As a Chapter, How Might We Better Define “Design” for Chicago?

AIGA defines itself as “the oldest and largest professional membership organization for design.” While this is a thrillingly broad definition, many including myself find themselves asking what the term “design” actually means today.

What does design mean in regards to a global profession, let alone in regards to how it’s practiced in our Chicago community? What does the term mean at a time when clear definitions of discipline, process, skill-set and form are growing increasingly grey?

I believe AIGA Chicago has a responsibility to reflect the modern practices and concerns of our local design community. In order to do this effectively, we must first make sure our community clearly understands how we are defining design today — however nebulous that definition may be — as a locally focused organization.

We need to clearly articulate how we’re embracing the evolving definition of our profession in all of its permutations without turning our backs on the rich history and celebration of craft that forms our foundation.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts was founded in 1914 by 40 members of the printing and publishing community. In 2005, the organization repositioned itself as, “AIGA, the professional association for design,” in a future-forward effort to welcome all 21st century design disciplines to the table.

AIGA believed that updating the early 20th century language of the acronym would reinforce the relevance of professional designers in the 21st century’s dynamic, evolving economy. But it also felt strongly about keeping the name used for 92 years to preserve a rich legacy of graphic design. AIGA needed a name that acknowledged the past, but one that would resonate for the next 100 years.

This strategic move acknowledged the evolution of the profession from its earliest roots in graphic arts to the varied and diverse ways AIGA members had begun to articulate themselves and their practices at the time. AIGA as a global organization was planting a stake in the ground, signaling a dedication to ensuring designers worldwide were no longer confined to narrow historical definitions of their profession.

(I encourage anyone interested to read more about the repositioning to gain insight into the full context of this shift at a national level.)

It’s unfortunate to realize that this exciting organizational shift designed to embrace a dynamic and evolving profession thirteen years ago has yet to take hold in a clear and impactful manner — at least as far as I can tell in Chicago.

I encounter members of the professional design community every day who view our chapter—and the organization as a whole—as a symbol of times past, a monument to all things static, and an aging symbol of the way things were. While our rich legacy in the the world of the printed page should certainly never be ignored (I absolutely believe it should continue to be championed to this day), the organization certainly does not consider this to be the sole definition of design — especially considering that the community we serve embraces such a rich and diverse professional ecosystem as we do in Chicago.

At a recent association retreat, AIGA National unveiled a wonderfully detailed study lead by Meredith Davis and North Carolina State University titled Designer 2025—a deep look at the trends impacting the growth and evolution of the design profession in the coming years.

The findings were an exceptionally powerful and startling confirmation of what many (if not most) of us already know in practice: the ability to navigate rapid change and increasing complexity are hallmarks of our jobs as designers, and traditional craft-based skill-sets are valued alongside a deep well of talents not traditionally taught in western design curricula. The skill set of the designer seven years from now reads more like that of a “Renaissance” individual than that of the speciality designers of yesterday — focused on the problem more than the medium; expertly navigating the whys and the what-ifs more frequently than the hows and the whats.

The designer of 2025 looks a lot like many of the designers I personally know and work alongside today.

The boundaries between discipline and medium are often porous, and we float fluidly every day between process and execution, tools and methodologies, the world of the visual and the world of the verbal. While this may be a startling reality check to a young designer trained solely in the fundamentals of typography and compositional rigor, I don’t find this to be all that shocking of a development. Yes, craft remains incredibly important, but design has always been more about an approach than a specific medium.

There is an established historical precedent underlying the path of the student who’s studied traditional typesetting and composition only to find themselves developing mobile applications a few years after graduation.

Some of the most admired practitioners since the dawn of our profession have floated between the creation of objects and experiences, static solutions and time-based narratives, big ideas and tactile executions. Designers have always been lifelong learners. Our tools have traditionally been prone to rapid evolutionary jumps. And the investigative and iterative design process has always opened doors for practitioners to interesting and unexpected avenues of creation.

Today, the landscape has simply evolved to encompass digital media, space, service design, and beyond.

The designer of today embraces a process of curiosity and iteration as much as the creation of a celebrated artifact (of course this too has probably always been the case). Designers investigate, prototype, iterate, and create narrative across discipline—from the screen to the page, the environment to the dwelling, the narrative to the object, the idea to the experience. So if design is as much about process as creation, couldn’t the individuals we collaborate with everyday — from writers to ethnographers to strategists to engineers and beyond — be considered designers?

Shouldn’t anyone involved in design methodology find a home within our organization?

Consider this an invitation to all within the field of design to have a seat at the table.

Why isn’t AIGA Chicago considered a home as much for strategists, writers, researchers, digital designers, developers, engineers, architects, photographer, illustrators, and product designers as it is for the traditional visual communication designer? Why doesn’t the makeup of our membership reflect the makeup of the modern design studio?

Perhaps we’ve never said it out loud. Perhaps we haven’t consistently invited a broader range of individuals into our community to shape programming, develop resources, or lead critical discussions.

In a city defined by a tremendously broad and diverse creative legacy, I urge AIGA Chicago, our membership, our studios, and our educational institutions to cast a wider net, to embrace the vast spectrum of individuals that find a home under to vast nebulous umbrella that is “design.” To embrace the visual as much as the verbal, the digital as much as the tactile, three-dimensional space and form as much as the two-dimensional screen and page, service and experience as much as artifact and object.

AIGA Chicago stands for the modern designer — the designer that champions typography, the designer that creates narrative, the designer that wields the ethnographic toolkit to better understand the world, the designer that leverages code to craft experience, and the designer that shapes both two- and three-dimensional space and form.

AIGA Chicago is the professional organization for design in all the thrilling ways our profession defines itself today. We commit to broadening our horizons as the profession evolves, and to representing all that each one of you do along the way.