AIGA’s Julie Anixter on the Power and Promise of Design

By Robert Half May 19, 2017 at 7:25pm

AIGA, the world’s largest professional association for design, is helping designers influence — and positively change — many facets of the business world. Here, AIGA executive director Julie Anixter discusses the future of design and her top priorities for the organization.

Diane Domeyer: You’re a veteran of the creative industry. But what’s one thing you’ve learned about designers since becoming the executive director of AIGA in early 2016?

Julie Anixter: One of our members, Brian Collins, describes design as “a slingshot that helps the world move forward.” While I’ve worked with designers throughout my career, what has been breathtaking about AIGA is to see the collective impact of 23,000 designers and how they help move the world forward in their lives, their work and in the 72 cities where our chapters represent the backbone of the creative community. They demonstrate a powerful and heartfelt commitment to design excellence, leadership, equity and creating impact — the four pillars we are focused on for growth.

Human beings are funny. Most of us don’t like to try something we can’t see. When we see it, we’re more willing to trust and explore it. The forces at work in society — demographics, the shifts in the economy, technology, politics, culture — all demand that we make change the norm. I have found the sheer creative force of this community bring ideas to life so we can see them, experience them and even trust them. It's amazing.

What are some of your priorities for AIGA this year?

One priority is to find new ways to help designers succeed and grow at all stages of their career. We’ll use those four pillars above — design excellence, leadership, equity and impact — as a framework for how we think about bringing new services and value to designers.

AIGA is a community of designers who are very generous in their willingness to connect and help each other in what we call career journeys. And they help each other in extraordinary ways, creating tangible social and economic impact. When they care about something they don’t quit. That spirit and persistence is showing up in many ways, but one that I am especially proud of is AIGA’s commitment to diversifying the design profession.

Design is increasingly shaping the future of so many industries today, including technology. What are some other areas? What opportunities and challenges does this present to designers?

The phrase “design-led” has entered the business lexicon. However, like “customer-centric” and other trends, it’s much easier to say than do, because to be a design-led organization means to use design as an enterprise-wide philosophy and tool.

I think the biggest opportunity, and often the biggest economic win for leaders, rests on their ability to deliver a great experience. By definition, that requires integrating design into every part of the enterprise in a way that makes engagement seamless and builds authentic relationships. That is a meta-design problem, and design leadership is required.

What’s exciting to see is how different sectors, from corporations, nonprofits and government to educational and cultural institutions, get this. It requires extraordinary leadership and investment, and a longer time horizon. The opportunity and challenge for designers is to become part of the leadership team, as Phil Gilbert has at IBM, or Jony Ive has at Apple, or Claudia Kotchka and Elizabeth Olson have at P&G for decades. While not every designer may aspire to hang out with the CEO, they must understand the business well enough to be a player.

How do you see design jobs changing as the demand for digital media grows?

This is a fantastic question because it has so many answers. On one hand, all designers must design for digital experience (and digital media), whether it’s to do strategy, conceptual work, art direct others or write the right brief. Without a deep understanding of digital media, how do you do that?

The phrase computational design wasn’t in my vocabulary 12 months ago, but when John Maeda invited me to an Automattic seminar at Drexel University on the topic last fall, I saw a clear path forward for designers, and it’s this: You might not have to code, but you have to think like a someone who can.

Ashleigh Axios, one of our AIGA National Board members, and the former digital strategist for the Obama White House, shared a great example of how her team organized and designed the delivery of the digital media for President Obama’s last State of the Union address. We will be sharing that story with our members because it’s a profound example of designing digital media to make an experience more accessible, and in doing so, to create more opportunities for dialogue and persistent engagement. And re-use. There’s a wonderful book called Spreadable Media that talks about the way our culture uses and shares digital media freely. Designers have to design for a world in which people are compelled to reuse, share and build new stories with your media and with your brand.

What do you foresee as essential technical skills for designers in the future?

Learning. Seriously. Learning may just be the Rosetta Stone, the North Star, whatever the “it skill” is of technical skills, the meta skill. And it applies equally to doing the work and understanding the work. And by understanding the work, I mean understanding how the function — whether it’s marketing, supply chain, manufacturing or customer service — operates, and where design can make a difference. And there are many places it can and does. But you have to speak the language of the business, the organization, the customers, and there’s always a human and a technical dimension.

Beyond that, designers have the ability to conceptualize and affect what artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual reality and all the other next waves of technology will look and feel like, and how easy they will be to adopt. That goes back to essential skills of envisioning, translating, simplifying and visualizing. There was an era where Leonardo da Vinci did that with ink. Now, we have a different palette.

Finally, designers are design thinkers and design doers. They are strategists and makers. And now we all need to work with non-designer design thinkers, because the business world is going there. And we can help make the process better and more effective. This will require mastering facilitation, negotiation and communications.

Our company recently conducted research about workplace happiness. What makes you happiest at work? What factors do you consider most important for on-the-job happiness?

What makes me happiest is doing great creative work with other people, important work that makes a difference in people’s lives. I am a collaborator at heart.

The most important factors? Authentic communication, humanity, optimism, creativity and a healthy bottom line so that economic pressure doesn’t erode the first four! (By the way, I can quickly reel these four factors off because I’ve been looking at the research of Keith Yamashita about what is most required today in the C-suite, and it’s those four.) I have had the good fortune to witness workplace cultures where these factors are very strong, like Hallmark, 3M and IBM.

Working in the design field and at AIGA makes me very happy. Design is an extraordinarily optimistic profession. Designers know that beauty and utility can go hand in hand. It thrills me to see designers inspire action through their work.

AIGA has launched a number of programs in recent years, including the Diversity & Inclusion Initiative, Women Lead, and Get Out the Vote. How do these programs benefit AIGA and the community at large? How can people get involved?

As the largest professional design association, we have a unique responsibility to embody and advocate for the values of professional ethics, diversity and inclusion, democracy, leadership, equity, social innovation (often called “design for good”) — not just for design, but for society. Many AIGA members want to lead in these areas, and do, and we provide a public platform in which they develop into formidable leaders who impact society in these domains.

Many successful designers have told me over the past year that AIGA is where they developed their leadership chops. It’s very gratifying to be part of a community that cares as much as this one does and has the requisite skills and courage to communicate the need for change, and then to inspire others to work together to make it happen.

I can’t believe it, but it’s now been five years since The Creative Group and AIGA launched the INitiative program. I know AIGA, with the help of a steering committee, has a lot planned to further support in-house designers. Can you give us a sneak peek at what we can expect?

First, thank you! TCG’s support enables us to serve more designers and to leverage your incredible research and resources. You can expect more focus on helping in-house designers at each stage of their journey; more focus on how in-house teams are innovating. We’re going to be sharing exclusive views of 3M, GE and other design-led companies. And we’ll be offering more professional development, tailored services, and curated experiences for in-house groups.

Imagine being able to have AIGA medalist Richard Danne video-conference into your next team meeting and talk about what it was like to create the identity and visual language for a young NASA organization and why that famous “worm” logo is still beloved. Or to go to Yale’s School of Management (virtually or actually) with Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand, who have a lot of insight on how to help non-designers work with designers for the best outcome. We are going to make sure AIGA’s medalists and fellows will be more accessible to our in-house community, along with very targeted professional development from our great partners. The best is yet to come!

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