Interviewing Debbie Millman: President of the National AIGA

Dear Debbie Millman,

For years, you’ve been an inspiring advocate of the design industry. I know you’ve certainly inspired me. Your opinions on ethics in the design industry jumped out at me when I first came across Speak Up. And I believe it was right about that time when I started listening to your Design Matters broadcasts on Voice of America.

And when you backed the NO!SPEC Campaign, I couldn’t have been prouder: Debbie Millman on NO!SPEC and Debbie Millman: Commentary: Spec This.

Your two books ‘How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer’ and ‘Essential Principles of Graphic Design’ made me prouder still. And I see that you now have yet another book waiting to go on my bookshelf, ‘Look Both Ways, Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design’. Nice.

Then, when you became a board member of the National AIGA, I knew in my heart that the AIGA was serious about tackling the issue of spec.

And recently, when the Forbes Snooty business hit the Internet and the AIGA asked you to chair a task force on the issue, there you were again, fighting for designers.

And now, as you take over the office of the president of the National AIGA, even more congratulations are in order.

For me personally, I know of no other person I would rather see steering the AIGA.

So Deb, now that you have assumed the presidency of the AIGA, what are your dreams and aspirations?

There are three goals I have already outlined to the membership and I have just added a forth, and this is the first time I am stating it!

The three original initiatives are Connectivity, Inclusivity and supporting AIGA’s Centennial Mandate. Let me tell you about them all!

First, Connectivity:
Clearly, the way in which we humans connect with each other has changed forever. Just in this country alone, we went from three television channels to over 500 hundred channels, from no web pages to billions. It took 35 years for 150 million people to own televisions. It took only 7 years for 150 million people to own cell phones. And it will likely take only take 3 years for 150 million people to sign up for Twitter. The average teenager sends over 2500 text messages! The structural frameworks of the way we live, communicate and organize ourselves has fundamentally changed and I am committed to charting a new connective structure for AIGA that is authentic, transparent and meaningful. I believe that some of the most exciting things happening within AIGA are in the local chapters. The entire membership should be aware of this great activity and benefit from it. So I am working on instilling new practices in the way the entire 20,000 plus membership is communicating and connecting.

Second, Inclusivity:
Cat, you know more than most people that my initiation and acceptance in AIGA was challenging. Ten years ago, I didn’t feel that AIGA was particularly respectful of brand design, though that has changed now. But in subsequent conversations with members and non-members around the country, I have come to the realize that, for many different reasons, mostly non-intentional, designers of a variety of disciplines haven’t always felt that AIGA is sufficiently committed to their individual interests! As a result: I am bound and determined to foster a spirit of inclusivity within AIGA and beyond. All design disciplines, whether online, offline, in print, on paper, on screen or the Internets, in code or in ink are encouraged, welcomed and needed to join our efforts! I am fiercely determined to knock down the barriers separating our specialties and work together to design the change the world needs.

Third, advocate the new AIGA Mandate:
Believe it or not, AIGA is nearing its centennial in 2014. The membership, leadership and staff have taken a deep dive into the organization’s activities, positioning and the design profession’s needs, and we have instilled a new course for meeting our mission: to advance designing as a professional craft, strategic tool and vital cultural force. At our June leadership retreat in Portland, Oregon, 250 board members from more than 60 AIGA chapters nationwide met to exchange ideas and success stories, and to review and discuss the results of six months’ worth of research to help chart AIGA’s future. The three-day event culminated with a unanimous endorsement of a new mandate for AIGA in effect, a roadmap for the organization’s progression over the next five years (and beyond) that will support the profession’s aspirations for relevance, leadership and opportunity. This includes the following initiatives:

  • To provide ample opportunities for members to engage in social networking, and for us to provide content and make connections –Shift the traditional conferences to more regional and local events, and to put more resources in the development and distribution of audio and video programming
  • Build a stronger core of programs for professional development
  • Offer DAILY online examples of design excellence and inspiration
  • Find better, easier ways for designers to assume a role in business, social and cultural environments

I just worked with AIGA Executive Director Ric Gref to help organize the efforts of our amazing and diverse board to help realize these goals.

And lastly, I believe that there is great opportunity for younger members to benefit from the access to more established members for mentorship, job opportunities and training, and I’d like to work on ways to facilitate that.

What are the AIGA’s plans for educating its members on the issues of working spec?

Cat, as you know, I am personally vigorously, passionately and fundamentally AGAINST designers being asked to do work on spec and neither I nor my firm will ever participate in speculative work. I have said it before and I will say it again: Speculative work denigrates both the agencies and the designers that participate. If we give away our work for free, if we give away our talent and our expertise, we give away more than the work. We give away our souls.

