William Drenttel | Essays

A Design-Oriented National Endowment for the Arts

An Open Letter to the Obama Administration:

The National Endowment for the Arts should embrace design and innovation as a means to fulfill the larger agendas and programs of the Obama Administration. The choice of the NEA Chairman is an important opportunity to shape the contribution of the NEA in coming years.

Impactful NEA initiatives already exist to support the literary and performing arts: what’s missing are solutions and innovations that could come from additional emphasis on the arts in a troubled economy, a nation struggling with environmental crisis, a country that needs its entire infrastructure rebuilt (and the resultant jobs that would come with the challenge).

These are precisely the times when a design-oriented NEA could most effectively benefit the nation with practical solutions, progressive thinking and citizen-oriented improvements affecting all aspects of civic, cultural and artistic life.

After fifteen years of polemical culture wars, the future of the National Endowment of the Arts was very much in question at the beginning of President Bush’s first term in 2002. When Bush’s first choice died only a week into his NEA term, the new President chose the poet Dana Gioia to lead the agency.

Gioia was a brilliant choice. He was a respected poet and essayist, as well as a former music critic and the author of opera librettros; in other words, he was comfortable across multiple artistic disciplines. A former executive with General Foods, he brought unusual strategic, budgetary and political skills to the job. His programmatic initiatives built support on the ground in Congressional districts, with many community-based literary programs: Shakespeare in American Communities, the Poetry Out Loud Recitation Project and The Big Read. Gioia took the arts he understood and successfully translated them into branded public programs at once national in scope and local in execution, garnishing across-the-aisle support in Congress for the agency. Budgets increased. Gioia then began to articulate a new vision for the arts (defined primarily around reading and literary culture) as a part of civic participation, backing up his argument with solid research and effective programs.

However, one discipline under the auspice of the NEA portfolio made little progress during these years: design (or, in the vocabulary of the NEA, the “design arts”). Design was not prioritized with major national initiatives; no designers serve on the NEA’s advisory board, the National Council on the Arts; and only three designers (Viktor Schreckengost, Florence Knoll Bassett and Lawrence Halprin) out of 80 named for the National Medal of Arts during the Bush years. In fact, there were virtually no important design policy contributions enacted during the Bush Administration with the exception of Laura Bush’s endorsement of the National Design Awards for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

(This is the only known instance of President Bush speaking about design during his administration. Compare this to the strongly-worded design policies of the early Richard Nixon presidency.)

So, what’s next?

It is easy to think of the NEA as only supporting poetry recitals or museums and theatre companies. In 1996, I gave a lecture on effective communication models for federal agencies sponsored by the NEA. Thirty leaders from different federal agencies attended the event to hear ten designers on different aspects of federal policy: communications strategies for the Government Printing Office to architectural models for changing the process by which Federal Courthouses are designed. Why isn’t such a practical NEA also the NEA of our times? Why isn’t the creativity the NEA wants to support in American culture allowed to address — for a time, in serious times — practical solutions? (Or in the words of Dana Gioia, "essential catalytic support.")

Gioia has spoken of "those public spaces we have in common. It can be as simple as a small town band shell, a civic auditorium, having a space where we come together to celebrate, commemorate, perform or meditate. And we do these through the arts..." Gioia championed the content to perform in those band shells — poetry, jazz, performance. But there was little emphasis on the band shell itself, as an architectural form, as a designed way of bringing people together in the public sphere. And the entire metaphor is rather Music Man-like, almost trapped in another age.

Operating now from a point of strength, the NEA should be asking what are the "band shells" of the future — those spaces that engage citizens in the arts and civic participation. As the Obama campaign discovered, online communities are as viable and engaged and powerful as crowds in a small-town park...and then that same community can be turned into thousands filling a stadium.

The NEA already has important design programs: Governors’ Institute on Community Design, Mayors’ Institute on City Design and Your Town: The Citizen’s Institute on Rural Design. Neatly packaged for Congress into state, city and rural initiatives, the true impact of these programs is currently lost. Within the context of all the disciplines represented by the NEA, design is uniquely situated to evaluate problems; look at citizen needs; place the problem within an experience base of other categories and industries; rapidly prototype potential solutions; add research modules for evaluation and feedback; introduce metrics to evaluate success or failure; and quickly move toward solutions.

