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AIGA - Design from an American perspective

American Institute of Graphic Artists conference, Kresge Auditorium, September 26 - 30

Graphic design is an international language appearing in publications, books, posters, packages, almost anywhere one looks. It exemplifies the need to communicate, to use symbols, to create meaning.

This past weekend, amidst Hurricane Gloria, this need to communicate brought 1200 graphic designers to MIT's Kresge Auditorium for the first national American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) Conference.

Toward an American Graphic Design Community was the motto of this very special gathering. In lectures, slide presentations and panel sessions topics like graphic design history, education, criticism, professional practice, and technology were discussed. For the first time, designers from all over the country took time out to to consider design from an American perspective. Such renowned designers as Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, Ivan Chermayeff, Massimo Vignelli, and Bob Gill (to name only a few) gave passionate talks, made visual presentations, and initiated discussions that focused on the American approach to design.

Tom Wolfe (author of From Bauhaus to Our House and The Right Stuff) opened the conference on Friday with the keynote address. He eloquently described a unique viewpoint of the course design has taken in the past 50 years. Without so much as a written word in front of him, Wolfe spoke about topics as diverse as Hurricane Gloria, the color theory work of Josef Albers at Yale, the lack of drawing ability in today's generation of designers, and the potential for a new period of design to come. He placed graphic design in a cultural context by sharing with his audience a rare mixture of anecdotes on, and insights into American life.

The day after Gloria, the conference resumed at a rousing 8 am. In an attempt to keep the program somewhat intact, the decision was made to start Saturday's proceedings an hour earlier, and to condense each of the presentations.

Speakers lectured on everything from design education to art and technology (the last in a presentation by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte). I will restrict my account to a few glimpses.

Bob Gill (graphic designer, teacher, illustrator, and art director) gave proof of genius in the panel discussion on graphic design education. He delivered stinging words about the state of education today. His denouncement began with a slide of a Parsons School of Design course catalogue cover. The design was mediocre, and an embarrassment to the famous art school. Gill called it "mean," and pointed out how little we settle for in the way of visual expression. ?CG says this is correct, I am not sure.M.He passionately pleaded Is it possible to plea THAT?M.that it was "...time to help students think, time to let students explore, time to let them make waves, time to light a fire under their asses." The audience responded to these subtle words of wisdom with a swell of applause.

The audience responded quite differently to the next speakers on education. Kenneth Hiebert, head of the Graphic Design Department at Philadelphia College of Art, and Tom Ockerse, head of the Design Department at Rhode Island School of Design, exemplified the reason for Bob Gill's plea. Both men were tediously theoretical, incredibly boring -- they personified education's inability to light a fire under any student's derri`ere.

Later on, the conference took quite a different turn, in offering considerable visual pleasure. Deborah Sussman presented her graphics for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Strikingly vivid colors interacted with bold designs to create an environment alive with festive excitement. A complex system of problems was tackled with style and humor. This brought to mind a quote from Herbert Simon figuring on this year's Boston AIGA poster, "Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones."

It is remarkable that this description of design sounds rather like what the scientific community at MIT does. It is possible to speculate that this could be one of the more interesting reasons as to why a conference for 1200 graphic designers was brought to the facilities of a technical school such as MIT. And fittingly enough, the conference ended its program with tours of MIT's Arts and Media Technology (now Wiesner) Building. With a great deal of awe, and some obvious excitement, designers viewed future tools of visual expression. As one graphic designer commented, "It was nice to end the conference by looking ahead to the future."

Allison Druin->