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From Vancouver to New Orleans: AIGA and Social Impact

November 20, 2013 / Eric Benson

Ten years ago I attended my first AIGA national conference in Vancouver. Last month (October) I attended my second at the Head, Heart, Hand in Minneapolis. In 2003, The AIGA Power of Design Conference changed my life. I went with limited expectations, but left brimming with excitement to explore issues of sustainability and positive social impact in my work. The organizers of the Power of Design Conference put sustainability and ethical concerns on the main stage. They clearly hoped to change the discussion about the value and impact of graphic design in the discipline. Whether or not they accomplished this overall, is debatable, however, for me, it worked. I quit my job ten months later and went to graduate school to further research how to design more sustainably. Now I’m a design educator.

In 2013, the Head, Heart, Hand Conference seemed to embrace some of the tenets of its predecessor ten years ago. With the inclusion of more panels and speakers from the Design for Good initiative and the addition of the Design Educator’s Committee (DEC), the topics of sustainability and social good were again more in focus. However, outside of those mentions, they were not on the main stage. What has changed since 2003? Have the challenges to solve our world’s wicked problems that shook the main stage at the AIGA national conference dissipated? Sadly, if anything, the issues facing humanity have gotten worse. Greenhouse gases are now at near record 39.6 billion tons while an overwhelming 97% of climate scientists agree global warming is real and manmade. The conferences after Vancouver in Boston (2005), Denver (2007), Memphis (2009), and Phoenix (2011) all mentioned this topic in their general sessions with speakers like Valerie Casey, Alex Steffen, and Terry Irwin, but mainly relegated the issue to smaller affinity sessions. What does this programming decision say about how serious the AIGA is taking issues like global warming, deforestation, and social inequities in our society?

In the ten years since 2003 the AIGA has created the Center for Sustainable Design (now Living Principles), the AIGA (Re)Design Awards, and most recently the Design for Good initiative. Each of these important ventures has brought some level of increased awareness on how design can help be a critical partner in solving important environmental and social issues. However, the AIGA’s mission only mentions ethics (of all the concerns derived from their sub initiatives) as vital to its directive. As made clear by nation’s scientists, the planet is warming. As shown directly by images and news headlines from across the planet, people need clean water, medicine, and access to a better education. The graphic design discipline relies on educated healthy people to consume our work and the existence of abundant natural resources for making; therefore it’s imperative that sustainability takes center stage again. We live on a planet of finite size and therefore not infinite resources.

Here’s hoping that in 2015 at the New Orleans conference, the AIGA continues where it left off ten years ago in Vancouver and creates an event where graphic designers and their partners discuss and propose a plan to become a more sustainable and aware profession. New Orleans is the perfect choice of venue to witness firsthand how climate can affect our planet and plot a more responsible and intelligent course forward for all of us.

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