At present, our nation is likely to support huge spending increases in infrastructure that scream for NEA involvement. There are concrete next steps for a design-oriented NEA. So, how about something like this, a few ideas for a re-envisioned NEA:

• What if every infrastructure project mandated by the Federal economic stimulus package required that 1% be spent on better architecture and design?

• What if every new post office had an artist’s mural like that created under the Works Progress Administration (WPA)? Job creation is the same, dollar-to-dollar, but the impact on quality of life for all citizens is dramatically improved. During the last great depression, it was the WPA's Federal Artists Program that shaped our historical memory with over 200,000 works being created. Imagine a new Federal Artists Program under the NEA that supported collaboration between designers, artists and architects, just as happens so often today in private sector projects. The goal should simply be better federally-supported projects: not only spaces, buildings, bridges, murals, sculptures and monuments. But also tax forms, postage stamps, ballots, voting machines, government websites — and wind mill farms, car designs and highway signage systems.

• What if the NEA took a leadership role in these initiatives? What if the NEA marshalled the creative talent in America to solve problems and to innovate change more quickly?

• What if the Governors’ and Mayors’ Institutes were restructured as a way to define design innovation across the country — just as Dana Gioia built support by having literary programs happen in every Congressional district?

• What if, under the aegis of the NEA and the State Department, a U.S. National Design Assembly in 2010 addressed the need for a consistent and effective branding of America overseas? (In 2003, we designed this Congressional report on U.S. public diplomacy: the rationale for better communications and branding, consistent with new policies, cannot be underestimated.)

• What if a Federal Design Improvement Program launched in 2011 to revitalize federal design standards and implementation across all major agencies, with the NEA providing leadership and design expertise?

• What if the Obama Administration sponsored a White House Conference on Citizen Experience, dealing with everything from paying taxes to health care to the voting experience? Again, the NEA could provide leadership and design expertise.

• Finally, what if the NEA took a leadership role in supporting a U.S. National Design Strategy, just as the country has other defining strategies that define the core values of government activities?

In all of these instances, the NEA could play a significant role if it defined design as a critical discipline, and if it asked how the arts and creativity can support innovation during the next Administration. Innovation, though, is not just a word, a turn of phrase. It requires a mindset, a way of thinking, a process towards specific goals. It also requires ambition, a willingness to move into the future in a new way.

Designers are deeply associated with the current generation of thinking around innovation and their services and expertise should be brought to the table at the NEA. Every study in recent memory has shown that the arts lie at the core of urban renewal and the economic well-being of our cities. And, as the research mounted by Dana Gioia had demonstrated, we are better citizens when the arts help us participate fully in our culture and democracy. But today there is a particular urgency — given the dramatic economic and political issues before us — in stepping forward to make significant and lasting change.

Designers have the capability to demonstrate how creativity can create value, not only in arts and culture, but also in business, society and everyday life. The NEA is the ideal Federal agency to serve as a catalyst for — and participate in — precisely such innovation.

Note: The author wishes to thank Richard Grefé, executive director of AIGA, for his help as a critic of this essay. AIGA is involved in many of the design initiatives mentioned in this essay.

Posted in: Business, Politics

Comments [21]

Excellent to see this - FYI Viktor Schreckengost was not the only designer awarded a National Medal of Arts during the Bush years. Florence Knoll Bassett and Lawrence Halprin were honored in 2002. (Editors note: Thank you. Correction made.)

Bill, thank you for writing this. The Obama campaign's obvious attention to the power of design has encouraged me to think that perhaps the collective power of the design industry will be called upon to help in this challenging time for our country. We can all hope that we will get a chance to shine. The NEA is the proper vehicle for the push; now we just need some vision from the policymakers to allow the agency to accomplish great new things.
Don Whelan

