Michael Aleo recently wrote a post that stirred up some feelings that I have about AIGA. That is that AIGA is an organization that claims to represent professional designers but doesn’t really accurately represent the current landscape of the design industry.

Michael’s post details an e-mail conversation he had with a judge from the DC AIGA50 design competition. For full disclosure I don’t know Michael (though I reached out to him with a few background questions on his post) and the fact that he was entered in the competition may lead some to consider his point of view to be biased. I did not enter the competition and I am not currently a paying member of AIGA but have been in the past. I have judged a competition for another organization and served on the board of the Art Directors Club of DC. I do not currently live in the DC area but work for an agency headquartered there. I am fully aware that his post may not represent every angle of the story. I invite other sides of this story to respond, and I would love it if someone from AIGA would comment and be more transparent about what lead to the comments made by this judge.

Michael said what a lot of professional web designers think and risked making some folks mad. He backed it up with some pretty revealing comments from an AIGA competition judge.

To illustrate his point Michael talks about how the AIGADC 50 competition judges chose to recognize wrapping paper made by a design agency (for themselves) over several website designs that included information architecture and complex goal oriented problem solving done for clients. When the AIGA judge was asked about this her comments (According to Aleo) were:

“The wrapping paper was at least a relief from some of the downright bad work that was entered.
Can’t say it was brilliant/groundbreaking/useful but at least it had something redeeming about it. The interactive web stuff you showed me was pedestrian and just plan bad design. This stuff should be smart, beautiful and content friendly. Ugh!”

In Aleo’s examples I can’t say that any of the interactive web work was groundbreaking but if you look at it from the angle of 50 pieces representing the DC area design, they are strong representation of solid well done web work done FOR CLIENTS in the DC area.

So, Why the hell do I care about what AIGA chooses to showcase as good design?

AIGA represents the professional design industry. Professional being defined by Merrium-Webster as “participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs”.

AIGA is seen by outside organizations as being the representative for those who pay their bills designing “stuff” as the judge so respectfully put it. Hey, I design interactive “stuff” for my livelihood, so AIGA claiming to represent me to the world is MY business.

AIGA’s website says:

“AIGA sets the national agenda for the role of design in economic, social, political, cultural and creative contexts.”

Whoa: that’s pretty powerful. This organization influences THE AGENDA for the role of what I do in just about every other applicable or important context of the NATION.

Most importantly it is the organization that design students look to for guidance and examples of quality standard practices within our industry. It sets the tone for future designers and how they will contribute to our industry.

Michael’s article describes AIGA as being “old” and that is an issue because it is perpetuating a cycle of setting unrealistic expectations about what the actual professional landscape of design looks like. As Michael points out: the 50 pieces of design chosen to represent the DC area only included two actual websites. The professional association of designers is telling the world and especially design instructors and students that the standards for what represents good design is mostly print in the DC area. Even though the landscape of profitable design employment is a very different ratio.

I took a look at the AIGA design jobs site and filtered available positions to show DC area design jobs (since the article was about AIGADC). Out of the 16 open positions listed that were dated between February 21 and April 4th nine listed “web design” as one of the job functions (if not THE core job function). Out of those 9 a couple even included “web development”.

To a student looking to start a career in the design industry the competition results set expectations that in order to do “award winning work” you need to do print work. Students striving to be exceptional become frustrated at the job landscape and give up on our industry. I have seen it happen with my former classmates. Call me sentimental, but I mourn the loss of great design talent to unreasonable expectations set by the leaders in our design industry. I want to see talented designers excel and elevate the quality of overall work being produced by our community.

University design programs also look to AIGA for guidance on shaping their programs. Universities are producing qualified and hirable print designers at a much higher rate than they are producing hirable-out-of-school web designers. If we want to see web education change we have to look to organizations like AIGA to help set the standards to change them.

As a former student who was determined to make my fanciful lifelong dream of supporting myself as a “Professional Designer” come true, I am greatly concerned with AIGA claiming to represent the professional design landscape as being so print oriented. They are building expectations amongst very talented young designers that making good design is mostly being a print designer.

I am also really concerned with the tone and attitude that this judge had about the work coming out of DC. That negative tone is “old”, get with the program…. the web design industry is OPEN. The new design industry is flourishing on the web through open attitudes and positive contributions. There is no place for negative elitist bullshit in the future of design.

There was a judge on the three person panel who specialized in web design at a large agency. Michael says that he reached out to him for comment with no response. Because I have had prior experience as a judge for a competition I imagine there may be more to the story and am very interested in hearing it.

I would love to see AIGA put more effort into diversifying their group of judges to include more web industry leaders and attracting a larger submission pool of quality interactive work. Lots of traditional advertising and design organizations have done a great job with this and you guys being the largest in the industry can reach out and do the same. If you are an AIGA board member here are some suggestions, take them with a grain of salt because I personally know from experience it is much easier said than done:

  1. Look for potential judges who are doing good work, sharing ideas and progressing the evolution of the web industry. Don’t know where to find those folks? Check the lineups at web industry conferences. http://futureinsightslive.com, http://aneventapart.com, http://valiocon.com, http://interlinkconference.com, http://convergese.com.
  2. Market the competition itself in a way that will encourage a lot of folks to visit the winning entry’s agency’s/designer’s sites. Wonder why so many CSS Galleries get tons of entries? Because the featured designs receive a lot of traffic. Websites are visible to the general public already, up the stakes a little bit. Work to develop relationships with high profile websites to promote the competition. Sites like: http://www.thefwa.com, http://www.smashingmagazine.com, http://www.netmagazine.com, http://unmatchedstyle.com and maybe even http://dribbble.com.
  3. Create value beyond prestige. What do you get for entering your site in the competition? Useful (constructive) feedback on how to be a better designer from the judges could be a way to achieve this. Get creative on the benefits of being part of a competition like this. Most web designers don’t have to pay money to get good work in front of a lot of people… think outside of the box on incentives.
  4. Make it worth a potential web judge’s time. You might not have a huge budget to pay out, but make sure you are at least offering them the same as your traditional design judges. A featured Interview or bio on your site to provide context of what makes them knowledgeable in their subject area is a minimum. If you can afford it, bring them in for the judging, a dinner, or to do a presentation at your chapter. Make being involved in judging a positive and worthwhile way to give back.
  5. Establish judging criteria and be transparent. I have judged a competition before and the lack of this can really contribute to confusion and misrepresentation of final winning results. Web and Print design are apples and oranges, acknowledge that and give your judges some context to what the winning entries should represent. Have the judges write comments about what made the winning pieces “winners”.

Before I conclude I want to make it clear that I am not criticizing the hard working volunteers who work to make AIGA run. Volunteering is no joke, it’s a lot of work to make a competition happen.Volunteering for any industry organization can be an enormous undertaking and the more industry folks who pitch in make it a lighter load for everyone. If you are reading this and never considered volunteering, now is the time! No I am not criticizing the volunteers, I am asking them to carefully consider who and what they chose to represent as the best of “Professional Design” in today’s industry landscape.

With all said, I give a shit about what AIGA does because it is a large part of my industry ecosystem, or at least markets itself to as a representative of what I do to influence other aspects of “THE NATION“. I look forward to the day when web designers feel like they are a real part of the design community that AIGA represents. Or… if that never happens… when the web design community decides to organize our collective positive powers to be the official “professional association for design”.


  1. — April 9, 2012

  2. Mira

    — April 9, 2012

  3. steve

    — April 9, 2012

  4. Samantha

    — April 9, 2012

  5. — April 16, 2012

  6. — April 25, 2012

  7. — June 21, 2012

  8. — July 5, 2012