First Things First

Today, I’m extremely proud and honored to stand for an elected position on the next board of AIGA Raleigh—offering to serve as Co-President with my friend and colleague Jonathan Opp, and to serve in leadership with Laura Hamlyn, Jason Horner, Mike Esser, Maura McDonald, Amy Lyons, Kristin Fowler, and Jayne Worth.

I’ve met and spoken to many of our members and community supporters during my five years of prior service on the board, but if we haven’t yet met, go ahead and read up on me. In short, I’m a systems designer and creative technologist, and I solve problems where technology, marketing, and media converge.

In advance of the elective process, I wanted to address you, our members and supporters, to share some perspective on the chapter’s goals, and also to share some of the story of why I’m an AIGA member and volunteer.

Jonathan and I have worked together over the last two years on the current board led by Matt Muñoz, and it has been quite a busy and eventful time. Maybe you’ve seen a few of the new initiatives and projects this incredible board has taken on ?

The full Board has been working hard to make Raleigh, the Triangle, and North Carolina a place where designing thrives. If you’ve been to a Community Meeting in the last two years, you’ve probably heard us talk about organizing the chapter’s activities around three main areas of focus:

  • Uniting People
  • Making Design Ability Attainable
  • Proving Design Impact

Early in 2010, Matt brilliantly distilled the essence of an AIGA chapter down into this guiding framework, and it has been our board’s touchstone ever since. Jonathan and I are committed to continuing with these areas of focus in the next board term. Great work has been done, but we know the job is far from over, so we will press onward and stay mindful of the things we’ve learned thus far.

After some time working on the board, I’ve come to see that these areas of focus often cascade into one another; by uniting people in our design community, this chapter can help them realize their own design ability, and empower them to bring that ability to bear on their work and their lives to make an impact in North Carolina (and beyond.)

The impact component of this work is very important to me.

I’m an AIGA member and volunteer because I want to make sure that this cascading effect culminates in real-world impact. Getting people together, helping them collaborate with one another, and giving their talents a chance to grow—these things can lead to real change.

Like never before, business, media, government, and society have woken up to the value and the impact of how designers can solve problems, provide tools, and bring understanding. The results of this shift are accruing exponentially, with many beneficial examples all around us. As designers, we have the chance to make real differences in how the world works, and I believe that affecting this change is the most exciting challenge of our time.

The idea that design process and design thinking can address larger issues is almost conventional wisdom these days, but in the design community we’ve been talking, thinking, and debating about the point for decades. One of the last big conversations about design as a societal change agent was a turning point for me in adopting my belief that designers can and should get involved in the business of making things better.

As a design student in 2000, I attended an AIGA Chicago event at UIC where local design luminaries gathered to discuss and debate the First Things First manifesto (FTF)–both the 1964 edition and the 2000 edition. If you haven’t read these seminal documents, I encourage you to check them out and learn more about the thinking behind them.

At the time, as I toiled at school and at work, I worried sometimes that my chosen industry was obsessed with consumerism, not focused on making things better. I wanted to do more, to advocate for more, but I didn’t know if that would be appropriate or even possible as a working designer.

When FTF 2000 came out, there was a lot of positive and negative commentary in the leading design magazines; most feedback seemed to be from people who argued that FTF was a naïve or flawed read on the industry and the profession. Some people also found the instigators of FTF 2000 to be suspect, and called their motives into question [1]. It’s true that a manifesto reduces complexity and nuance into binary proclamations remnicient of punchy ad copy. It’s also true that making a living and providing for your family can be difficult to reconcile with the so-called greater good. Those caveats aside, at that place and time in my career, FTF 2000 resonated deeply for me.

As a then-emerging designer, I needed a way to stay focused on the things I loved about design and its process: the deep problem-solving, the excellence won through iteration, and most of all, the reservoir of hope and courage required to constantly argue a case for change. Those were the things that had spoken to me and inspired me to go to design school in the first place. FTF 2000, and the validation of seeing other designers defend it in public, helped me conjoin my career with my desire to empower myself and others in having a voice in making things better.

This was my Because of AIGA moment.

Flash forward twelve years to today, and this conversation has progressed significantly. As we progress into this century’s second decade, FTF 2000 and designing for good are not seeming as controversial anymore, especially in AIGA.

