The Four Ways AIGA Can Change The World

In a recent statement from the AIGA (the largest professional design organization in the world), it was made clear that the organization has a commitment to social justice. Further, on July 26, 2016, the organization will be holding a virtual town hall meeting to discuss matters of Racial Justice. As I enter my third year on the Advisory Board for the Los Angeles chapter, and as a long-time advocate for social design practices, I feel the need to contribute to the conversation by providing 4 ideas to help the AIGA, our members, and I, walk the walk. 

1. Extend Design for Good Initiatives and Define Pro-Bono Service as a Requirement for Membership.

Pro-bono (which is short for pro bono publico: “for the good of the public”), has roots that are set deeply within the legal industry, traceable to years as early as 1876. “Civil legal aid,” as it is referred to, began when the German Society of New York launched an organization that had the specific goal of protecting recent German immigrants from exploitation in the states. The dedication to leverage legal aid as a means to protect those who could not access protection was soon extended well outside of the German immigrant population and eventually the Legal Aid Society of New York was founded in 1890.

Legal activist, Reginald Heber Smith, in 1919, wrote a text titled “Justice and the Poor” that was crucial in the advancement of thought leadership around the necessity of pro-bono, eventually inspiring the American Bar Association to create the minimum pro-bono obligations that students and practitioners today uphold in their respective practices. Pro-bono soon became prevalent in fields outside of the legal industry, but it has yet to be seen as an obligation - or right of passage in any other industry. What if AIGA required every member to complete a pro-bono project for the cause of their choice? Pro-bono work is especially critical for designers to engage in. Every year, in the United States alone, nonprofit organizations will spend upwards of $8,000,000,000 on people who offer the services AIGA members provide: design and marketing. This is deeply frustrating due to the incredible potential a monetary value like that could have, if allocated toward the cause itself. Just imagine what a spare 8 billion dollars could accomplish... by engaging in pro-bono service, then, designers can help solve some of the world's most persistent problems.

2. Demand Equal Representation Across All Chapter Boards and Event Programming.

Among the many important dialogues that the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked in our society is around the need for a more holistic diversity. In corporate marketing and strategic practices, we see an underwhelming stab at equal representation that is often limited to making decisions around who is in the photograph on the cover of a brochure. This is not enough, because in reality, diversity is not about who is on the banner of a website, but instead it is about designing for relevance by integrating an approach to design that does not assume a one-size-fits-all solution. An attempt to be all things to all people is dangerous.

The good news? Human-Centered Design practices accomplish this by inspiring designers to design with their audience instead of for their audience. Put simply, a board room full of white people simply cannot design a successful event or initiative for black people. In my mind, this is one of the critical messages of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the reason saying "All Lives Matter" is so controversial. Of course all lives matter, that's not the point. The point is that the experience of each life is drastically different than the other. As designers we should know this already. What woks for one person does not work for another person. It's experience design 101. Very often, AIGA's attempts at attracting a more diverse membership stops at ensuring an event has a diverse panel. While this is an important step in the right direction, there is more to be done. So what can AIGA do about this? It's simple: Inspire local chapters to build boards that better represent the world. In doing so, and by inviting diverse communities to design events with us, we can achieve relevance in the content we put out, and can pave the way for a more systemic approach to building a diverse membership.

3. Leverage Student Groups As Catalysts for a New Grassroots Movement in Design-Driven Social Impact.

During any election cycle, we are reminded of the power of grassroots. Students, especially, are on the front-lines of energy and excitement for rallying together mass groups of virtual/physical communities to create impact. A quick search on Google brings to the forefront several critical social movements throughout history that were elevated due to the tireless work of activists on college campuses across the country:

  • University of Michigan Teach-In, advocating against the war in Vietnam
  • The Berkeley Free Speech Movement, fighting for the rights of students across the country
  • Protests for Gay Rights, primarily taking place on campuses (800 organizations by 1973)
  • Emma Sulkowicz, driving national awareness against sexual assault by carrying a mattress

So what is AIGA's on-campus movement? As an organization, we need to recognize that our student chapters are more than just a formality. Instead, these incredible students have the potential for generating significant impact in both design, and the world. Yes, students still need programming around career and portfolio development, but they are also capable of much much more. We must reflect upon the tools and resources we can give our students to empower their inclination toward activism and social impact. How can the AIGA see its student chapters as assets and allies in driving social change? Again, we need to treat our students as peers. We need to take their perspectives seriously.

4. Inspire the Design Industry At-Large to Solve the Right Problems by Becoming More Preemptive.

In my new book (launching August 1st, 2016), Toward a Preemptive Social Enterprise, I write about the necessity for social entrepreneurs to move from a practice that is motivated by reaction to one that is informed by preemption. From the back cover: "Social entrepreneurship is almost always too late. As practitioners of social enterprise, we hold the assumption that our responsibility is to exclusively act post-crisis in order to gradually chip away at a persistent problem, or to maintain a state of peace. The art of reaction is necessary, but the expectation of post-traumatic innovation as the singular starting point for an entire industry is limiting. What if social enterprise was also responsible for preemption? What if social entrepreneurs were also futurists? This is the message of our manifesto."

I would like to extend the message of this anthology to the design industry, and in the context of AIGA, I want to challenge us all to reflect deeply on our practices. Are we limiting ourselves to reaction? Are we solving the right problems? We must realize that our job does not end at the printing of a poster, or the launch of a website. We must, instead, recognize that our responsibility is to design the world we want to inhabit. This takes time, energy, people, devotion, and passion. The good news? AIGA, and its members, have that. AIGA can make that happen. By integrating more content and programming that is centered around systems design, business design, and design futures, we can arm our members with the skills needed to balance traditional design practices with long-term, critical thinking.

Changing the world takes time, and this list of suggestions is in no way exhaustive, but this is a place to start. In writing this post, I challenge the national leadership to consider how, before the end of 2016, we can begin to prototype a new AIGA – one that is even more giving, diverse, grassroots, and preemptive. One that is an example for the industry to continue to take pride in following.