I would certainly support NEA funding toward better artistic design or architecture initiatives that are not otherwise able to be funded, but not at the expense of the funding going to the arts. The NEA was set up for artistic endeavors, and design - as it is most typically practiced today - is largely commercial... therefore this would be a slippery slope. Artists of all types (including those who design) should continue to apply for and receive NEA grants, but larger design projects which solve public problems (like tax forms or band shells) have value and should come out of appropriate civic, governmental, institutional, etc. budgets... not the NEA's budget. For example, the IRS should pay for better designed tax forms via their own budget; no artist should loose funding because their grant went to the IRS instead. To me it sounds like the real problem is that we have not sold the value of design to the institutions who would be applying for such an NEA design grant.
mike w

@Sloan, thank you for the correction.
@mike w, to be clear, I am not suggesting that the other arts disciplines represented by the NEA be cut to fund design initiatives. Just as Gioia grew NEA budgets to pay for his literary initiatives, NEA budgets would have to grow to fund new design and arts innovations.
William Drenttel

hi bill,
bravo on a very provocative proposal. it made me realize that my personal relationship to the NEA is virtually non-existent, and so i had to do a little digging to refresh my memory of its place in history and contextualize your ideas in today's crappy economic reality.

among many tidbits i found, i offer these:

[In 1780] "John Adams, in a letter to his wife, writes, "I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture." -From the NEA Chronology (1780-1965)

"The Federal budget is about $2.3 trillion (11 zeroes after the 3). The National Endowment for the Arts’ budget is $125 million—or about 54 ten-thousandths of a percent of the federal budget (.0054%) [...] IF THE FEDERAL BUDGET WERE…an eight-hour school day, then students would have just over 1.5 seconds to spend on artistic pursuits. But if the Congress were to budget just “one minute” of this eight-hour day to the arts, the NEA budget would become $4.8 billion." -From Arts Issues Blog

these quotes serve as a means to ground the discussion on the hierarchy of value the arts has in the federal mindset. the NEA, which to this day serves a critical funding connector between the government and individual artists, is a miniscule concern in the overall federal budget, and as john adams said hundreds of years ago, there are many national concerns that precede the support of the creation and enjoyment of visual and performing arts culture.

that being said, i do not disagree at all with your outreach that ostensibly states that design should be escalated in prominence under the aegis of the NEA, due to the fact that it is "applied" in nature. I use the term "applied" here mainly because the causal connection between today's need for JOB CREATION and visual/performance culture creation is much more explicit than if the NEA were to focus on traditional support of the arts.

i would argue that the NEA, for all its virtues, is not the proper vehicle for many of your ideas for several reasons:

1) many of your ideas are ACTIVE in nature (large scale application of design in many contexts - design "carpetbombing" if you will). the NEA's traditional modus operandi is as curatorial benefactor. very different mindset and energy.

2) many of your ideas would require a much larger federal budget than currently exists, and the BRAND of the NEA is stuck in its little corner of the universe - again, supporting the arts (sure, lump in design if you like) is the last concern on the totem pole of a global economic slump.

3) your many innovation arguments belong more in the world of commerce than the arts. which leads me back to the age-old question of "what is design?" (design is so many things and cannot be easily categorized). we have a department of commerce. we have the NEA. design sits in the middle. there is not a separate department of design, nor do i necessarily think there should be one. i know nussbaum is jonesing for a department of innovation, but that is just as slippery. could it be that two branches of design emerge as major pillars in both the department of commerce (innovation, product, technology, science) and the NEA (graphic design, conceptual design, environmental)? i suspect the national science foundation has mirror issues to your proposal (ie pure vs applied, and how it can be employed in obama-world).

4) federal branding and redesign of government-citizen interfaces (paper, bits, whatever) - again, this is not the NEA's schtick.

furthermore, on the WPA. the FAP generated so much amazing stuff in such a brief period of time. but we have to remind ourselves that the FAP was borne from the WPA, which had a single mandate to create jobs, and it was around 3.3 million jobs that it created. the work from the FAP was indeed organized around participating in culture, but it wasn't the only thing. there was much political propaganda (good and bad), worker safety reminders, billboards to promote controversial federal programs such as low-income housing, and not so controversial programs like promoting victory gardens. taken as a whole, this period of the FAP was probably the most productive period in the relationship between design and government in this nation's history.

that being said, we are all waiting to see if obama comes up with a "new new deal". the terms of this federal mandate will determine the priority of the arts and design in the overarching concerns of JOB CREATION and the future of american economic growth.

lastly, i haven't even mentioned the role of partisan politics here. there is still half a country that values guns over art, preemptive force over diplomacy, isolationism over internationalism, parochialism over tolerance, and so on. i don't even know where this NEA argument fits in the context of this hairball of our reality.

this may very well be the most ambitious escalation of "design needing to be at the proverbial table" argument in decades. i just don't know if the NEA is *the* table.