Today, as designers we get to put our minds on the big challenges and focus on making real impact, and it’s damn exciting. That’s why I’m here working in this local chapter; to help us all get to those impact moments.

Standing in the back of that UIC lecture hall, hearing an impossibly-old designer extol on the virtues of what we now call Design For Good (I now realize he was probably only 15 years older than I am today), I never would have imagined I’d be standing for election as a chapter Co-President.

Before I wrap up, I want to take a moment to thank some people who have made it possible for me to begin this next stage of work on the board.

I’d like to thank Matt Muñoz for his clarity of vision, sense of adventure, and for his trust in asking me to join his board as a VP. At the time, he warned me that we’d be shaking some things up, and boy have we ever. Thank you Matt for showing us how to unite the wider community, and also how to tell the story of the good work we do.

I’d also like to thank Mike Joosse, John Loftin, Mihali Stavlas, and Jason Horner. I went to my first AIGA Raleigh Board Meeting in the spring of 2007, opened my mouth and offered some advice on a couple of minor items, offered to help with a small thing (driving a box to Greensboro actually), and Mike Joosse never let me forget it. I served on the board during the last months of Mike’s leadership and was very appreciative of how his mix of self-deprecating humor, personal accessibility, and high standards made folks take this volunteer job seriously and strive to meet the expectations of their peers—not an easy task for an organization someone once told me was nicknamed the “Young Designer’s Drinking Society.”

Mihali Stavlas graciously showed me the ropes as I became a Sponsorship trainee before Jason Horner became my first “Co-” partner as we took on the Sponsorship Director role for the chapter together under John Loftin’s then-new board. The board term of 2008-2010 was a tough one for reasons I’m sure you can guess; John showed us how to roll your sleeves up and get in the mix when times are tight, how to scale down without sacrificing quality, and how to pivot and change direction when your community needs something different from what you’ve been doing. All were valuable lessons.

A final thank you to the other fine folks I’ve served with on the board over the years, both current and former, especially Ken Phipps, Kelty Brittle, Meredith Atwater, and Scott McClure who all worked on projects with me at one time or another. Thanks for your hard work and passion.

Writing these thank-yous has me reflecting on how far anyone can go in AIGA with some elbow grease and moxie. I’m here to tell you (and I say this to everyone I can), you get out of AIGA what you put into it. It is exciting to think that our chapter’s next group of leaders are out there in the community right now; someone reading this post, someone coming to events, someone engaging with us via social media, someone reading our emails. One of those people will decide to get involved, will start volunteering, and will make something amazing happen. If any of this sounds like it might be up your alley, come find us and dive into the work of running the chapter—you won’t regret it. Perhaps you’ll end up writing a post like this someday.

Impact aside for a moment, AIGA at the local level is all about boots on the ground. The times ahead for our industry are going to be just as bumpy and exciting as they’ve been in all the years past. We’re here to help this community navigate that and to help you do your best work. Come join us to expand your skill-set, to unite with your peers in the greater design community, and to help the wider-world understand the value of what we do so that we’re all presented with more opportunities to make positive change.

You’ll be hearing a lot more about the board’s current and forthcoming projects in the weeks and months to come—exciting projects like Web 101: Year Two, Creative Triangle, and AIGA Triad. New initiatives like the Pursuit Fund and our forthcoming new Membership structure. You’ll also be hearing from us soon as we reach out to learn more about your needs. What have we done for you lately? Where can we be more helpful as your advocates?

If you’re a member of AIGA Raleigh, by now you’ve received a special email with information on how to vote for our slate of candidates for the 2012-2014 Elected Board. If you haven’t gotten it, check you spam filter first, then drop us a line and we’ll get you going.

If you’re a future member, please take this opportunity to share your feedback on the chapter’s work thus far and make your voice heard. Ballots aside, we’re always listening at

Come out to one of our upcoming events, and together let’s keep this good thing going. With your involvement and support, I know we can swell our cascade of talent and community into a significant impact.

Thanks for reading.

[1] FTF 2000 was sparked by the editors of Adbusters, the same organization who, a decade later, provided some organizing inertia to fuel the Occupy movement. I don’t agree with everything that Adbusters advocates, but their work is important and the link between FTF 2000 and OWS is a fascinating connection that bears further conversation. [back]

By Joe Schram
Published May 9, 2012