Time and distance have their ways of making two things happen. The first, is to make one forget, or help one forget, depending on what it is that's being forgotten. The second thing that can happen, is the exact opposite of forgetting, the knowing of something that you realize is inescapable. The coming to terms with what is, what neither time nor distance can take away.
It is the true things that are inescapable. Like friendships that pick up right where they left off, whether it be months or years since the last communication. Or the fact that no matter how far one goes, in either miles, years or career(s) one either has curiosity or doesn't, one either has passion or doesn't. One will either lay it all out there or they won’t.
Not to say that people don't change, for there are often times in ones life when the bell goes off, the light bulb goes on and the big "Aha!" takes place. When one is transformed.
I thought of this recently when I thought I'd escaped a few things.
One thing I am certain of is that design is not the be-all, end-all in life. I've long known that it's just a job and that the most meaningful things are watching your kid learn to ride a bike or hearing the voice of one you love over the telephone or sometimes just raking leaves. But, hey . . . design is what we do, and if we are to do anything in life, we must do it well. If not, then it is a waste of time. And time is all we have.
I was having a good time not long ago, around two in the morning, in a dive of a bar in Lower Manhattan, that reminded of the same comfortable dives I would occasionally frequent back in Boston. Good juke box - Roxy Music, Hank Williams, the Clash - made up for the dense smoke. I had joined a party of three young women, at the invitation of Carol who was a former student of mine in Boston, and former intern. Of the other two - Deb and Lissi, - both were familiar with my work, and one lamented that she had signed up for my class only to have me move to Texas. In their own private way, I represented some kind of elite, though a familiar one.
So it was that I found myself amidst three young designers, seemingly with the world in front of them, none of them looking back. It had been five years since I last saw Carol, an effervescent gal, who even back then was a brilliant designer. Now however, design seems of less and less importance to her, her desire to "make things" looming large. Deb, just a year into her move to New York City, landed a plum job with the publication department of a major university. Lissi recently took what she believes is a sideways step from one publishing company to another. Of course in my book, it is not a sideways step, as one publisher has much more cache than the other, but sometimes one only looks to rank and money as benchmarks. More important, she wants to move into the music industry, which is a whole 'nother story.
Why tell you these stories? Because they all add up. Our conversation, though drifting off in tangents, always came back to design, and in particular, AIGA.
In one sense, I'm not the guy I was back in Boston. Or maybe I am, only more so, particularly to these women. I'm no longer the designer/educator/chapter president of AIGA/Boston, for now I travel in different circles and ellipses, doing lectures in different parts of the country and serving on the national board of directors. But the bottom line is I am still the same guy. Because when the conversation started in about how this organization is elitist and all about awards, I laughed out loud. You see, I had just spent a day at a board meeting, sitting around with the so-called elite. And the way I figured it, if I was there, they couldn't be that elite.
There is a certain connect/disconnect that happens in so many parts of life. Moving, traveling, starting and re-establishing relationships - relationships with both people and processes - all provide patterns of connection. The women mentioned above were connected by college and career, yet felt disconnected to the profession as a whole. So I explained my connections and disconnections.
Like Carol, Deb and Lissi, I've never been fond of those who position themselves as elite. But I have found that those who we assume to be so are just as passionate and caring as anybody else, and on the flipside, can be just as shallow as anybody else. Trust me, one has to be neither famous nor talented to be an a#%.
But the great thing about the board meeting for me was two-fold. First, sitting in a room with some of the industry's leading design thinkers, one hopes that a little of the stuff will rub off. Yet even more important was the re-connection of leaders all in a room for a common cause. No, the cause is not finding a cure for illness or poverty, but about finding ways to enhance life by other means. If we are to entice or persuade, then we can do it with word and image that lift the spirit. If designers give direction, then wayfinding systems can be clear and harmonious with their surroundings. There is no reason why visual communication cannot move one, whether to hesitate with contemplation or to act.
What we found in that board meeting - something we all knew in our own way - is that as individual designers, and as an organization, we must provide meaningful experiences for those who follow. Library signage can be beautiful when one respects both the audience (seekers) and the context/content (archives, books). Magazine layouts and television-opens can offer a world of insight in seconds. And the internet (the telegraph and library cloisters of today), with its potential of offering data, destination and delirious content, can likewise provide experiences that far surpass expectations. But if quality of life is to be improved (and we know that all around us is designed, that we are a vital part of culture) we can only chip away at the world around us.
