tool and a global cultural force.

A number of messages are contained in this mission. "Designing" recognises that the value designers create is often based on the way they think and solve problems, not the things that they make. Yet we still acknowledge the craft of design: the need for it to have the ethos of a profession; its role in business strategy; and the role of its meaning, beauty and effectiveness in civic society and culture.

Our greatest challenge has been to assure that designers are understood and valued in a rapidly changing world. Our greatest concern has been that designers and professional associations of designers could become irrelevant in a global economy or community that is changing faster than we are.

As we looked at the challenges facing our predominantly US-based constituency of designers, we saw the importance of helping US designers to understand better the needs of improving communication across cultures. This may have always been evident to designers from other countries, but the sheer size of the US economy allowed US designers to work in isolation from many of the cultural differences that distinguish the world's communities. We believe all designers in the world must now understand better what is distinct about divergent cultures, as a matter of cultural relevance and economic necessity.

At the same time, the evolution of graphic design practice from the making of two-dimensional artifacts to the means of communicating messages through multi-dimensional, strategic, conceptual experiences resulted in AIGA's belief that only designers value the modifying adjectives of design disciplines (like graphic design, or environmental graphic design, or exhibition design). Clients seek "designers," broadly defined, and the highest and best use of a designer's talent depends on the way he or she solves complex problems, not bounded by the medium of the outcomes. This is also why we changed the name of AIGA from the American Institute of Graphic Arts to AIGA, the professional association for design. We discovered more of our members described themselves as something other than "graphic designer" (despite their training in graphic design) than by "graphic designer," although there was no clear and dominant new name for the profession as it is practised.

Finally, designers are concerned, universally, that they are not given the leadership roles they deserve, whether on collaborative teams or in society as a whole.

Our members reminded us that the most important contribution AIGA can play as an association is communicating the role and value of design to external audiences effectively. A critical element in our program to increase understanding of design's value is in our strategy to "demonstrate the value of design by doing valuable things."

When we considered all of these challenges, we realised that a professional association could best serve its members by becoming a voice for design and designing, regardless of discipline. We now welcome designers from many disciplines although those who find our services and functions most appropriate are those that consider themselves in the business of communication design or design thinking. This adaptation to the evolution of design is not new; it has been decades since the organisation solely represented the printers and publishers who founded AIGA in 1914. And it is not different from the observations that have led to IDA.

In order to address the issue of cross-cultural understanding, it was important for channels to be created for US designers to learn more about other cultures and, probably, the other way around. This led to AIGA's membership in Icograda and also its interest in opening means of discovery in other countries not to influence, but to look and listen. Where a liaison office is opened, it is with a local partner who has encouraged AIGA s participation.

In China, AIGA is working in partnership with the Central Academy of Fine Arts, working with Min Wang, to help to share experiences and knowledge from US educational institutions with the rapidly growing number of design education faculties and students in China. This will involve helping to interconnect the institutions and students and offering information that might be useful in preparing students for the global design economy, including the professional standards expected of designers. The AIGA China office will also facilitate contacts between US designers and educators with their colleagues in China and will create links among the US educational community and Chinese educators, at their initiative, aimed at developing curricula that will help to prepare Chinese students for the global design economy. This office will be directed by Amy Gendler, a design educator, fluent in Mandarin, who will also be teaching at CAFA.

Incidentally, as we develop contacts with the faculties and listen to what their needs might be, we will encourage them to become part of the Icograda Education Network (IEN) as a source of invaluable connections and help.

AIGA's application for consultative NGO status with the United Nations was motivated more by demonstrating the potential value of designers' contribution to complex and important social problems, well beyond the stereotypical perceptions of design's aesthetic contribution, than by greater international exposure. This role is an effort, on behalf of all designers, to seek a higher platform to herald the value of design thinking in ways that are important to other segments of society. As our members develop positions on issues on the UN agenda, we will share them with Icograda.

In each of these cases, AIGA reflects what it believes are the shared interests of Icograda and its members: to share knowledge and success, to encourage the development of the design profession locally and globally, and to raise respect for the contribution designers can make to society. AIGA's members believe this can be accomplished best by reducing the barriers that separate us to reveal the leadership potential of designers, design and design thinking in every form and society.

About Richarc Grefe

Richard Grefe
Executive director, AIGA
Icograda Vice President 2005>2007
August 2006

About AIGA
AIGA is a professional member of Icograda. For more information visit:

About CAFA
The Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) is a member of the Icograda Education Network. For more information visit: