Andy Rutledge

Organization Fail:AIGA Reaps What It Sows

April 4, 2012 | By Andy Rutledge

For the first time in its 100-year history, AIGA has decided to consider and apply actually relevant criteria for evaluating entries in a design competition. Not surprisingly, and as if on cue, the old guard cries foul.

Yesterday, designer Paula Scher published an essay in Imprint magazine that took issue with the reformatting of the principal annual AIGA design competition, newly renamed “Justified.” This competition will apparently do what no AIGA competition has ever done: have the jury consider the results and effectiveness of the work as a part of its evaluations. This is bold and odd new territory for AIGA, but better late than never, I guess.

So in light of this clearly un-AIGA-like departure from what she has grown to love, Paula Scher put pixel to screen and wrote a response piece that artfully combined soaring condescension with flimsy straw men to craft a grand, hydra-like, multi-headed insult to AIGA administration and members, competition participants, and all of their professional clients. She called her essay, “AIGA: Unjustified.” Yep, clever (she’s a designer, after all).

You should read it; it is a petulant and myopic tantrum disguised as an obtuse essay that repeatedly tosses jibes at everything and anyone who detracts from or does not serve the ego-fueled cultivation of design celebrity among an insular clique of peer artists ever consumed by the fetish of artistic self flagellation. Basically, it’s a defense of traditional AIGA culture. But I repeat myself.

One designer summed up her arguments rather concisely and appropriately as: “Having objectives is hard. Just reward me for making things I think are pretty.”


A comedy tragedy of errors

Given the competition description and criteria for “Justified,” Paula responds with the obtuse question,

“…did you notice that words like beauty, creativity, surprise, innovation and inspiration are nowhere to be found?”

Really? Her question here begs another compelling one: why should anyone suppose that these admirable qualities are unwelcome or irrelevant in an effective design effort, or should be considered outside the context of the “Justified” competition? Indeed, should we each propose to imbue our client-project design work with these qualities only if they’re listed in the RFP or creative brief we’re offered at the start of a project? No, it’s simply stupid to make these obtuse assumptions. Yet, this is precisely what Ms. Scher has done.

She goes on to completely miss the point and then beat up her own mistake- (or purpose-built) straw man:

“‘Justified’ changes the goals of AIGA’s only remaining competition. The goal of the new competition is not to inspire the design community to better design, but to ‘explain design’s value to clients, students, peers and the general public’ by ‘justifying’ the work. The justification is part of what is being judged.

I’ll just come straight out and say it: if educating clients is the goal here, this competition probably won’t achieve it’s goal [sic], and moreover may have bad consequences for the designer who hopes to enlighten their clients about the ‘value’ of design.”

No. Either Paula misses the point entirely or she purposes to flog her own fiction. I’m going to surprise myself and give AIGA the benefit of the doubt here by pointing out that, contest specifics aside, they’re endeavoring in this contest to encourage the development of actually useful skills among their members. For, in fact, the ability to convincingly describe the beneficial results of one’s efforts at cultivating success IS a professional responsibility and must be developed through practice. Paula Scher disagrees. Odd.

It requires a willful pessimism to assume that the presented case studies will have no impact on potential clients, and a certain willful myopia and distortion to assume that the contest itself is meant to do nothing more than “educate clients.” I’m no fan of AIGA and even I can find the genuine value in the exercised results of what AIGA is doing here; yes, even if they’re missing the point, too.

I agree that design contests are a waste of time and distract from what matters in the design professions, but it is the substance of Paula’s criticisms and what it reveals that is so shameful and disappointing. She goes on to criticize, malign, and marginalize, in various ways, all of the imagined goals and possible outcomes of a results-oriented endeavor (she does know that design is a results-oriented endeavor, right?). The result of which is that she betrays her (and the traditional AIGA) fundamental definition of design and what purpose it should serve. Her clear view is that design for prescribed aims is a naïve and worthless endeavor; design should be eschewed for artistry, and so should simply be beautiful, daring, innovative, and surprising for its own sake—client’s interests be damned. Screw the client; I need to work on my celebrity status and get some accolades from my peers, yo!

Not surprisingly, Ms. Scher demonstrates her obviously shallow understanding of results, of customer habits, of clients, and of the designer/client relationship with this vacuous statement:

“The ‘Effectiveness’ criteria are scarier. It’s rare that clients and designers will totally agree on what makes a design successful. That’s because, for the most part, clients and their audiences are most comfortable with things that already exist. Relying on sales as a demonstration of success or popular response as a criteria ensures a predictable mediocrity. It’s counter to AIGA’s goals toward better design.”

Firstly, why on earth should it matter that a client agrees with the designer’s professional understanding of design success? Initially, this is a matter for the competent designer—who should only ever take up with clients who are willing to invest in the designer’s expertise rather than be limited by their own ignorance. Later, the success will be self evident. So, again, the straw man argument. And the market public has demonstrated time and time again that it will respond to excellent, new, disruptive design. Secondly, sales ARE the appropriate measuring stick for retail success. There are other measures of market success, and these should be accounted for, too. It’s a shame that a lauded design professional would assume otherwise. Thirdly, aiming for market success in no way ensures predictable mediocrity. Rather, a designer working with clients who demand success-destroying practices and deliverables that obviate the designer’s professionalism and expertise is what ensures predictable mediocrity. No designer should entertain such unprofessional relationships or projects. Yet Ms. Scher assumes that this is all to which a designer can ever hope to aspire.

Well, given that AIGA has ever been led with this manner of unprofessional ideal, distorted view, and distracted practice, one can understand how Ms. Scher would make such assumptions; despicable though they are.

The list of myopic, vacuous, and insulting observations by Ms. Scher is far too long to list here (read the article yourself). However, in her entire essay, she made but a single astute observation:

“There have always been many complaints about these kinds of competitions in general. Work that was awarded tended to be pro bono assignments, or personal promotion pieces, or in other areas where a client didn’t interfere much. There might be a lot of work that wouldn’t immediately — or perhaps ever — have a measurable effect in the marketplace. It could be dismissed as ‘design for designers.’”

Ya’ think? This is, in fact, the fundamental problem with design competitions; they tend to ignore anything practical or results-oriented and focus solely on the subjective artistry and masturbatory qualities of the work. Thanks AIGA—design as self pleasure is sure to have a grand impact on everyone’s rent payment and payroll this month. You stay classy!

Paula made her morality and ethos abundantly clear when she observed that,

“The AIGA membership never believes that their clients respect them.”

Wow, thanks, Paula, for encapsulating the predictable results of AIGA membership in such a concise manner. I’m sure the aspiring design pro community is now clamoring for inclusion in this august preparatory institution. Sarcasm aside: no, really; thanks. You’ve likely just saved the careers of an entire generation of design professionals by revealing what it means to be an AIGA member instead of a competent and prepared design professional.


Culture creates consequences. This is what you get from a celebrity-driven, art-misrepresented-as-design culture comprised by folks ever distracted by design competition (there’s no such thing as a design competition, by the way) and subjective peer accolades. There should remain no question why I have for years been a vociferous detractor of AIGA and the distorted values the organization represents and perpetuates.

I sincerely hope that Paula Scher’s exposure of what AIGA has for 100 years worked to effect has a consequential impact on today’s design aspirants. As for AIGA and its apparent referendum on design-as-art culture—you reap what you sow. Good luck with your new competition.

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Background image: Infrogmation | Pagent titleholders at Miss Crescent City pageant (New Orleans preliminary for Miss Louisiana and Miss America). Pageant was held at Dixon Hall, Tulane University campus, New Orleans.