Gong Szeto

Absolute vomit. Are you people not making a good living already without lobbying for taxpayers money? Just awful.


I think to ask for a MORE design oriented NEA is a valid request given that the NEA was meant to service the Arts and Design both. Today, it still supports a lot of design as Bill points out. It is just that it is mostly in the areas of architecture and urban/environmental design because those areas fit the model of public-private partnership that was ushered in by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. This was further entrenched after the Art controversies in the 1990s that resulted in the government decision to not fund individuals, but rather institutions who could offer matching-grants.

But the NEA has been supportive of design. I see Bill's call of how we should support the NEA so that it can better support us.

@Gong Yes, design spans the arts and commerce. At the Summit, one of the things that we discussed how we need to partner with the NEA, Dept. of Commerce, and almost every other branch of government to implement design policies. Design's ubiquity is both its beauty (in terms of impact) and challenge (in terms of recognition of its unique contributions).

One of the first places to start is by partnering with the NEA to demonstrate more broadly the value of design thinking and making. And the NEA has a long history of exactly that. The Federal Design Improvement Program in the 1970swas run by the NEA and it led to the redesign of the graphics for over 45 Federal government agencies by designers like John Massey and Danne and Blackburn, the passing of the Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act of 1976 which legislating accessibility standards and public use for Federal Buildings, Federal Designer Recruiting and Rating Procedures which instituted portfolio reviews for government designers, and four 800+ participant Federal Design Assemblies that had three President's praising the role of design in American civics.

@anonymous This is not about wasting tax-payers dollars, but about defining how design can participate in the common good (which is represented by the pool of tax-payers dollars) through the NEA. It is something I especially intend to help pursue. Thanks, Bill for raising the issue within the community.
Dori Tunstall

To create real change in the future, both artists and scientists must become designers. A Design-Oriented National Endowment for the Arts is a great place to start.

“Rather than fear the future, we must embrace it. I have no doubt that America can compete — and succeed — in the 21st century. And I know as well that more than anything else, success will depend not on our government, but on the dynamism, determination, and innovation of the American people.” — Barack Obama, Speech in Flint, Michigan, June 16, 2008
Carl W. Smith

When I wrote a blog post about Federal Bail Out of Freelance Graphic Designers I was joking.

Are you serious?
Stephen Macklin

@gong. Thank you for the thoughtful comments. A couple of responses:

1) It is precisely the NEA's ability to act in a "curatorial" role that is it's power and natural role as a Federal Agency. Who else is better in recommending opera companies or museum exhibitions to tour the world under the State Department's many cultural exchange programs. In the same vein, as the champion of design, one of its 14 program areas, why shouldn't the NEA help other Federal agencies understand the power of design and the best resources and models? As @Dori Tunstall points out, the Federal Design Improvement Program in the 1970s was run by the NEA and it led to the redesign of the graphics for over 45 Federal government agencies. It's this precisely the curatorial role of which you are speaking?

2. In the context of the enormous Federal Budget, the tiny NEA is a speck. But its contribution is enormous. And out of it's $125 million budget, only $875,000 went to design grants in 2006, the last year reported on their site. (I suspect that far more went to standing design programs.) So there is no argument here about cutting the budgets of other disciplines, but growing the NEA even 10% and allocating some funds to design engagement with other Federal agencies could lead to huge impact and innovation.

