How to Frame the Potential of Leadership Through Design

It’s not just about a pretty picture. Bennie Johnson, executive director of AIGA, discusses how the central concepts of the graphic design organization can translate to leadership.

Association leaders know a thing or two about solving problems using what’s in their toolkit.

For Bennie Johnson, the executive director of the graphic design association AIGA, that toolkit is design. And he says that design is a mindset that can extend far beyond organizations like his, helping to build a framework for problem solving.

“There are so many ways in which design—the approach, the thinking, the training, and creativity—are all central to problem solving,” Johnson says.

Some may consider design in the context of branding or purely visual discussions—and certainly strong visuals can result from good design. But Johnson says that the discipline has evolved to a broader discussion of the ways humans interact with the world, with data-driven inputs helping to create powerful results.

That discussion has created an environment that can foster management and leadership.

“It’s not about creating a pretty picture,” he says. “It’s about problem solving, at a level that can be both grand and human scale. It’s about creating positive outcomes and impacts, thinking that the moves you make today impact lives tomorrow and understanding that role—for yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

A Change Agent in a Time of Change

When Johnson assumed the AIGA role a year ago, he had already intended to make updates to the organization’s leadership structures and member offerings. Then came the pandemic. Disruptive? Yes. But it also spurred the discussions he wanted to have.

“My conversations and looking under the hood were all about thinking about questioning how we can do more for our members, our profession at large, our design community,” he says. “How can we look at all the things we’re doing? The pandemic just further accelerated that conversation.”

Starting with strong bones—Johnson noted that AIGA was already remote and that he was working in a different city from the rest of the team—the association made shifts to its annual meeting and learning programs like many organizations did, but it also conducted member research to find starting points for further offerings.

“It was from those inputs that we began to design programs, protocols, and resources that we could deploy to the broader design community at large,” he says.

One such input? Johnson says that while half of designers were negatively affected by the pandemic, around 40 percent were using their skills to serve their communities—a lesson that has shown itself in AIGA efforts such as its Design for Democracy program, in which members were encouraged to help build visuals as part of a get-out-the-vote campaign.

“That came from just the inside; that’s not just me thinking, hey, something interesting,” he says. “We started that process of learning, asking, and listening throughout our community.”

A Design Mindset for Associations

Bringing a design approach into leadership can be a potential change agent for many associations that have nothing to do with design, but that shift may not be an easy sell on its own.

Johnson says that lines of demarcation between design and other disciplines should not be set in stone, but be given the opportunity to blend into the organization at large.

“Design is heart,” he says. “It’s about transcending all those barriers.”

For association leaders looking to bring design into their organizations, Johnson offers these tips:

Build a story. When selling an approach to a skeptical board or C-suite, Johnson recommends a storytelling approach. “I think you want to tell a strong, positive story that ties into revision and strategic planning,” he says. He emphasizes that data points should directly tie into the story, to show others how design is more than just a pretty picture, “allowing them to see the direct impact that this has on sustainable business outcomes.”

Understand where design meets with other disciplines. Just because there is potential to use design as a prism doesn’t mean that it must live as an island. Johnson emphasizes that in the boardroom, there must be an understanding that others will learn from your ideas—and vice versa. “It’s not about overpowering your discipline as the only way to a solution,” he says. “It’s about creating a space in which people can understand the value your discipline brings to their discipline as well.” That approach can help design have a role in conversations in areas as diverse as legal issues, taxes, and human capital.

(Peopleimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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