In-house Insights: AIGA Executive Director Ric Grefé Puts In-house Into A Larger Context


Ric Grefé offers critical insights into the role in-house designers play as part of the larger design community and how AIGA acts as a catalyst in enhancing that role.




Ric is the CEO of AIGA, the professional association for design. He is generally involved in all of AIGA’s activities, although his major contributions are in strategy, formulating new initiatives to enhance the competitive success of designers and advocating the value of design.

Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College, crafted books at Stinehour Press, spent several years in intelligence work in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following a career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio. He has been at AIGA since 1995, developing programs that reinforce the relevance of design as an extraordinary creative gift and a critical element of business strategy.

What differences, if any, do you see in the practice of in-house and independent studio and freelance design?

In-house designers have little question about the need for their work to be purposeful in pursuit of a corporate mission, in which they are well steeped. Hence, a challenge is to retain the means of inspiration and creative risk, while honing the capacity for influencing internal clients who may not naturally hold them in the same awe experienced by external consultants of many disciplines.

In-house designers must find ways to retain the advantage of the fresh view that enables creativity to defeat habit.

In-house designers must become adept in negotiating leverage in decisionmaking among familiar partners within a corporation in order to support change, which is inherent in design, creativity and innovation.

In-house designers must become part of the budget control and project management process in order to be effective.

In-house designers are often relegated to a subordinate role based on a legacy perspective on the role of design; hence, designers are often the final stage in value creation, when most parameters are fixed.

Given your depth and breadth of experience with the design community, what are the challenges you’re seeing that in-house designers are facing? What about  any unique opportunities and advantages?

It is difficult to focus on challenges and opportunities that are related only to the employment status of a designer, for there are in-house designers in firms that respect and honor design and there are studio designers who are driven by making marginal, safe changes to the design requirements of clients.

Yet, I have two broad observations:

Business is beginning to understand the importance of design as a driver of competitive advantage; the business trade press bulges with stories of design, design thinking and innovation. This provides an opportunity for in-house designers to position themselves as drivers of value and success. The other opportunities emerge from the mega-trends that every business needs to consider and designers can help to address: the need for empathy with customers, global economies, the need for cultural differentiation in product offerings, sustainabilty concerns and the melding of products and services.

The challenge is that few in-house designers feel equipped to make convincing arguments that they will have the opportunity to present on the role of design in fulfilling a corporation’s strategy. This can be the result of being positioned out of the loop of strategic decisionmaking in the organizational chart and also lacking the vernacular and metrics that will make the case with management.

The opportunities and challenges are both related to empowerment.

How is AIGA positioning itself to meet the specific needs of the in-house design community?

AIGA is aware of the distinctly different perspectives of designers based on where they work and has sought to engage the in-house community. As AIGA relaunches its web presence early next year, it will be possible to reflect many more voices and wants to assure that the in-house community articulates its concerns and engages with each other. Our web presence and conferences increasingly integrate the issues of design and design’s role in economic activity, as well as stimulating discussion of design thinking and service design, rather than treating them as different themes. And AIGA is moving away from the culture of honoring artifacts toward the role of explaining design in a business context through case studies. We encourage in-house designers to contribute to this resource.

We believe that design must be evaluated within the context of its brief, which is often less far-ranging in assignements provided to in-house designers. We must develop ways to recognize successes against this alternative objective.

Finally, in AIGA’s surveying of its membership, the highest priority they have expressed for AIGA is to demonstrate the value of design to business, the press and the public, a role that will support the concerns we also hear from in-house designers.

What are some of the benefits in-house designers can look forward to when becoming a member of AIGA?

The benefits of being an AIGA member are not simply what AIGA provides the member. The real benefits are to be part of a broader design community in order to engage with others on issues affecting you; to have a means of working with colleagues to articulate a case for the value of your chosen profession and to increase opportunities for influence and consequence; and to establish and promote standards and principles for the profession that will govern the understanding of design within your corporation. Increasingly there will be formal as well as informal means of mid-career education.

However, one should not join AIGA in order to understand what you get. You should join because it allows you to support and work with others to advance the profession you have chosen. AIGA is an ecosystem—a community—and an ethosystem of principles and standards. It allows you to grow through engagement with colleagues and it allows the profession to grow by giving voice to the concerns that you have that no single designer can address on his or her own.

In what ways can in-house designers further the interests of the design community as a whole and AIGA in particular?

In-house designers can further the interests of the design community by participating in the broader community; they have several critical perspectives. They are closer to the elements of final-stage design than others; they have to live with failures as well as successes; they occupy the same building as those who we must reach to explain the value of design and to strengthen the design economy. In each of these attributes, in-house designers have important lessons to share in improving the practice of design. They also offer a channel of communications that can advance the reach  of common and consistent messages about design.

However, the question suggests that in-house designers are adjacent to the design community as a whole and AIGA in particular. This is not the case. They are an integral part of the AIGA community and have been since the first day a century ago, when few designers existed who were not in-house designers. We believe they are under-represented in the AIGA membership today and that we will not experience the full potential of the design community until this is rectified. So a very real first step is to join, followed quickly by participation!

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