William Drenttel | Essays

Ten Years of Design Leadership: Richard Grefé

In 1995, the American Institute of Graphic Arts was an organization with 36 chapters, a new building on Fifth Avenue and 7,900 members. It was perceived by many as a New York City club, but it was slowly gaining a reputation as a trade association, and designers in many cities viewed it as their home.

A decade later AIGA is an important national organization with 52 chapters, a vibrant headquarters on Fifth Avenue and 17,800 members. It's no longer a club, but a large, multi-faceted organization supporting many aspects and kinds of design, nationally and internationally. This remarkable evolution is a testament to the leadership of Richard Grefé, executive director of the American Institute of Graphic Arts since 1995.

His tenth anniversary as director is today.

Lest our international readers see this as a parochially-American post, I suspect the achievements of Ric Grefé speak to design organizations in many countries, whether it be the British Design Council, the Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen, or the Graphic Design Association of Taiwan. In America, we have many such organizations, frequently focused upon the needs of particular interest groups. AIGA's reputation is not clouded by the professional practice controversies of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and it has superceded the American Center of Design (ACD), long deceased, as the champion for design education. AIGA is distinctive precisely because it addresses a host of individual and professional needs in regional, national and global contexts.

In 1994, as president of the national board of AIGA, I was charged with recruiting a new executive director. We had a new (unimproved) building in New York and a hostile national membership that thought we were only building a party space for the New York chapter. AIGA was suffering the pains of rapid success and incipient growth: it was also close to bankruptcy. (In the interests of full disclosure, we actually survived that year only by borrowing money from one of our more financially prudent chapters — in Minneapolis.)

I remember many interesting resumes out of the 100 we received, but one stood ont as unlikely: the candidate was simply too qualified. So I flew to Washington D.C. to meet with Richard Grefé. We met at a Starbucks, still something of a novelty in 1995, near Dupont Circle. When I think back on this meeting, I'm always reminded that design can be envisioned as a large idea by a non-designer. (And the Starbucks is still in the same location, as I noticed on a trip to Washington only a week ago.)

Ric had been head of policy at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as well as the CEO of the Association of American Public Television Stations. He had been head of a Merrill Lynch consulting division, and had run his own consulting firm in three cities for a decade. Buried in his resume was the fact he had been a reporter for Time Magazine; had served in the Navy; had attended Dartmouth College; and had earned an MBA at Stanford.

His questions were as probing as I've ever experienced in a job interview. He knew more about AIGA than I did. He understood, all too well, the critical timing, financing and positioning problems facing this promising, yet imperiled organization.

At some point, however, the conversation became personal. Ric had spent a summer at Dartmouth working for Stinehour Press as an intern, training on their letterpress. That single summer had left a lasting impression on him, and I sensed a deep appreciation of the craftsmanship that designers bring to their work, as well as a sense of the potential difference design could make.

He accepted our offer, and things began to change, not only in terms of membership growth and financial solvency, but more importantly — and more meaningfully — in terms of a sense of value. Since his arrival ten years ago, Ric has not only made AIGA a valued institution among designers, but has made enormous strides in promoting the power of design in business, across disciplines, as a catalyst for positive change. Today, design is an acknowledged part of American life, and it is to some extent due to Ric's indefatigable efforts on behalf of AIGA — as champion, as lobbyist, as advocate — that such change has occurred at all.

The architecture of the National Headquarters building is a good example. Early on, we agreed that the building should evolve as the needs of AIGA changed. During Ric's tenure there have been projects realized by a number of outstanding, prominent architects, including Tod Williams + Billie Tsien, Craig Hodgetts + Ming Fung, Emanuela Frattini Magnusson, and James Biber (as well as work by countless other designers who have done installations and exhibitions). There is nothing permanently monumental about the architecture at AIGA. Rather, it has been an ongoing sequence of collaborations, each a way of expanding and growing the organization.

The decade of Ric's leadership has seen national biennial conferences in Seattle, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Vancouver, and later this year, in Boston. AIGA is also becoming a member of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA), the worldwide body providing graphic design information, resources, events and news from the design world. Most recently, AIGA is working with Agnes Bourne, president of the Aspen Design Conference, to create a new future for this respected institution.

Personally, I will remember Ric for his unceasing efforts to engage design in national issues; his commitment to preserving the historical archives of AIGA; his sustained commitment to design writing and criticism; his pursuit of reaching new designers and engaging the media; and his championing of get-out-the-vote efforts, election reform, and a host of other civic design iniatives.

In reinventing the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Ric Grefé has made a significant contribution to design in America. On this, his tenth anniversary, these efforts and accomplishments are deeply appreciated. Thank you.

Jobs | June 17