This past May, the AIGA New York board met via Zoom to discuss potential board members recommended through our Call for Nominations.
“How do you get through the rest of the nomination application if their portfolio is bad?” one board member quipped as we discussed the merits of candidates.
“Yeah and also, how do we know if someone is cool?” another added. I was speechless. In a previous meeting, we’d agreed that bringing on non-designers and non-visual creatives was of a high priority. Why would a person’s “coolness” and portfolio (or lack of one) be a factor for inviting them to a team of community volunteers?
“I didn’t join the board to be best friends with people or to discuss the finer points of their craft. I joined to serve the broader design community and I hope that’s why we’re all here,” I countered, finally finding my words.
As a Black designer, I’m no stranger to my work quality being questioned. But it’s especially jarring to exist as a Black person who can see what’s going on behind closed doors. Unfortunately, my experience is not unique and this is especially true when surveying the shared experience of Black designers who have left “America’s professional organization for design” known as AIGA. During my tenure within AIGA, I’ve come to realize that it’s impossible to create sufficient change inside an organization that actively perpetuates racism towards people who look like me. It’s time for me to walk away, but before I do, I want to share what I’ve learned about AIGA’s history and pattern of not supporting Black designers.
In 1914, forty members of the National Arts Club interested in graphic arts gathered in New York City to create the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). This new organization would be a “source of pleasure and intellectual profit,”1 with a goal of advancing the profession of graphic arts.
A “product of its time”, AIGA’s initial membership consisted entirely of white men, but in 1920 women were allowed as members2. 38 years later, in 1958, the organization elected Edna Beilenson as one of its first woman presidents. As of 2020, only five women have ever served as president of AIGA in its 106 years of existence (not including 2020’s incoming woman president). While women were eventually able to find a place in AIGA, Black designers remained invisible within and outside of the organization.
To address the lack of Black designers in the organization and profession, AIGA held a symposium titled “Why is graphic design 93% white?” in 1991. Inspired by Cheryl D. Miller’s 1987 Print magazine piece, “Black Designers: Missing in Action,” the symposium attempted to address barriers Black designers faced, as well as possible solutions. The conference addressed seven major issues affecting Black designers, including a lack of role models, barrier to entry due to an “old boys network,” and internalized racism. Six of the seven issues tackled during the event led to suggestions for improvement. At the end of the conference, “everyone [attendees and organizers alike] stressed the need to sustain the constructive momentum that was established.”3
Unfortunately, the issue of “internalized racism” was not addressed. According to the report issued afterward, “…avoidance of this topic does not indicate its unimportance, rather the participants chose to tackle problems where they could realistically effect change.” It’s as if the participants believed they couldn’t change internalized racism within the design industry, much less AIGA. It’s morbidly amusing to think that the topic avoided was the one they engage with the most on an organizational level.
Sixteen years after the symposium, AIGA bestowed the “honor” of an AIGA Medal upon Black designer, George Olden. Alas, Olden didn’t have the opportunity to accept the award as he died in 1975. Why was he not awarded while he was alive? AIGA’s dreary pattern of posthumously awarding Black designers continued until a Black designer on the medalist selection committee pointed it out to them.
The Local Chapters were created in 1981 as a way to decentralize leadership from the National organization. Each chapter operates uniquely with its own set of bylaws and board members, known as Chapter Leaders, are volunteers.
While my experiences with the New York chapter are only mine to tell, I spoke with Black designers who had similar experiences of feeling detached from their respective Local Chapters. Many of them had their first experience with AIGA in college. “In the early 2000s, I was doing graphic and web design in my spare time and wanted to be part of an organization where I could meet other designers and learn more about the field,” Eric shared. “I reached out to my Local Chapter to learn more and never heard back from them.”
Other Black designers divulged that AIGA didn’t seem to be a space that was for them. “I never thought about joining AIGA because it seemed like a visual design-focused organization. In my city, many other design organizations cater to designers in technology versus just visual designers,” Marcus told me. “I also didn’t see many Black designers when I went to their events.”
