AIGA: Graphic No More

Published on Author Christopher Fahey19 Comments

The AIGA has quietly changed their name. What used to be an acronym is apparently now just a “nym”. The letters AIGA no longer stand for anything, but the organization now stands for a lot more: a “greater recognition for design’s role in culture, civic society and business.”

I frankly think it’s a mistake for them to have made this change. By dropping “graphic”, and repositioning themselves as a professional association for “design”, they’ve both (a) diluted their own ability to focus on their core membership’s needs and (b) weakened the development of the specific and noble profession of graphic design. These days “design”, as we in this industry particularly know, means pretty much whatever anyone wants it to mean: The famous Emigre slogan that “design is a good idea” sounds great on a t-shirt, but the term “designer” without a qualifier is not a real job or professional field of study unless you’re Steve Jobs or some similar professionally transcendant being.


Presumably the AIGA intended to open their doors a little bit to include interaction designers, information designers, exhibition designers, and other fields that graphic designers have a close affinity with. But do they also mean to include fashion designers, landscape architects, interior decorators, industrial designers? Software designers? Network designers? Business process designers?

I know they mean well, but I just don’t have a good feeling about it. Perhaps it’s because, as I’ve noted, I feel like we have just emerged from a decade during which the term “graphic designer” was unjustly viewed as a perjorative term. Graphic designers are looking back at their history again, without shame. Must the AIGA buy into the unfair vilification of the term, especially now that the cloud is passing?

I also see it as ultimately a superficial change, more trendy than substantive. (Note also that they’ve removed the terms “American” and “Arts” from their name, two other qualities that I imagine are still pretty integral to their mission.)

Who knows, maybe in a few years they’ll issue Retro-AIGA jerseys, or “AIGA Classic” membership plans.

19 Responses to AIGA: Graphic No More

  1. Interesting point, and I agree with much of what you say, however, it’s worth remembering that many of those whom graphic designers regard as the godfathers of the discipline(Gropius, Morris, Rietvelt etc) were often engaged in many different areas of design. They also had wider intentions in their work too, seeking to actively change society with their creations and their processes. In some respect, perhaps things are merely coming full circle.

  2. Sam: It’s interesting to look back to the origins of modern design culture for some context. But I should clarify: I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing to have a broad and holistic view of Design as a conceptual approach to building things for society and culture. I think all designers should think this way, and should not be limited to just their sub-discipline. Graphic designers should be very actively involved in other design and design-related disciplines, from fashion to business.

    The Bauhaus was design school that taught a expansive range of design disciplines, from theatrical design to textiles… but the school had separate classes for each discipline. Like a Bauhaus class, the AIGA used to specialize in a single discipline, graphic design. And they’ve already done a great job in helping designers get involved in other non-graphic-design areas, from business to environmental issues. They’ve shown that it’s possible to advocate for and help graphic designers while simultaneously encouraging and supporting design knowledge outside of graphic design.

    Still, you’ve given me food for thought. Perhaps the AIGA will start to expand more radically, adding broad new disciplines and tens of thousands of new members in the worlds of, say, interior design and sound design. Maybe they’ll add board members from the industrial design and fashion industries.

    The Teamsters Union, for example, represents a lot more these days than the horse-cart drivers they were founded for. Perhaps the AIGA is going that way, maybe they’ll start to merge with other design guilds. That would be pretty amazing, but I suspect that in reality they’ll basically continue to represent the field of graphic design. I hope I’m wrong.

  3. While i agree with your point of the sadness of the loss of the graphic design idenity. I think it is also important to note that graphic design is a part of both interactive design, useability design, and Information design.

    The issue i worry about is what is the role of a graphic designer. Were are the design firms of old. I was having a talk with a good friend of mine about the new role of ADVERTISING as the new so called designers. And well just how scary that is. I think that is an important issue that exists. This idea that an Ad firm is a design firm and that A GD firm is not needed anymore. Scares me to the core.

  4. it is also important to note that graphic design is a part of both interactive design, useability design, and Information design

    Excellent point. Graphic design (and the AIGA) is fully relevant to, indeed is an integral part of, a thousand related industries and fields of study. Again, I suspect the AIGA’s name change may be a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.

    Regarding advertising, well, ad agencies have been the primary employer of graphic designers for all of the history of both graphic design and advertising. They’re inseperable. Whether the graphic designers work for the agency directly or if they’re a separate graphic-design consultancy doesn’t seem to me to be a problem either way.

  5. Who gives a shit. I associate AIGA with the hacks at my old school who are still scrambling to find work a year after graduation. I dont care what people think of the title of my profession. My checks clear, and my job is fun. Fuck it.

  6. I am a long-standing member of AIGA, and have never been a graphic designer. I don’t really care what the name is, altho I certainly understand how many people might feel excluded by a name that remains too specific for a field that is no longer specific. There are high level meetings going on between AIGA, APDF, ASID, ISDA. AAAA etc. to find common ground and join on important lobbying efforts. All the lines are blurring, which is a result of a changing world (read The World is Flat). I see AIGA as a group of communicators, using various mediums and media. And it’s not all graphic. We DO all share many issues from copyright ownership to healthcare to professional ethics. It’s a good thing (sorry Martha).

