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Creating an open city: reflecting on the 2016 AIGA leadership retreat

This June, 330 design leaders from around the country gathered in Raleigh for the AIGA leadership retreat. A retreat that celebrates a year of success for over 70 individual chapters of AIGA and fosters a bold conversation around the future of design.

Every year this leadership retreat is held in a new city, with a new theme. And when Raleigh won the 2016 bid to host, after six consecutive years of applying, we wanted to make a statement. A bold and loud statement together.


We proposed Open as our retreat theme to signify the way we think of our city: as open source, open data, and continuously evolving. To signify the way we think of our local AIGA Raleigh chapter: as an open, thriving community that brings design to everyone. To signify the way we want to think of ourselves as citizens: open and cooperative in embracing change.

When HB2 passed in March, many of our fellow chapter leaders raised concerns. Is Raleigh the truly the right place to have the retreat this year? And our response was, if there were ever a time to come to North Carolina, this is it.

So when the spotlight was on our state, how did we follow through at the retreat?

What’s the designer’s role in creating an open city?

It starts with a collective voice. Laura Hamlyn, our current chapter president, wrote an open letter opposing HB2—outlining what we stand for as a chapter and the importance of inclusivity in creativity. We kicked the retreat off by handing out air horns for Raleigh’s Air Horn Orchestra, inviting visiting designers to join the ranks.

Sophia Hitchcock welcomed everyone to the Oak City with an introductory video of what defines Raleigh. Mayor Nancy McFarlane spoke on what an open data city looks like. We put signs up around the city in the windows of businesses that supported the Open retreat. We dedicated our Friday evening to #gayiga night, showing support for our LGBTQIA community. IBM led a morning workshop on creating an open and collaborative space to guide decision making.

Open Leadership Retreat Moments

Together as an organization we focused on topics like designing with heart, we shared stories of how Raleigh makes us all feel welcome, and we discussed important issues like diversity and gender equity.

And the outcome was a leadership retreat that not only celebrated the success of a year, but changed the perception of what our city was and what our city could be.

Open Leadership Retreat Moments

So as we look ahead to the future of how designers can continue to create openness, we look to the upcoming Hopscotch Design Festival this September 8-9. At Hopscotch Design Festival we can learn from the role of Designer as activist and create an open environment where new ideas can be shared and celebrated.

Let’s continue to build the definition of what it means to be an open city together.

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