Dismantling White Supremacy Culture Within AIGA

Photo credit: Kyle Van Horn, from Flickr.

Update!

I was given feedback from the community about the clumsiness of my original title. I was reminded that ‘Graphic Design Was Never Colonized. It Is A Tool For Colonization”.

Since my post has nothing to do with indigenous people, the title is misleading at best, or adds to the noise that researchers have to pick through.

This new title is a closet reflection of my hopes for change within the organization.

Much love to Elaine Lopez and Sadie Redwing for taking the time to educate me so thoughtfully on the ramifications and unintended consequences of the title.

I was lucky enough to see Eric Liu speak in Chicago about what it means to be American. He remarked that being called an American was synonymous with being White, and so any non-White Americans needed their non-Whiteness to be codified with a variety of prefixes. In 2016, when the bell rang to “Make America Great Again” the peal was coded language to Make It Easier To Know That American Means White.

With an ever-growing Black, Asian and Latinx community, being called an American will soon not mean White by default, and may come without the need for prefixes such as African-, Asian-, Latin- and others.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts, known as “the professional association for design”, dropped their longhand name and went with the acronym AIGA. But with longstanding issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the organization, patterns of fragility that perpetuate white supremacy culture and the silencing and erasure of Black voices and labor, I think we should check what the ‘A’ in AIGA stands for.

Does the ‘American’ it refers to include this new, emerging definition that reflects where America is heading, or does it mean ‘White American’ as so many have believed for a while? If one were to look at the current and past National board members and AIGA Gold Medalists, one could be left with the impression that the organization is overdue for a rebrand and be known as the WAIGA (White American Institute for Graphic Artists). Don’t get me started on our counterparts at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) or the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA).

So why am I, a non-member opining on AIGA? Well, it’s because the National Board keeps reaching out to me for my thoughts and recommendations on all matters DEI—well, here they are, all in one place.

When Antionette Carroll, publicly resigned from the National board in Dec 2019, in a damning indictment of the organization’s unwillingness to address DEI issues from within, I got a call from the National board almost immediately, seeking my advice and counsel. Despite the necessary steps for change being known to the National leadership (they were authored by their own DEI Taskforce), AIGA chose to call me instead. I was baffled.

But in my own naïveté, I started to plan a Power and Privilege workshop for the National board at the now postponed, 2020 National Design Conference. I believed that maybe I could get somewhere when others had failed. Oy — the earnestness is embarrassing to recount.

And then just last week, AIGA National’s social media account proclaimed solidarity with the Black community. They declared, “All systems are designed. Harmful systems must be redesigned.” For many, including me, there was a striking similarity between this post and the work done by Antionette Carroll and others from the DEI Taskforce, as well the ‘equityXdesign’ work created by Caroline Hill, Michelle Molitor and Christine Ortiz. Without any discernible credit or attribution, it could easily lead one to think that these words and sentiment originated solely from AIGA without any assistance. And again, I got a request from AIGA National, but this time inviting me to join them for a live interview on Instagram to talk about my thoughts on the current protests.

I was initially thrilled that this powerful organization would invite me to add my voice—but then it struck me.

There’s a pattern here.

Perhaps inspired by my recent talk, I think that in the eyes of AIGA’s National leadership, I had become their go-to ‘race guy’. Breaking news! I’m not a racial healer! That’s not my job. I already have one — two in fact.

Somehow I am being seen as a safer source of advice than the people who have been speaking up from within for years. But my British accent and my model-minority status must represent something inherently different. Something less threatening. Less Black. I didn’t want to admit it until now and I feel like such a fool for not seeing it sooner.

Recommendations for AIGA to transform into an Anti-Racist Professional Design Association

Dear AIGA National,

Taking my place in the long tradition of unpaid labor by PoC, I present below a set of governance and operational next steps and (BONUS!) strategic recommendations. Think of it as my ‘in-kind donation’ in lieu of my membership dues this year.

Please consider this Great Pause as a gift: a period of deep self-reflection and re-centering on your members who today have a dramatically different definition of what it means to be an American designer.

Instead of acting as a gatekeeper for design by furthering white supremacy culture through a cozy self-congratulatory cabal of peers, I propose that the AIGA National act in ways that match their own proclamations as the professional association for design.