  7. Trolls: The degree of hostility some trolls feel towards the AIGA is really sad. My assumption is that you are young designers (brought here by k10k) whose understanding of your careers and the bigger world of design has not yet fully matured. You will either (a) grow up and understand that the AIGA is not your enemy, or (b) remain closed-minded trolls and eventually settle in to a mediocre design career, or (c) quit design entirely.

    Karl: I am not a graphic designer, but I’ve never felt like the AIGA’s focus on graphic design was a bad thing. I am an interaction designer, but I know that graphic design is part of my field and that interaction design is part of graphic design. Your point about healthcare and professional ethics is great, though, and a holistic design organization may be a good thing for designers of all stripes.

    The trolls can go on with their careers, with some strong protections from getting exploited and ripped off by clients and employers, with no notion of the thanks they owe to the AIGA. My fear is that the AIGA’s name change was intended, in part, to pander to these ingrates.

  8. OK slightly OT, but what do you mean on ‘we have just emerged from a decade during which the term “graphic designer” was unjustly viewed as a perjorative term’. Where was this term pejorative and why? In the US?

  9. Sebhelyesfarku: In almost every web development company I’ve ever known (in the US, at least), from about 1995 to about 2-3 years ago, people who identified themselves as “graphic designers” were looked down on by designers who specialized in web-specific design. Designers who learned how to design for the web took great delight in insulting other designers for being old-fashioned print-centric graphic designers (even though many of them had been designing for print only a year or two before). See Grape Soda’s comment above for a hint of what I’m talking about. These new-media designers, and their employers, went out of their way to give them titles other than “graphic designer”: “UI designer”, “visual designer”, “web designer”, etc. Anything but “graphic designer”, it seemed.

  10. You definitely bring up a good point but as others seem to allude to, to stop at the graphic side of design is really selling design short. I agree, it brings less focus to the AIGA, but is that so bad? Honestly, can anyone define graphic design in one sentence? I think that the ambiguity of design in general lends itself to ambiguous definitions. Perhaps that is one reason for the move.

    However, as Grape Soda, monkeynuts and Craig T have so un-elloquently said, it seems many do not care one way or the other.

  11. I see. In the context of new media was ‘graphic designer’ pejorative. Interesting I read somewhere that after the .com bubble ‘web designer’ was a term with somewhat damaged reputation… Sic transit gloria mundi.

  12. Here in Germany, where academic degrees are named and defined by the state, the name of the discipline was “officially” changed to “Kommunikationsdesign” (design of communications). It was done so because the term “Grafik Design” was abused to often for to many different things. I am not sure, really. So if you go to university to study graphic design you can obtain your degree in “Kommunikationsdesign”, on a lower level you can get a governmental approved certificate as a “Mediengestalter” (which is a german term for “designer of media”).


    The first name for our profession found in the annals of written history is called “Gebrauchsgrafiker” (graphician for applied graphical stuff), in the sixties of the last century it was changed to “Grafik-Designer” and remainded so until in the late nineties were it changed to “Kommunikationsdesign” finaly.

    In Germany we have a broad set of professions protected by the state. For instance, if you want to open a bakery-shop you first have to get the govermental certificate (like “Mediengestalter” above) which means working for a bakery and going to college for three years. It’s a system to ensure quality in training. However, anyone can call himself “Kommunikationsdesigner” or Grafikdesigner or whatever… the term is not protected anyway. In add-agencies you often start as junior-art-director, so you’ll never ever call yourself a designer…

    What does this all mean? I don’t know anymore. :-)

  13. “Designers who learned how to design for the web took great delight in insulting other designers for being old-fashioned print-centric graphic designers.”

    This whole thing worked both ways though as you had print people who utterly refused to learn about the web as a medium and instead would design things like large areas of graphical text or who assumed that anyone without a BFA was “not cut out to be a *real* designer” [actual quote from an art director at a major branding agency to me, age 22]. The complications of high-end print work also lead to people being reluctant to change their workflow or equipment and also contributes to the stereotype of print folks being “conservative”.

    On the other hand there’s the fact that the web is quite possibly the worst visual design medium man has ever invented and you had a lot of people who thought that there was nothing to learn from the past. That was a brief and annoying period and I’m glad it’s over.

    The thing for me is that I’ve been a designer for 12 years and I’ve never felt a compunction to join the AGIA or any other professional groups for that matter because I never got a good idea of the value or that the membership would actually be a pool of people I’d truly benefit from associating myself with. It’s nothing against them, it’s just never seemed like a good match for me. Maybe this repositioning will help them but they could do a lot better by truly reaching out to young designers in meaningful ways better.

  14. Hey I just think: AIGA owns a nice big building in NYC- aligns itself with Aquent (why do graphic designers need to kiss up to headhunters?) and generally has bloated up like an old sausage. Too many oldsters at the top.
    If you want to get into the “awards contest” business- you should join. Send in your checks- submit stuff for their approval. Maybe you’ll “win!”
    If you want insurance, get together with other designers- and form your own group. Because AIGA doesnt provide insurance – it is too expensive- I’m suuuure.

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