Catt also echoed something similar. “There was always this vibe that AIGA wasn’t right for me. Like I had to look a certain way or had to have a certain amount of money to participate.” For Dani, her focus was related to finances and representation. “Why would I pay money for an expensive membership and then pay more money to go to an event where I’m not wanted?”
Sabrina’s experience with her Local Chapter has been different. “I believe in the work I did running the mentor program as a member of my Local Chapter. I was able to advocate for my community and saw it come to life—that was great to see.” But Sabrina hasn’t renewed her membership. “I’ve been disappointed with how National has handled giving credit to people for their work. I’m not sure if I’ll renew, but I do think it’s all nuanced and believe my Local Chapter provided a platform to do some good.”
Natalie repeated similar sentiments about her Local Chapter, stating that the events they’d held were great. “But I saw an exacerbated disconnect between National and the Local Chapters. I didn’t understand why National had no Black people in leadership or why they had such a strong pull over the Local Chapters.”
The Black former AIGA members I interviewed restated Natalie’s disconnect, and all of them left the organization when they graduated school and became professionals. Eric felt that being a member of AIGA, especially as a professional, doesn’t seem to get you much. “It’s like being a member of the Subway Sub Club—it doesn’t mean anything. It’s good to talk about at a party, but I don’t know anyone getting jobs because they’ve listed AIGA on their resumes.”
At the close of our interview, I asked Eric for his thoughts around AIGA National being unable to support Black designers. I told him that National seems to be aware, but they refuse to properly address the issue internally. “AIGA National is only as strong as its weakest chapter,” he declared and also cited the organization’s white supremacist ideals as something they need to contend with. “I’ve told my Local Chapter to stop contacting me because they don’t do anything for Black designers at all in a majority-Black city.”
On a National level, Black designers have shared grievances around AIGA in public resignations, including Timothy Bardlavens and, more recently, Antionette Carroll. Antionette’s resignation video, posted in December 2019, speaks of AIGA as “a by-product of white supremacy.” Her words haunted me and I kept them in mind as I continued trying to do work from within AIGA.
June arrived and along with an ongoing pandemic, civil uprising was brewing. Black people continued to be senselessly murdered by police and white civilians. Anger overflowed and as protests became more common, organizations could no longer ignore the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” They released statements of solidarity, only to be taken to task by the very Black people associated with the organizations. AIGA also released a statement saying, “All systems are designed. Harmful systems must be redesigned.” They passionately urged designers to use anti-racism tactics to better their communities through design. There was one problem, though. The language used in the statement was language the organization had no history of consistently using. Recognizing her work, Antionette publicly expressed frustration around AIGA’s failure to attribute her.
Publicly, National fell silent and quietly deleted the offending tweet. Internally, there was turmoil. What initially seemed like a minor public relations issue quickly became the symbol of years of discord buzzing beneath a surface of niceties between National and Local Chapters. Local Chapters tried to distance themselves from National, releasing their own statements in solidarity with Antionette.
In Slack, Chapter Leaders questioned National’s poor response and demanded conversation, as well as attribution for Antionette’s work. In an effort to explain the initial statement, National posted another tweet (now deleted) on June 5, 2020 with a note from the AIGA National Executive Director, Bennie F. Johnson, a Black man. The note thanked Antionette for her service to National, while implying that attribution was unnecessary because the language was shared and in use before she ever joined AIGA. The implication was even more damning, given that Bennie and Antionette had a conversation before Bennie posted his note.
In the meantime, Chapter Leaders waited for a satisfying internal response from National leadership. The current National president, Dana Arnett, was oddly silent. Instead, we received a video response from the incoming National president, Ashleigh Axios. In the video, Ashleigh responded to Antionette’s claims of attribution calling the incident “bullshit” and “slanderous.” Distrust among Chapter Leaders was high and Ashleigh’s video was leaked, uploaded to YouTube, and shared via a Twitter account named “@designtruth.”
“When people say that we’re a white supremacist organization, it makes it sound like we’re out there fighting with the KKK or the police, and frankly, we’re opposed to that,” she declares. But white supremacy isn’t about putting on a pointed hood or burning crosses on a lawn. It exists on a gradient, living within even the smallest microaggressions. You don’t have to be white to take a page out of the white supremacy playbook. Ashleigh did this when she cried at the end of a video that actively tore down and gaslit a fellow Black woman. All for the sake of protecting the legacy of an organization with an active history of failing Black designers.
