clement mok home  |  on record  |  career  |  musings
« Back Success Secrets of the Graphic Design Superstar 
On Record 10/20/2003
GK VanPatter and Clement Mok
NextD Journal 2.0

Related Links

GK VanPatter: Thanks so much for agreeing to participate in this series Clement. We see you out there trying to bring change to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) organization. Your recent essay "Time for Change / What the future requires of the design profession?" which appeared in the recent issue of Communication Arts Magazine (May 2003) was of particular interest to us. Why did you decide to write that piece now? What has been the reaction in the community to Time for Change and to what you are doing to transform the AIGA?

Clement Mok: There was this big elephant in the room and no one would admit it’s there. We blamed it on technology, on morally challenged clients, on the economy and the Internet bubble. The problem that we have ourselves to blame was never articulated and it seemed puzzling to me. The overall reactions have been positive. Many have written thanking me for stating the obvious.

I’ve been an AIGA member throughout my professional career and it has always been an institution that I look to for my professional growth and validation. I was amused initially when the design community was dragged kicking and screaming into the wired digital economy. Instead of embracing this brave new world and trying to learn the consequences and potentials, many practitioners complained about the displacement and disruption without assessing any course correction. They just complained about being victimized.

I joined the AIGA national board twice, in 1989 and 1998, with the hope to find ways to engage the community on a discourse about the impact the emerging communication technologies is having on the profession. My first attempt in 1989 focused on the new tools and how they change “what we design”. During my second tenure (on the board) starting in 1998, I focused on how the new technologies change “how we design”. Both efforts brought awareness to the issues but it was not enough to cause seismic changes.

So what’s the challenge? For me, it’s the lack of the profession’s willingness to make behavioral and structural change to ensure the future health of the profession – new skills and new way of practicing to stay relevant. In other words, a different playbook! It’s important to be able to take action on an idea and make it pervasive, otherwise it’s just a theory and it will have little impact or value.

My experience at Sapient taught me about the importance of a disciplined approach in mainstreaming and operationalizing a strategy. And that’s precisely what I’ve been working on as the president of AIGA these last two years – identify and clarify an agenda for the profession, create a roadmap and a process, and incite support and provide the tools/infrastructure. Perhaps the most significant shift is getting the organization to focus on designing instead of just design. It’s a seismic shift for the organization and it will require time for our members to understand the nuance and difference with such a move. More of the specifics can be found on the AIGA website.


GK VanPatter: Was the intention to advocate a rethink of graphic design, the traditional focus of the AIGA organization, or is Time for Change recommending in a broader sense, a rethink of design in general?

Clement Mok: The agenda during my first tenure on the board was about connecting the graphic design profession with the opportunities instigated by the digitization of media. When I returned to be on the board the second time, I realized many graphic designers were not making the necessary shift to stay current and be relevant. Many perceived the disruptive forces of the Internet as just a technology fad having minimal impact on the fundamentals of the design profession. Many grudgingly offered web design services without making the necessary investment to truly understand the medium. The Advance for Design initiative was an attempt to broaden the discourse and connect the graphic design community to allied disciplines who too had a vested interest in a broader definition of design. The issues and insights gained from the Advance informed many challenges and issues I needed to deal with during my tenure as president.

The Time for Change article was written to validate the perception many designers were already experiencing. Instead of adding more fuel to the chorus of articles about the glass being half-empty, I felt it was important to address the challenge through the lens of being half-full. Enough of feeling being victimized! Let's recognize the mistakes and move on.


GK VanPatter: I want to ask you more about the elephant in the living room phenomenon that you mentioned earlier but before we get to that let me touch on something more broad. You and I both know that there are many possible ways to instigate change. Among the most complicated and messy is trying to change an existing organization. In contrast, creating a new route that leaves existing systems unchallenged and untouched is known to be simpler. Help us understand why you felt it was important to take the route that you took. What was it about the AIGA organization that made you want to take that on? Knowing what you know now, would you choose the same route today?

