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In the nine months since I became AIGA national president I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of visiting more than a dozen AIGA chapters and student groups in design communities as rich and wide-ranging as San Francisco, Oklahoma City, Washington DC, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. On these visits I’ve spoken to hundreds of designers about what they are seeing and experiencing in the profession, and what they are looking for in a professional association. As you can imagine, these conversations are as diverse, passionate and nuanced as the AIGA membership itself, yet most of the questions I’ve heard can be grouped into three general categories: “How can I make the case for the value of design to my clients and potential clients in the midst of a challenging economy?” “How can I continue to build my skills to remain relevant in a shifting and fiercely competitive job market?” and, from many designers at the beginning of their career, “How can I build my career by doing work that I am passionate about, and that makes the world around me a better place?”

For me, these three questions symbolize the complexity of our profession during this dynamic time of change, and as a working designer with an independent practice, these are questions I find myself asking often.

So how does a membership organization with a rich 100-year history and scarce resources respond to the changing needs of its constituency? This is the central question I’ve been asked to help answer during my term as president. In 2009, the AIGA leadership—led by a previous president and board—took a bold step in addressing this question by developing and launching a strategic vision for AIGA that reflected the current realities of the profession and world based on direct input from our members. In collaboration with our remarkably talented and dedicated 15-member board and staff, I’ve been working to respond to this call for change and implement this vision—a responsibility I take very seriously and am deeply humbled by.

A recent opinion piece on a design blog by AIGA medalist Paula Scher was highly critical of this “new AIGA,” specifically using the AIGA Justified design competition as evidence that the organization has lost its way and abandoned all interest in celebrating design excellence. In her piece, Paula connects the failings of AIGA to me personally in a baffling rant that includes claims about cutting down trees and endangered species (design Darwin-ism?). I have been an admirer of Paula Scher’s design work for many years, and I have an appreciation for the broad point of view she is expressing in this blog post. I believe strongly that we must find a balance between striving for our ambitious vision of change and honoring our cherished history. However, to single me out by name in this article and suggest that I have “mowed down” a valued AIGA program is profoundly inaccurate, insensitive, and inflammatory. The courtesy of a phone call before publishing such a statement would surely have resulted in a better understanding of my point of view and a more balanced view of this important issue, but apparently that was not the intent. Instead the tone of this piece has reduced a valid debate to the level of a cable news talk show where fact is obscured by rhetoric.

While I’m tempted to engage in a tit-for-tat response to Paula’s claim, frankly I’ve got work to do today so I’m going to keep this at a high level. I’ll refer readers to Ric Grefé’s thoughtful contribution to the comment stream of Paula’s post for a more detailed articulation of AIGA strategy. Suffice it to say that AIGA has taken many forms over our 100 year history, in fact Paula gives an overview of the many past AIGA design competitions in her post. What this tells me is that AIGA has always been willing to reinvent our competitions and other programming to match the evolving context of the time. I’m not sure if we have fully succeeded with Justified, but I believe it is a valid reflection of the complex time in which our members are living and working, and a strong response to the feedback we have received.

I look forward to continuing the vigorous and respectful discussion of design, professional, and cultural issues I’ve had with so many AIGA members during the rest of my term as AIGA president and beyond.

I hope you will join me later this month as AIGA will celebrate excellence in design by honoring the 2012 class of medalists: Ralph Caplan, Elaine Lustig Cohen, Armin Hofmann, and Bob Vogele at our annual gala: Bright Lights. As we approach the centennial of AIGA in 2014, we must continue to reflect on the richness of our shared past while tapping the immense creativity of our nearly 22,000 members to envision design in the next hundred years.

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