Which is the nice thing about a national organization that is committed to connecting with both internal and external audiences, and finding ways to share experiences both common and unique. Sitting here in Austin, Texas, regardless of where I travel and with whom I talk (for I manage to do a lot of both), I still feel a certain disconnect at times to AIGA. Maybe because my life is more than that. But when the connection is there, boy, is it tight, boy is it firm.
For the record, this is the list of words the board of directors used in describing themselves and their roles within the organization: fuel, bridge, teacher, leader, shaman, gardener, catalyst, community builder, facilitator, camp counselor, human. Certainly a group of words that reaffirms both giving and connecting, not a word in the group about taking.
In reference to what AIGA should be doing, whether through programs, exhibits or one-on-one, Bart Crosby of Chicago offered up this short list of what we must do to remain relevant: inspire, inform, validate, and represent. And we must do them with vigilance.
This is what's in the can, on the fire and over the horizon. By this time next year we will have a new and improved Journal - Trace - to act as both document and artifact. Former ID editor and New York Times columnist Andrea Codrington has joined the administrative staff and sees Trace covering context/relevance, sensuality/aesthetics, joy/play among other things. I'm excited already. She writes "designers are by nature fetishists: they revel in the world of image and materiality," going on to say the new Journal will provoke both mind and senses. Isn't that what we all strive for?
Regarding the notions of the ladies (and they were ladies, all) in the smoky bar, I agreed that as a whole the field of design is rife with backpatting and glad-handing. As are the music, film, and fashion industries. Can we help it if after a hard day of digging ditches, the rest of the world reaches for that well-designed beverage of choice, to watch the carefully art-directed video-clip, while sitting their collective butts in the latest designer togs? Look, its not the People's Choice Awards when it comes to design, but somebody's gotta be responsible for creating the archives and artifacts of our generations. The AIGA has done that for a few generations already. And our exhibitions reflect that.
In development is design.com, the AIGA journal of commerce and communication that will be formatted for both print and web. Geared toward corporate decisionmakers, this publication will rival @issue and be worthy of note in the likes of both Fast Company or the Harvard Business Review.
On a broader note, our national website will be what a website should be: easy to navigate, rich in content and data, providing a destination and forum for an ever-deepening, ever-widening community to engage in dialogue. Dialogue. That means connection.
And our biannual conference will get smaller. The Las Vegas blow-out, Cult & Culture, hosted 3400 people, which may be good in terms of numbers, but a little unwieldy in terms of establishing camaraderie, rapport and above all the connections that can transform. Our next grand conference, in Washington, DC in 2001, will essentially deal with this issue: How do we contribute to society by creating meaningful experiences? Limited to 2500 people, this will be the large gathering of the tribe.
On a smaller scale, AIGA continues with biannual business conferences and converging media conferences. There are discussions of providing forums for other niche or specific audiences. And on a still smaller scale are the regional retreats offered by the intrepid chapters.
Alternative and intimate gatherings like the Design Camps of Minnesota and Seattle, the Y Design Conference of San Diego, Cincinnati's Shaker Village Design Revival and Austin's very own Design Ranch ("Best f#&%@%g conference, ever!" to quote renown illustrator Joel Nakamura), all provide further opportunities to explore new experiences.
This organization is experiencing both a top-down and bottom-up call to responsibility, creating value, and addressing the very real, very human needs of communication. With this in mind, we are currently in development of a Creativity Kit, to be used in elementary schools.
Between the Creativity Kits for kids, design.com for our clients, and the added depth of all our editorial and programming (which is an even longer story), it would seem AIGA has all the ends tied up. Which of course it doesn't. Because it's a never-ending process trying to make things better.
A good part of it is handled by the great folks at our national office in NYC (which is yours, and worth a look-see when you are in town), who have a slew of ideas and don't have enough hours in the day to get them all done. Similarly the board of directors all put their pants on one leg at a time, and get down to business. Which means this: everybody is pitching in to the best of their abilities for a common cause. And there is no room for ego when it is time to get work done.
Musician, artist, producer, and educator Brian Eno suggests that when one immerses themselves in another culture, they are accepting an invitation "to engage with a different world." One of the many pleasures of engaging with those different worlds, whether they be other countries, other spheres of life, or other parts of the United States (Nashville is not Austin, Madison is not Miami) is the ability to retain those new connections of engagement. Then we can bring something back to the worlds around each of us. Something that connects on a deeper level. A more human level.
One can't make anyone care about something. Either they do or they don't. Still, this is an
invitation to engage, to connect. To create experiences that transform.
Marc English | AIGA Board of Directors | 28 January 2000