Clement Mok: I might be wrong, but there is a tone in the questions that suggest that somehow AIGA is both a monolith with stubborn habits and that AIGA is the audience for my efforts. Let me explain why this might not be the case. The article is for the entire design profession and AIGA is in fact taking steps in advancing the case. This is in fact not a new role for AIGA. AIGA started as type designers, book designers and printers. Yet it has adapted to editorial design, graphic design, corporate identity, brand experience, interaction design and motion graphics. It has adapted more successfully over 90 years than any other organization in the design field.

The ambition to shift AIGA to an organization about design and designing will not be an easy one. I think it will require many different tactics from top-down to bottom-up efforts in explicit as well as subversive ways.

I agree with your assessment that making a course correction for the Titanic is messy and hard to do. Creating a new system unencumbered by the past seemed like the obvious solution. But there have been numerous attempts in the past that might also suggest this might not be as easy as it seems. Getting critical mass and building an infrastructure support to mainstream the idea is equally challenging and messy as well. The Worldesign Foundation and ACD (American Center for Design) have tried; they are no longer in existence. Either way it’s about herding cats; the question is about size and where you start. I don’t believe either approach is mutually exclusive.

The article would suggest that I had decided to take on changing AIGA overnight when in fact the seeds of this endeavor were planted years ago. In fact, the Advance for Design (A4D) effort was about developing a new community of practitioners who were making this transition. It was definitely about doing a “reboot” and starting something new. (See the attached manifesto from the first A4D summit in 1998) The idea was to nurture this community and infect the rest of the organization like a virus.

The Nantucket Manifesto:

The revolution is over. We are faced with the task of building a new approach to design, which yields useful, useable, and desirable products for people. We seek to provide a structure in which new design practitioners can work with confidence, modesty, and wisdom. If design is art with consequences, we have a responsibility to respect our power to delight or confuse, facilitate or impede, corrupt or purify. Together, we commit to our fellows-colleagues, clients, and community of use to define the goals of new design, the roles and responsibilities of new designers, the organizations in which new design can flourish, and the process through which new design can reach and reward our world.

The bifurcation strategy of leveraging A4D has and has not worked. The breadth of this community’s interests and goals meant that we could not service and support specific issues of any discipline in a meaningful way. The “Not Invented Here” syndrome and the “AIGA” moniker continue to be a major roadblock to get traction. Often it’s not what we say but rather what we do that will change hearts and mind. I think we are getting there but we have not hit or found the “tipping point”.

There are now over 1100 members on the AIGA Experience Design (ED) group list with postings daily. The Design for User Experience (DUX) was a joint conference between CHI (Computer and Human Interaction group, a SIG of ACM) and AIGA. It looks like we will be doing this conference again two years from now. We also started two initiatives: 1) to document the best practice of this new emerging profession 2) develop a taxonomy or framework to help articulate the value of designing (read ROI for design). It’s not perfect. Progress has been slow but at the very lease we are heading in the right direction.

The current push to engage the general AIGA member to rethink design is our attempt to mainstream the issues brought forth by the ED community. The recession provided the perfect window of opportunity for us to inflect and ask many hard questions and perhaps challenge many graphic design’s sacred cows and assumptions. People are just more ready to listen and willing to engage and help.

Skip Sagar, my mentor and a trained cyberneticist, once told me “Complex problems require equally complex solutions.” Cultural and behavioral change is a complex problem and requires time. To think that there’s a silver bullet to solve this problem would be foolish. The problem is systemic hence it will require a systemic solution with all parts working — maybe not in unison but working. It means going to bat often, try new things, learn from the effort and try again. This is not a new problem or a problem that’s not been tackled by brilliant minds. In my study of the prior efforts, it seemed to me that there wasn’t the discipline or focus to mainstream the insights and urge others to reinvent.

