If You Listen—and Research—Members Will Tell You What You Need
In building its new certification program, AIGA leaned into the power of data to find what mattered most to its members. It’s familiar territory for the design-focused membership group.
Associations exist to serve their members. But before they can successfully do that, they have to know what their members want—and why.
It’s with that overarching question in mind that AIGA: The Professional Association for Design built its new certification programs. Its method: data and research that enabled AIGA to focus on the real needs of design leaders and professional designers. Its outcome: professional development that launched last fall to much fanfare.
Strong Input, Strong Output
Data-driven decision making is nothing new to AIGA, which tends to use design thinking throughout its organization, including within its leadership process and its public-facing initiatives.
That legacy helped the association identify an important trend: a deep need for adaptive certification. Lee-Sean Huang, AIGA’s director of design content and learning, said the process started with a research report. AIGA Design POV looked at the state of the design industry, what professionals needed, and the shifts that were likely to create challenges for its members.
“We surveyed members, which resulted in substantial quantitative data,” Huang said. “We also convened several small focus group meetings with members to conduct qualitative research through a series of interview questions that helped us dig a little deeper into the needs. Learning and professional development was consistently part of the conversation. Throughout this entire process, we used that research to help us create this new certification program.”
One of the most important lessons the association learned was that nearly 90 percent of members surveyed were interested in a certification of some kind. According to AIGA Senior Director of Programming Kathleen Budny, this highlighted a growing need to adapt to new mediums, styles, and tools, which change frequently in the world of design.
“One of the points from our Design POV was clear—being future forward starts with being aware of the broader context and trends,” she said. “Designers need to be prepared for the future, and a certification is a step in that direction. We want to help designers proactively create a lifelong learning plan for themselves and the industry at large.”
Digital, But With a Portfolio Review
One of the most interesting elements within the certification process is a fully virtual portfolio review process, which reflects just how important a designer’s body of work is to their evolution.
“The reality is that most design work does not speak for itself; designers need to be able to explain their design choices, and we knew that a portfolio assessment was going to be an integral part of the certification process,” Huang said. “The strategy and story behind a given project is just as important as the final design deliverables.”
The certification programs will include twice-yearly virtual portfolio assessments. Huang said one goal of this approach was to allow for accessibility while making room for additional feedback in a synchronous format, with assessors able to offer comments in real time.
“We wanted to create an environment and opportunity for members to certify from their home base,” Huang added.
Giving Design a Seat at the Table
According to Budny, the reaction to the program has been strong, but it still requires member education.
“This is a big shift for the profession, and while we know it will take time, we also know there are long-term positive implications for design as a business and ensuring that design has a seat at the table,” she said.
Reflecting the need for a seat at the table, just as AIGA rooted this program in design thinking, the association wants to encourage its members to do the same in their own endeavors and organizations, Huang added.
“The certification is about preparing designers to build on their course design skills and thinking with competencies related to making sense of data, dealing with ethical dilemmas, and dealing with real-world business challenges,” he said.
Budny said that for other associations looking to build strong certification programs, a key goal should be finding and addressing the gaps within their industry while making changes as necessary.
“We know that designers are lifelong learners, but the research allowed us to better discern competencies and to identify competency gaps in the industry that we could address,” she said. “Being a designer is not only a skill set but a mindset, too. It’s also about being a force for change and progress.”
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