Image by Laura Thompson

After living through 18 months of an ongoing pandemic, our social and professional interactions have significantly changed since “The Before Times.” For many of us it’s been a period of isolation that has forced us to learn how to find social connection within virtual spaces or shift to remote work through distributed teams for the first time in our careers. It’s also been a time for reevaluating our priorities and recognizing the need to interrogate the systemic structures that we contribute to as designers if we want to build a better future through our work.

This year’s virtual AIGA Design Conference reflected these cultural shifts in design thinking, centering the agenda on new ways of being together, reconnecting to our peers and our personal design lineages, grappling with the impact of capricious technologies like AI, and dismantling hierarchies in our own practices and at the institutional level. The week-long conference was filled with a wealth of knowledge from designers researching and working to make this field a more just and equitable space. Here are five takeaways from “A Brief History of Now.” 

1. The future isn’t the only thing to care for

On Day One of the conference, AIGA Design Conference chair Rick Griffiths set the tone for the week in his opening remarks: “The future isn’t the only thing to care for. We can hold space for more history, more messages from the past, and more wisdom from more and different people.” This was echoed in several presentations including Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar’s who discussed the need to reprioritize what stories are told and shared, as well as Audrey Bennett and Ron Eglash’s research into developing design trajectories and STEM education programs inspired by Indigenous cultures. 

In Tuesday’s symposium, The Demand for Independent Research, Tasheka Arcenaux-Sutton and Pierre Bowins presented their combined research that expanded the design education canon to include BIPOC histories in their groundbreaking course Black Design in America: African Americans and the African Diaspora in Graphic Design, 19th—21st Century. The course was offered live online and available asynchronously and was offered on a sliding scale to allow more access to students from marginalized communities.

2. Questioning the design canon is hard but necessary work

Cherry-Ann Davis of Futuress co-led the symposium, Dreams of Contra-Colonial Futures, which discussed how design is deeply intertwined with capitalism and how, “when it comes to the realization that doing intersectional, feminist, anti-racist, decolonial work within design it’s going against the grain of design. As a discipline born out of the Industrial Revolution, design is in many ways the arrow or vector that propagates Eurocentric capitalistic hetero-patriarchal modernity. To question design is hard work. It questions the pillars that hold up the Academy, the design canon, the histories, the epistemologies, and basically everything.”

Javier Syquia challenged the design canon and its academies in his presentation A Rejection of the Term ‘Vernacular’ stating that the term vernacular design has been used to categorize designs that do not fit within standards of good Eurocentric graphic design, namely designs produced by individuals who are not formally trained in institutions like RISD, Yale, CalArts, Art Center, Parsons, etc.” Through the study of the term’s etymology, its subliminal meanings, his own personal relationship with the term and how it relates to his practice Syquia said, “I now explicitly reject the term and actively recognize that all forms of visual design are graphic design, and that the categorization of vernacular versus graphic is reductive and only undermines the deep cultural history of graphic design languages exhibited in numerous post-colonial nations.”

3. Everything breaks. Design for healing now

Carissa Carter and Scott Doorley’s presentation on ‘mischievous technologies’ looked at how algorithms and the blockchain are now part of the materials that make up a designer’s toolset. They explained that while every designer doesn’t need to know how to code, they do need to know what the code can do, and that if we want tech to represent all of us, it has to be created by all of us. A key point they made was that everything we do and make is interconnected and we must make it a part of our job to predict the benefits but also the unintended consequences of our work. “If you’re a designer, even if you’re somebody that focuses mostly on product design, or systems design, or the design of a specific algorithm, you have to be concerned with the full landscape of design work,” Carter said.

By mapping the decisions that came before that have contributed to our current social and ecological crises, we can map our way to a better future, and reposition ourselves not just as problem solvers but as healers. “Everything breaks, and I think it’s great to think about design’s purpose as being one of healing; building on the traditions of participatory design, co-designing, liberatory design, circular design and universal design,” Doorley said.

4. Expand the limits of graphic design thinking

During Friday’s General Session hosted by Roman Mars, book designer Anja Lutz shared her initiative that invites designers to push beyond the boundaries of their own ways of working in her Berlin-based experimental graphic design studio A—Z. “My goal is to create a space that expands the limits of graphic design thinking by providing a trans-disciplinary environment where graphic design enters into dialogue with other areas such as contemporary art, cultural research, or social engagement,” Lutz said in her presentation. “Expanding, connecting and sharing knowledge with other disciplines—these dialogues and overlaps are vital to helping us to become aware of the larger context of our societies and the world around us.”

5. It’s ok to say no

Cameron Tonkinwise’s talk No, and: The Crucial Power of Design to Direct Transitions outlined the benefits of transition design and advocated for designers to work collectively to not just keep on saying ‘yes and.’ “We’re trying to say to those people who are in charge of large scale shifts in our societies—engineers in charge of infrastructure, or politicians in charge of policy—that it’s very important that they remember that to do a large-scale transition, things still come down to human-scale design like interaction design, which is crucial to how large-scale shifts actually begin to impact people’s everyday lives, how they develop new habits and expectations,”  Tonkinwise explained.

He said to create new ways of habits and practices, it’s necessary for designers to also envision futures that include new ways of living and working and to not just solve for the current pain points. “If we have values about the types of visions of the future that we want, then we’re going to have to also start to work collectively to not merely say ‘yes, and’ but ‘no, let’s reframe the problem and work in a different way.’”