Design is Confused (But Perhaps Less So Now)

The AIGA is a professional organization for graphic designers and illustrators. I signed up to be a member so I could participate in the annual Philadelphia “studio tours,” where you get to visit local design studios to see what they’re all about. (It has been a good experience for me, these last two years, but that is a story for another day. Was nice to compare the international ad firm with the company that does work for nonprofits.)

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in design and you’ve been keeping up with my recent musings about graphic design and art, you may be interested in what the AIGA newsletter has to say about a recent name change:

AIGA has changed its official name from “American Institute of Graphic Arts” to “AIGA, the professional association for design.”

This change results from continuous recommendations from members over the past decade (and more) in search for a name that reflected the evolution of the profession from its earliest roots in graphic arts. Despite the desire for a name that was more inclusive, there is also a strong interest in retaining the legacy of AIGA. This resolution aims to address both interests. Now it is time for us to move together to give solid equity to the promise of this new identity.

IBM, AARP, MCI, ESPN, CSPAN and others have discarded their names and moved to using an acronym because as they grew, their businesses encompassed much more than their names indicated. We are in the same position. AIGA came into being before the term “graphic design” was even coined, and represented various disciplines throughout its history. By using the acronym and the descriptor both internally and externally to the profession, we can be clear that we represent a profession and that profession is broadly defined.

In this new form, if one is asked what AIGA stands for, the answer is evident: “the professional association for design.” This is actually a clearer answer than “The American Institute of Graphic Arts.” You do not need to explain literally what the initials stand for; no one explains what the initials ESPN or MCI stand for.

We encourage active members to join many of your colleagues in using the initials “AIGA” after your name in email signatures, business cards, etc., to show your support of the profession and your commitment to the standards for professional practice.

On the one hand, I want to applaud the AIGA for making a deliberate move away from the “artsy” definition of graphic design and toward something a little more representative of what it is that (most) graphic designers are actually paid to do. On the other hand, I think the AIGA is seriously kidding itself if it thinks that those initials have the same kind of clout and name-recognition as IBM, ESPN, or even KFC for that matter. Not that I think that’s a big problem; I mean, if you’re not a designer yourself, do you really care? I know that some dairy farmers trade group commissioned the “Got Milk?” campaign, but it doesn’t really matter to me what its name is.

Though, as given my own interest in design, I think it’s interesting that the “Got Milk?” campaign is nationally known and constantly ripped off but didn’t really do much to boost dairy farmers’ profits, as I hear it. Which goes to show you: Looking successful and professional isn’t nearly as important as bringing about actual results. So while the AIGA name change in itself may be ignored by the world at large, I’ll assume that this is indeed a reflection of how AIGA members view their profession, and I’ll be particularly interested to see if this has an impact on how students approach design.

Speak Up has another comment on this name change, echoing some of the points here and also pointing out that the new name unhelpfully evokes a broader variety of types of design (like industrial, interior, fashion, etc.).