In this intriguing retrospective — the first of its kind — AIGA resurrects from its New York vault a multitude of one-of-a-kind posters, books, photographs, journals and other artifacts from the past hundred years.
These are works by designers for designers — materials circulated among AIGA members promoting design competitions, conventions and other AIGA initiatives.
Not widely distributed or reproduced outside the organization, many of these artifacts are being publicly displayed for the first time since their original creation. They chart the inside story of how ideas, thoughts and influence are disseminated within the design community.
Founded in 1914, AIGA is a national professional organization promoting the value of thoughtful design. Its annual competitions and conferences draw designers, architects and artists from around the country to share their work and ideas. Exchanges from these events go on to influence the greater design community and eventually make their way into the world.
AIGA members — the likes of Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Milton Glaser and Stefan Sagmeister — were commissioned to produce materials for the organization. Their posters, invitations, calls to submission, periodical covers and competition entries display a freedom of design and exploration of craft not seen in commercial endeavors. Each of these striking works represents the leading edge of graphic arts for their time.
Following the timeline in the main gallery, one can trace major shifts in design trends and thinking through the years, as exemplified by AIGA materials. From Rand’s vibrant AIGA logo to Sagmeister’s jarring conference poster, visitors can marvel at the inventive takes made by the masters of graphic design.
Shifting focus from the influence of the AIGA within the design community, the exhibition explores its impact on the general public in the side gallery. Touchstones, such as Glaser’s 1966 Bob Dylan poster and William Golden’s original CBS eye logo, are perhaps more recognizable to the casual observer.
But many of the everyday visual elements we take for granted are also the product of creative design.
Wayfinding symbols, now seen in nearly every public building, were the result of an AIGA program to develop a standard set of pictograms for the Department of Transportation aimed at transcending language barriers. Nutritional labels, developed in 1995 by graphic designer Burkey Belser for the FDA, make clear and legible the composition of the food products we buy. The Universal Product Code (UPC), originally developed in 1951, has revolutionized the way we make and track purchases.
Perhaps the most striking example of the visual power of graphic design is the 1968 redesign of the Bell Telephone System logo by Saul Bass. With its iconic bell and sans serif font, the logo purportedly rose to become recognizable by a remarkable 93 percent of the American public.
Kudos to Doug Grimmett, president of Atlanta-based animators Primal Screen, who came up with the concept, worked with past AIGA president Sean Adams to select the artifacts, and designed and financed the show.
This unprecedented retrospective should make viewers more attuned to the important role of design in improving their lives. The most compelling reason to see it, however, is the opportunity to see these rarely shown works, which will most likely not be seen in public again.