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It didn't seem all that long ago when I first became a member of AIGA. It was 1980 and I had just graduated from Art Center and moved New York City to work. I attended an AIGA gathering honoring that years' medallist Herb Lubalin, a celebration held in a meeting hall near Wall Street that was decked with Rembrandt-esque banker's portraits. The attendees were dressed in 50 shades of designer's black. Maybe it was the cocktails, the slide show, the speeches, or the good-natured toasts by Lubalin's friends, but I remember leaving the event wanting to be part of this community who cared about their craft, supported each other's challenges and celebrated each other's accomplishments. I knew then as I do now, I made the right choice.
Over the years, through good economic times as well as bad, the AIGA in big and little ways has always provided me with guidance and knowledge on being a better practitioner. Its conferences, competitions, publications, and seminars have provided a sense of continuity with the past and a source of inspiration for things to come. It's also been a place to introduce me to people whom also share a life-long passion about the history, the craft, and the role design plays in shaping the world around us.
As I begin to think about the responsibilities and the role of president this past month, the following questions seem most important. Where is the design profession going and what should we be doing to prepare ourselves to be valuable contributors? With the economic downturn, what are the issues and priorities we must focus on? What things give value and meaning to membership now and in the future? Why isn't our membership larger? How do we continue to nurture, inspire and instigate intelligent discourse on design? Where are our blind spots? What initiatives must we champion? More importantly, how do we bring forward the great and meaningful aspects of design so they lend relevance to the present and carve a place for us in the future?
Having served on the national board twice over the last 20-plus years of my career, these questions are not new to me. They do, however, take on different meaning and priority with every economic, social and/or technological change. These changes continually alter WHAT we design and HOW we practice and create designs. Every two or three years we revisit and question the directions of our profession with a new president. It is with this perspective I will engage, listen to and to serve the AIGA community.
How are we doing?
As a community of practitioners, we are more diverse in our backgrounds, training, practice, and age. There are more design practitioners in more fields of design in more locales doing agenda-setting work then there's ever been in the history of American graphic design. As our number grows, we've become a voice to be listened to. Design is no longer a craft practiced by the elite for the elite. Our work is recognized as a part of the mainstream culture. Though everywhere, we are still nowhere. Our voices are fragmented and often contradictory, and despite our size and numbers and our role in bringing ideas to life, we have not been able to leverage the insights and wisdom. What can we do to make sure we learn from each other to make ourselves better practitioners?
Driven in part by the economy and technological changes, the design profession underwent multiple major transformations. In the late 80's, desktop publishing caused great anxiety for printers, typographers, and designers alike. For many, it's difficult to even recall a time when type was reviewed in galleys from a typesetting house. Most recently, the Internet forced many designers to correspond, present and/or deliver work electronically. More importantly our sphere of design influence is no longer limited by time and distance. Communication among our peers, whether they are in Lincoln, Nebraska or midtown Manhattan is seconds and clicks away. The implications of all these things will alter our craft and our practice is just beginning to be played out.
These changes alter what, how, and why we design. To date, our profession has reacted instead of anticipating and shaping the changes. I want to help find a way to make sure we are ready to play when the next changes come.
Three Things: Context, Tools, and Direction
To begin, we have to recognize the world of design is infinitely more complex than it used to be. Clients, designers, users, and viewers are all playing new roles. The boundaries of these roles and what's considered as design, at best, blurred. Anyone with a computer and graphics software can label themselves a designer and they do. The burden is now placed on the seasoned, trained designers to demonstrate the ideals of our profession. We, in our unique and special ways, manage to fumble our way through this with mixed successes.
The channels through which communications are delivered are fragmented and varied. Solutions are often a buffet of infinite choices that clutter to an attention deficient audience. More often than not, figuring out what design problem to solve and which one is the right is much harder and more time consuming. Raw talent alone is not enough to ensure a designer's ability to practice his or her craft. Designers now need to have street- and business-intelligence in order to be more than a pair of hands. We tend to focus our attention on the problem at hand rather than what could be. It's time to harness the passion, vigor, knowledge, and commitment of this incredible of community of designers.
Being the change-junkie that I am, I will instigate, cajole, challenge and engage this community in a dialogue that will move forward defining a future for us. I will look into strengthening our programs and support in the professional practices area — education outreach and mentorship, partnerships, and alliances with allied professions and organizations; but also standard contracts, intellectual property agreements, compensation models, legal advocacy, and training. Lastly, and perhaps most important, continue to make AIGA be the place where stimulating and inspiration thinking about design occurs.
My career to date was perhaps the dress rehearsal for this new role as AIGA president. I expect to have to wear many hats and play many roles. There will be decisions with which you will agree and disagree. I trust that you will let me know and provide constructive suggestions on how to make the experience and the value of being a member better.
I encourage you to give these statements some thought and send me suggestions. I will work with the board, chapter leadership, our director, Ric Grefe, and the ever-capable national staff to make sure AIGA is an institution that help us bring forward our past, make our present relevant, and the future a place that we define.
Clement Mok, President
Use with permission granted by AIGA
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