Ashleigh’s video was not enough to quell internal irritation and on June 11, 2020, a Town Hall was called so that National and Chapter Leaders could discuss what happened and how to move forward. Lasting for almost two hours, the meeting was a tug of war, full of competing interests. Chapter Leaders demanded an apology with attribution to Antionette. Speaking to Chapter Leaders as if they were petulant children, National argued that they couldn’t give credit. If they did, wouldn’t they have to credit everyone? I suggested putting a page on the website giving credit to everyone involved. It fell on deaf ears.
After some back and forth, the “neutral” moderator National hired to facilitate the discussion asked us if we would follow National’s lead, knowing that they would not apologize. Paraphrasing, she proclaimed that “…as leaders, sometimes we do things we don’t want to do or believe in, but we follow anyway because it’s for the greater good.” The almost five hundred Chapter Leaders in the call vehemently disagreed, saying they would not follow if that was the case. Many of us left the call feeling dejected and disappointed. How could an organization we believed in ask us to follow them blindly without question?
The monthly Chapter Leaders call a week later was another opportunity to talk with National leadership. The call was evasive and danced around the issues of attributing Antionette and addressing Ashleigh’s video. During Q&A, I brought both up, noting that if we, as an organization, would not provide attribution to Antionette, then the very least our incoming president could do is apologize to Antionette for her video response. Ashleigh stated there was no need to apologize because the video was not intended for the public. I told her that regardless of intent, the video was leaked publicly for all to see. Designers worth their salt know that intent is not the same as impact.
I asked Ashleigh if she understood what colorism is, and she said yes. Ashleigh, though Black, is white-presenting in the eyes of white supremacy and passes the blight known as the “paper bag test” with flying colors. As a dark-skinned Black femme who cannot pass or present in any other way, I found Ashleigh’s video ultimately frightening. While she may not realize the impact of her words and tears, I sure do. Because in a different time period or in the “right” town today, her actions could have someone like me or Antionette murdered. I have little faith in an organization’s leaders who can’t understand the impact their misogynoir has on my existence, while claiming that Black Lives Matter.
After three years at AIGA, serving the design community in both my local New York chapter and through National, I can’t recommend AIGA in good faith to Black designers. At some point we have to take a step back and ask: how high are our expectations for organizations that have a recorded history of harm?
Organizations like AIGA that are so broken from the inside will eventually destroy themselves through dismantling or ideological self-immolation. The existing Black leadership at National, incoming National president Ashleigh Axios and executive director Bennie F. Johnson, perpetuate the very system they claim to fight against. They are a prime example that diversity means nothing if tokenized people in power preserve harmful legacies.
Those in power must embrace the self-awareness born of criticism, no matter how painful and close it is to a truth they’re afraid of. Unfortunately, many involved in AIGA confuse criticism of the organization’s treatment of Black designers as criticism of themselves. For many AIGA leaders, design is no longer a trade, but an identity—Black designers who can’t conform to the identity will find themselves unwelcome.
I didn’t write this because I think people involved with AIGA are bad. I’ve met many amazing and wonderful people through AIGA who I’m so proud to call my friends. Like I, many of those friends have been complicit by participating in this organization. It’s hard, but I’m taking a step back to acknowledge that while I have done great things with AIGA, I’ve also perpetuated harm through participation. I’m holding myself accountable and all of you involved, as well.
Black designers are tired, and being in AIGA is not a fight worth fighting or an organization worth saving. As I resign from AIGA, I’m self-reflecting. I’m walking towards a future of yearning, wondering: when do we stop waiting for others to include us and find ways to include ourselves? Black designers, we are gifted, talented, and capable of anything. It’d be better to direct our energies into something made by us for us. As Black people, we always find a way to create truly inclusive spaces of belonging for ourselves and others. It’s time to make something new that says, to everyone: You matter. You belong. Welcome home.