Would I do this differently knowing what I know now? No. I just wish we’d engaged with the design education community earlier. All great efforts we undertake can be undermined if we ignore this constituent.


GK VanPatter: It will be interesting to see how that mainstreaming idea works. I think the central challenge for AIGA is that by name it remains a vertically focused organization in an era when the primary manner of working is increasingly across disciplines. Lets also acknowledge that today there are many people working outside of graphic design who consider themselves to be in the design industries. In fact I would guess that the majority of those practicing design today are not graphic designers. Certainly we find that many of the most progressive thinkers on the subject of the future of “design” can be found in other disciplines.

Earlier you made reference to a “chorus of articles about the glass being half-empty”. Lets return to that for a moment. Here at NextD our perspective on chorus was quite different. What we saw was a chorus focused on the issue of design recognition rather than reinvention. What we became concerned about was the continuing tendency in the community to re-spin design rather than come to terms with the need to reinvent it. There are many who seem to still believe that the problems with design are simply a matter of a lack of recognition. Following that logic we often see the industry promo machines go into full spin mode. That was one of our concerns with the launch of the Power of Design Conference. All of a sudden designers were going to move from poster design to taking on world peace and apparently quite effortlessly without having to learn any new skills at all! We felt that chorus sent a completely wrong message to our design education institutions, among others. We believe that pursuing recognition without reinvention is a denial of that elephant in the living room that you were referring to earlier and a recipe for getting no where fast.

Speaking of that elephant. I wonder if the beast has now been rendered fully visible. As I look closely at Time For Change I could not help but wonder if Clement Mok pulled a few punches there in the interest of tact or political correctness. For instance there are few references to the very real need for designers to learn new skills before tackling world peace size challenges. There are few references to the need to learn how to work across disciplines in order to be able to address such challenges. Of all the design disciplines, graphic design in particular needs to hear that message loud and clear. Design Educators need to hear that message loud and clear. Is it that you were constrained by space or was there some concern that this kind of clarity would make the Time For Change message more objectionable to the powers that be in the graphic design community? Come on Clement. You can tell us. There must have been a few poignant points that you wanted to include that did not make it into the final draft. From your perspective today, what is missing from the Time For Change document?

Clement Mok: We are certainly aware of the AIGA name being an inaccurate descriptor of what we are and perhaps what we want to become. There have been heated debates about a name change but until we can substantiate the claim to be different than whom we really are, it will just be an exercise in ‘reality distortion’.

I agree the trend in design is increasingly cross-disciplinary. In business, collaboration between disciplines and industries has been demonstrated as a way to create differentiation. We are also on the same page in believing that many outside of the design professions (graphics, product, environmental, software…etc.) design. Their domain and tacit knowledge in ethnography, economics, business administration, manufacturing, governance and policies contributes to the design process. The top design practitioners acknowledge this and often they are living exemplars of what is required of future professionals — deep domain knowledge of discipline(s) with the ability to contribute, collaborate and provide strategic point of view on big “D” problems.

We recognize it’s hard to make this transition without investing resources, developing tools and infrastructure to enable this required new learning. The question then boils down to 1.) what things we can take action on now and 2.) what things we need to set in motion now so that we can leverage and take advantage of later.

For the time being, it’s important for AIGA to be grounded on what it does best— be the authoritative voice for the communication design profession and all the professions involved in that. It’s something we can take action on now. There’s a need for it and if AIGA doesn’t do this, no one else will. This is true for all professional organizations. This is not to say we will be complacent. We are now aggressively helping our members to rethink our role in a wired and connected world. The Harvard executive program, which I just attended, is an example of this new focus effort. Documenting our best practice is another. We are in the beginning stage of creating the strong foundation that’s necessary in moving forward.

We also don’t want to repeat the mistake ACD made in confusing practitioners’ aspirations with organization goals and core competencies. ACD made the leap to address design in the broader context almost 10 years ago. They shifted their core competencies regarding best practices to an organization about new ideas and inventions. Their members were not ready for this shift. It alienated many and their membership dropped from 3000 to roughly 300. In order to survive, ACD was forced to be in the conference business — an organization based on transaction not relationship. They no longer exist.

