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Leading the tribe: AIGA and the future of design leadership

Leading the Tribe

“Are we ready to lead?”

I was delighted to hear Julie Anixter pose this question in her opening remarks earlier this month to 300 designers who’d gathered in my hometown of Raleigh for the annual AIGA Leadership Retreat. AIGA is the largest professional association of designers in the world and Julie is our new Executive Director. I say “our” because this is my tribe. These are my people.


Few of those who attended this year’s retreat were born when I joined the association in 1979. There were less than a thousand members then. Today there are nearly 27,000. In 1985 when I helped found the Raleigh chapter, we were the eighth chapter in the nation. Today there more than 70 chapters. This is a different time. We’re in a very different world.

Such growth indicates the growing importance of the profession in today’s world. For organizations that want to compete, design is increasingly being seen as a strategic imperative. Business leaders are being advised to think more like designers. And designers are increasingly being called upon to lead. Julie poses nothing less than the seminal question of the profession.

Are we ready to lead?

Julie cited the work of SYPartners that identifies the traits of 21st-century leaders as far different than those of their 20th-century counterparts. According to founder Keith Yamashita, today’s leaders must lead by being more optimistic and creative. And they must be authentic communicators and more human-centered. This is spot on.

Indeed, Julie might have quoted design leader, John Maeda. Or Harvard professor John Kotter. Or referenced the recent research of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Or a dozen other smart, data-driven voices. This is a fundamental and disruptive shift that we are undergoing. The competitive environment has changed. Strategies must change. Accordingly, new models for leadership are called for. 

As I approach the final decade or so of my professional life, I will be focused on this very transition from two vantage points. As a coach I’ll be working to help leaders adapt a more design-driven mindset and help designers better prepare to perform as organizational leaders.

The obstacles are monumental. The stakes are high. And the consequences are serious. But I’m optimistic—bullish on the profession of design. And very encouraged to find Julie leading the AIGA tribe.

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