3. In general, my example of better information design on tax forms probably was ill-spoken in this context. The NEA should not be hiring designers to solve this problem: the IRS should. This said, the NEA, if it respects its responsibilities to the design discipline it is to represent and champion, could be taking a leadership role in bringing the best designers to work on the most important projects the nation faces, even if the ultimate responsibility and budgets happen in other agencies. Even with a faction of its overall budget, the NEA has a long tradition of such leadership and innovation.
William Drenttel

Design is an art unlike any of the others. While all arts can be instructive as well as beautiful, most arts we have to choose to engage, while design is all around us all the time, in the forms of architecture, wayfaring signage, businesses with logos on them ("turn right at the Texaco"), etc. It makes sense to invest more in the support of design because of this constant engagement. The downside to being constantly engaged with design is that most people don't even notice it (unless it is extremely good or bad).
Bruce Schneider

This letter is so timely, William, because enacting the items you suggest would give designers more opportunities to contribute to and change the visual landscape of our country. Moreover, it would stimulate our economy & culture, improve our connectedness and communication, and allow designers to help foster improved ways of living, learning, and sharing. I believe, wholeheartedly, that our incoming President would look at such a letter, and the suggestions you make, with keen interest. If not, somebody should get this in front of him while he's in the process of creating his administration. If anything, there are designers available to fill any of the 'czar' roles that need to be filled (design czar has a nice ring to it).
Jason Tselentis

First change: Redesign the NEA's logo. Yuk!

Joe Moran

Absolute vomit. Are you people not making a good living already without lobbying for taxpayers money? Just awful

When I wrote a blog post about Federal Bail Out of Freelance Graphic Designers I was joking...Are you serious?

I had hoped that we could take a break from zero-sum politics, but my optimism must have been misplaced. Sigh.

Believe it or not, advocating a commitment to better design at the federal level isn't about redirecting Joe the Plumber's hard-earned dollars to the supposedly vast coffers of the graphic design community.

Instead, the idea is that using good design to improve the ways that government communicates with its citizens would benefit all of us.

I can think of dozens, if not hundreds of designers who have already volunteered their time in local efforts like the ones Bill describes. I'm sure that even more would join in on a national level.
Michael Bierut

I'm sure that even more would join in on a national level.

Michael, William, Jessica : Will you be marching to Capitol Hill to get something in front of the Senate? The NEA? Do we need to start locally? Volunteering is one thing, banding together and organizing as an established collective is another.
Jason Tselentis

I suspect that most of you will be shocked by the lack of "change" that Obama will bring, starting with his nomination of the nepotistic clinton as secretary of state (in my eyes, the first betrayal). So I wouldn't get my hopes up, especially in regard to design- c'mon, while the economy is tanking, you want some prettified nonsense? If only I could get my vote recast.
Candace Brun


I like your proposal, although I see no reason to graft a national design initiative to the much troubled NEA. The guilt by association would be that design, like the arts, becomes a discipline that requires patronage and does not create measurable economic ROI (not just cultural ROI). I'm not disagreeing with your assessment of the contributions that "communications design" initiatives could make to all manner of cultural and civic communications design issues, but your opening paragraphs refer to
"a troubled economy, a nation struggling with environmental crisis, a country that needs its entire infrastructure rebuilt." While these issues have communications design components, the underlying systems that are linked to these issues tend to manifest themselves in the physical world - through industry, building, manufacturing, transportation, systems. If you are going to call the environmental and infrastructure cards, you need to look at the numbers, and buildings of course are one of the biggest hidden culprits, accounting for up to 50% of greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation makes up at least another 25% by many calculations. The numbers related to communication design are harder to quantify, although they represent untold intangible value, as we've seen demonstrated in the world of branding and creating brand value.

If the stated goal is to harness the power of design to solve environmental and infrastructure problems and create economic value, and if the proposed solution is to link design (with a capital D?) to systemic transformational innovation, AND if an existing federal agency had to be the umbrella for this initiative, then I suggest that a better partner than the NEA might be the EPA (which already has a Design for Sustainability office, FYI). While the EPA has a history equally if not more troubled than the NEA, ultimately EPA regulations effectively guide and determine much of the environmental outcomes of industry. Outcomes that are best mitigated through design, standards and innovation.

EPA programs like ENERGY STAR have transformed the way in which products are designed, meeting benchmarks of energy efficiency since the 1970's. This affects all companies who make or sell appliances, computers and a multitude of energy consuming designed objects to the American public. They are now turning their attention to homes and buildings. The folks behind the EPA and ENERGY STAR are now beginning to look at the bigger picture, the life-cycle and end-of-life impacts of design. These are measurable metrics. Numbers are things that industry and the government can wrap their heads around. Call it Design ROI.