What should we be doing in parallel to make sure we don’t become too insular? We are in the formative stage of creating the American Design Council— an initiative to bring other professional organization into the conversation under one-tent and develop an agenda that we can collectively advance on without any one discipline’s biases. Stay tune on this one.

Let’s turn to my earlier comment about “the chorus of articles about the glass being half-empty”. Your assessment of the empty glass being focused on design recognition is astute and right on. I believe this is a symptom of the profession’s lack of self-esteem. It’s particular acute with graphic design but I also see this behavior with industrial designers and software engineers. There is this need to be validated and be viewed as an important contributor. Maybe its part of being human but when this need to be recognized is a constant whine, I lose my compassion. I usually respond by saying, “get over it”.

There is an aspect about recognition that should not be brushed aside as designer’s neurotic-quirks. The lack of critical discourse on creative problem solving activities (read designing) perpetuates the public confusion of style for design. It is absent; therefore it’s invisible and hence not recognized or perhaps not important. This is our own doing and it can be fixed. We just have to have the will to do it.

The characterization you made about the “Power of Design” conference is quite amusing. You’ll be happy to know that we are not planning to re-cast designers’ role. The intention is to open people’s eyes to the possibilities and that one has to learn new skills in order to play. The goal is to inspire and urge attendees to think differently. What the conference will also reveal is that the profession can make a bigger impact even without new skills. It is the application of current skills with an appreciation of a grander context that matters. Information design, using words and images to communicate and dealing with sustainability constraints are not new skills. They will be more effective when the designer realizes confidently the context in which his or her design can influence.

As for that elephant that’s been rendered naked, what’s next? Have I been holding back? Yes. Not because of politics or fear of offending. There’s only so much one can stomach on this topic in one sitting especially those don’t quite understand the dynamics and the implications of the new world order. Ranting will get me nowhere fast. At least I don’t think I can make converts with just one article. Don’t worry, more of this elephant will be revealed in due time.


GK VanPatter: Terrific! Perhaps you will come back for a Phase 2 conversation and we can check in on the elephant again at that time. There is so much more we could discuss.

In closing I can tell you that here at NextD we believe what you are trying to do with AIGA and the broader design community is very important Clement. Your focus is different from ours but very much aligned I think. Although you and I may differ on details it is apparent that there is considerable common ground. We very much believe in the cause, however messy the process might be. Let us know if NextD can be of any help to you and or the AIGA organization.

If any of our readers want to get involved in the reinvention work going on at AIGA, how and to whom should they express their interest?

Clement Mok: Ric Grefe, ( the executive director of AIGA, is the best person to contact regarding all current and new initiatives and policies. He's the 'go-to-guy'. They can also contact Michael Vanderbyl, the new president. Michael and I had spoken quite extensively over the last three months on the importance of carrying forward the initiatives that have started. He is in full agreement of the direction. Michael and the current board will do a great job in advancing the issues. I will still be involved but not as intensely as I've been over the past several years. In the near feature, I am chairing an AIGA national task force to codify and articulate the value of designing. Out of this effort, I am hoping to develop new tools, framework and methodology in assisting design practitioners to understand 'the elephant'.

It's been a pleasure bantering with you about the future of the design profession. As I said in an email to you several weeks ago, AIGA and NextD's agenda are very similar. We are just starting at different points. I see great potential for collaboration in the future. Until next time, all the best to you and NextD readers.

Copyright 2003 NextDesign Leadership Institute. All Rights Reserved. NextD Journal text may be quoted and printed freely for non-commercial purposes with proper acknowledgment. If you wish to reproduce or transmit any of this text for commercial use, please send a copyright permission request to

copyright 2002, 2003, clement mok. all rights reserved.| site by zaudhaus