Way before I got involved with AIGA, they had a strong stance against speculative work, and that has not changed. Given all of the technological advancements impacting the design world, we believed that is was time to re-examine our position. I was part of this task force prior to becoming AIGA President. When we updated our position, we reiterated and recommitted to our original stance against designers participating in speculative work. This is the introduction to the renewed position:

AIGA, the professional association for design, believes that professional designers should be compensated fairly for the value of their work and should negotiate the ownership or use rights of their intellectual and creative property through an engagement with clients.

AIGA acknowledges that speculative work that is, work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid occurs among clients and designers. Instead of working speculatively, AIGA strongly encourages designers to enter into projects with full engagement to continue to show the value of their creative endeavor. Designers and clients should be aware of all potential risks before entering into speculative work.

Cat, AIGA is 100% committed to informing designers, students, educators, clients and the general public on the risks of compromising the design process though information, materials and services that can help in forging a healthy working relationship between designers and their clients.

We then outline and answer all of the many, many questions we received from members prior to publishing our position. We have provided clear definitions of what we believe is and isn’t speculative work, as well as address competitions, volunteer work, internships and pro-bono work. We also outline the many risks involved in participating in speculative work (both for clients AND for designers), and provide a history of our restrictions and policy. It is extremely thorough and highly enlightening, IMHO. By the way, it also includes a sample letter for ANY designer to download in response to any spec work request, AIGA member or not.

Looking through a few of your accomplishments – managing partner and president (Sterling Brands), online personality (Voice of America), instructor (School of Visual Arts), board member and national president (AIGA), and author – I have to ask: Has your campaigning for the rights of designers affected your personal life in any way?

Design is my life. Anyone involved in my life in any substantial way knows this and (hopefully) loves me for it. Many people ask me “how do you do it all?” or “do you do anything but work?” and this is what I tell them: I am not married (anymore), I don’t have children and my life partner is a writer who needs a lot of time alone. I don’t work out or go to the gym. I work. But my work is fun! I love everything that I do and feel blessed to have such an incredibly full life. It took me 40+ years to get this kind of life, and I am so grateful for all I have been given!

From the AIGA’s Position of Spec Work in the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission declared that AIGA could not make a prohibition of work for free as part of its statement of ethics for it was a restraint of trade (or price fixing)

Due to the interference of the Federal Trade Commission, just how far can the AIGA legally go in its stance against spec?

We have to be really, really careful. Back in the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission determined that AIGA could not forbid or prohibit designers to work for free as part of its statement of ethics. This is a restraint of trade or price fixing. In other words, this would appear to be the profession seeking to determine consistent prices including nothing for their work and eliminating freedom of competition. We can only educate and recommend best practices for our members; we are not allowed to enforce financial rules and encompassing regulations. This, however, does not take away from our broad understanding and respect of why spec work is wrong.

The latest AIGA press release focusing on spec work launched with this title: ‘AIGA maintains its position against speculative work while recognizing that the decision is up to individual designers’.

When that press release hit the Internet, all email hell broke loose over here at no-spec.com – not because anyone believes that the AIGA is condoning spec work, but because of the possible misuse of the title. At one end, some could take it as the AIGA’s endorsement of working on spec. On the other, it could be construed that the AIGA is taking a wishy-washy stance against spec work.

To clarify for everyone here: “is the AIGA in any way endorsing spec?”

We are against spec work. The reason for the line, “while recognizing that the decision is up to individual designers, was included was to try and acknowledge how cultural and technological dynamics have changed. We are finding that we are more effective communicating with younger designers when we do not preach. Instead, we are seeking to educate the next generation of designers by clearly outlining the inappropriateness of a spec work. Sadly, the largest group of designers participating in spec work is their peers! Telling them to “just say no”, isn’t going to work. We need to outline WHY and HOW it is detrimental to their practice.

Deb, if you could rewrite that title, what would it be?

Well, that headline already has been rewritten! The new headline is as follows: What is AIGA’s position on spec work? And how are ethical standards determined?

Cat, I am hopeful that the article makes it crystal clear that AIGA has reiterated its longtime position that spec work is not in the interest of either designers or clients and we are now redoubling our efforts to educate, inform and inspire clients and designers alike to work respectfully, intelligently and fairly.

Deb, I realise that you must be totally snowed these days, so a special thanks! goes to you for making the time for this interview.

Catherine (cat) Wentworth
NO!SPEC Campaign