Governance and Operations

  • Put on pause all upcoming public event programming, public-facing content production, social media accounts, awards ceremonies, competitions, strategic planning efforts, etc until Summer 2022, and focus all resources on an inward-facing initiative to redefine the organization — starting with the National board leadership
  • Announce the setting of new cultural targets for National board and staff to not exceed 50% individuals who hold White privilege, by Summer 2022
  • Invite all existing National board members to a multi-day power and privilege workshop (facilitated by a leader in racial dialogue, eg. Crossroads) and have attendance (and all absences) be noted as part of board and staff bios on AIGA.org
  • After the training, seek the resignation of all current National board members (every board seat is currently unpaid and voluntary). They may reapply for their board positions after the next step
  • Develop a new set of expectations, responsibilities and accountability for National board members. For instance, National board positions will be paid (or a donation can be made instead) to prevent defaulting to well established White leaders who can afford to take to take on this extra work without compensation
  • Recruit a new National board by Summer 2022 that meet or exceed cultural targets

National Strategic Initiatives

  • Create a high school-to-college curricular pathway that specifically addresses the concerns that parents of color have for kids who are considering a career in design
  • Establish a mentoring program for young professionals of color to navigate PWI, or Predominantly White Institutions
  • Develop and publish a set of equitable HR practices that design studios can adopt to make their workplaces safer and more inclusive for designers of color
  • Host job postings for organizations that then are practicing those same equity-focused HR practices (or have published a timeline for their compliance)
  • Establish partnerships with national nonprofit organizations like the YMCA, Catholic Charities, OneGoal, My Brother’s Keeper, and others, for projects that highlight the value of design to make local social benefit
  • Announce a new global design awards platform and rubric for evaluating good design, that goes beyond the current narrow definition that is centered on White, Male, European (German specifically) values and that promote mass production and consumption
  • Develop a new selection process for selecting judges for this awards platform that values lived experiences in addition to learned experiences

I know that these these recommendations may appear extreme but considering this: nonprofit membership-based associations is a precarious business model, but it works when the fee-paying members get the support they need.

If the benefits to being a member is invites to parties and access to powerful influencers for career advancement, then you should call it a social club, not a professional association.

I looked up AIGA National’s 990 tax forms for the last few years and things aren’t great. While it’s possible that incremental changes to programming and a different mix of member benefits might stave off downward trends, a more fundamental shift is needed.

The face of American designers is changing and they are simply not seeing themselves reflected in the current leaders we’ve put into power and the work we celebrate. New American designers are no longer simply resigning themselves to a life and career where their values only show up during a 24-hr hackathon.

For all the pearl clutching and hand wringing to keep AIGA’s 100-year-old legacy unsullied, I’d like to offer some inspiration from the UK. Founded in 1754, the RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has been running a global design competition for over 100 years. Inspired by my piece about redefining what good means for design, we worked together to reboot their old awards program: rethinking their submission criteria, their judge selection process, the judging process itself and the final rubric for determining the winners.

As someone who grew up in England, I’ve seen firsthand how English people drag their feet when it comes to social change, so if a 260-year-old institution can do it, so can you.

AIGA is in no way obligated to act on these recommendations. What power do I have to make change here? None. Zip. Nada. But, if folks see these recommendations as a blueprint for a new kind of national design organization that’s built with equity at its core, then you’d be right. It is.

While we wait to see AIGA National act on these recommendations, I would love to talk to any co-conspirators who would support starting a new national organization that can reshape America’s relationship to design.

Postscript

Social change unfortunately always comes with a cost. Sadly that cost has disproportionately been carried by people of color and Black people in particular. So when I see rallying cries for allyship and those bloody black squares in my Instagram feed, I have doubts about the impact since they come at little to no cost. If you’re going to proclaim your commitment to social change, please bring the receipts. Explain what this commitment will cost you now and potentially in the future. Here’s mine.

Immediate costs

  • I found it impossible to be critical of a system without injuring people in the system I care so deeply about. I’ve worked alongside a number of National board members so this will put an inevitable strain on these relationships, and I hope they can forgive me one day.
  • I was invited to host a symposium on the future of social design at the 2020 National Design Conference, by bringing together an organizer, a social worker and an anthropologist on stage with me, a designer. As of today, I’ve decided to withdraw my commitment and move this to a new home — please let me know if you’d like to host this conversation.
  • Loss of sleep, vacillating over whether to post this piece or not, or lose even more sleep knowing that I could have done more

Future/potential costs

  • Lost potential mentorship from many of my personal heroes, who I’ve implicated with my words
  • Lingering negativity towards me and my studio for calling out inequities in the most recognizable organization in our field
  • Held back, uninvited or simply blackballed for future opportunities based on the wide net of influence by the leaders implicated by my words

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Co-Founder and Director of Innovation at Greater Good Studio. Full Professor (Adj) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

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George Aye

George Aye

Co-Founder and Director of Innovation at Greater Good Studio. Full Professor (Adj) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

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