Another example of design metrics in action: The USGBC through its LEED program has already transformed the building industry. While LEED has its detractors and supporters, at the end of the day it is the metrics of its system that has given it legs. Commercial builders have figured out that green buildings are not only good for the environment, but good for the bottom line. Design ROI.

This dilemma, of how to qualify the category of "design" when relating it to deep systemic change and innovation is one of the issues that I think AIGA has struggled with mightily over the years as it seeks to evolve its charter from the American Institute of Graphic Arts to "The Professional Association for Design." This is not just endemic to AIGA. The design industry as a whole is growing increasingly hybrid, multi-disciplinary, cross-pollinated, "design thinky" and open-source. I see this as a positive trend, but if we are going to Washington D.C.'s doorstep in the name of "design", I think we still need to agree on a working definition.

In light of the multitude of design-related issues that we communally face, from communications to information to industrial to architectural to systemic, I feel that now more than ever associations like AIGA, AIA, IDSA and others need to align themselves more closely and identify critical areas of adjacency.

See my (somewhat more brief) proposal to create a National Office of Design here (scroll down a bit):



Marc Alt
Co-Chair, AIGA Center for Sustainable Design
VP, Advisory Board member, The Designers Accord
Marc Alt

"I had hoped that we could take a break from zero-sum politics, but my optimism must have been misplaced. Sigh.

Believe it or not, advocating a commitment to better design at the federal level isn't about redirecting Joe the Plumber's hard-earned dollars to the supposedly vast coffers of the graphic design community."

So Mr. Bierut, are we to assume that it's just a coincidence that this letter coincides with the inauguration of a president who wants to see large increases in government spending? Come on...

Anonymous, just because you're unable to imagine anyone acting unselfishly doesn't mean no one ever does.
Michael Bierut

and *zing*

lets see what happens shall we, at least the ball is rolling on the USA *gasps* finally getting a National Design Policy of its very own.
funny person

I think this is a timely and interesting thought (if not a bit grandiose). But I have doubts. Chiefly that fact that there is already a great lack of consensus within our profession as to what Design is and what its role should be in our lives. Is it art? Is it a craft? Is it both? Does it serve commerce, or more humanitarian initiatives? Or both? (That tricky 'both' tends to be the most common answer, yet it is the non-answer answer.) To borrow a cautionary phrase often used to direct clients to a singular solution, Design is all things to all people. How can we expect the federal government to accept and initiate a cohesive vision, let alone plan of action, when we as professional designers cannot do so ourselves? (Although they had no problem with a unilateral military intervention lacking substantial cause. But that was the OLD government. Right?)

I have to admit that in my estimation the federal government sounds like the mother of all nightmare clients. It is essentially a committee. A really big one. The committee of all committees. Who would be responsible for making the decisions? How is it decided who is responsible for deciding who is responsible? Isn't what we are largely asking for here is to be designed by committee? Perhaps that's the price we have to pay. But, with all the bitching that already goes on at the bar after work about our clients I can't imagine what it would be like if our client were Congress! I mention this not to sound petty (although it really is) but for the fact that this often breeds contempt, and a lack of respect for the client in the heart of the designer. This crest-falling would be the death knell for any and all of these initiatives. It would require a designer of Hobbit-like purity to not let this effect his/her vision or drive in serving the public through the practice of his/her art (or craft (or both)).

While the Design Observer (and I'm guessing a large portion of its readers) is interested in initiating change within the profession and the global community as a whole, it is in my (entirely unscientific) estimation that they comprise a minority of those who call themselves 'professional designers.' Perhaps these initiatives would be better served to be focused inward, towards the profession rather than outward to the public through the federal government. While DO already does a wonderful job with this professional focus, this particular article seems to have stars in its eyes. While its heart is in the right place I think it's the wrong place and time for it.

But let's not kill it before it gets out of the gate! Give it a whirl and see where it lands. What harm could it do? Really?
Nick Zdon

Jobs | June 19