AGI Opens Up

Formed in 1952 as an elite club of graphic designers, the Alliance Graphique Internationale aged with its membership. But as AGI brings its Open conference to London for the first time, an injection of new blood has reinvigorated the body

The 26th annual congress of the Alliance Graphique International (AGI) was held in Oxford in 1978. The organisers’ typewritten list of attendees reads like a Who’s Who of European graphic design: Mr W Crouwel, Mr A Fletcher, Mr F Henrion and Mr J Müller-Brockmann, were all in attendance at the annual get-together of this international club of elite graphic designers.

AGI was founded in 1951. The second world war had broken up the informal networks which connected European practitioners in the nascent profession of graphic design. AGI’s founding fathers (the Swiss Donald Brun, and Fritz Bühler plus, from France, Jean Colin, Jacques Nathan Garamond and Jean Picart le Doux) envisioned the organisation as a way to share common interests and friendships across national and cultural borders. In 1952 the Alliance Graphique Internationale was incorporated in Paris with 65 members from 10 countries. Ben Bos, the Dutch graphic designer who has served AGI in a variety of positions since becoming a member in 1978, describes AGI’s purpose as uniting “the world’s leading graphic designers and graphic artists in a professional club of common interest and achievement. It is an élite club [which] provides for friendship, mutual respect and the enjoyment of the company of the like-minded – even reassurance in the face of a sceptical world”.

Reports of AGI’s early congresses reveal a serious-minded organisation with an overt moral mission. Design, it was hoped, would “contribute to the human society of the future”. The 1960 congress wrestled with the question of whether designers should “be equated with free artists or with scientists, who are entrusted with the solution of a given problem”, and committed itself to “a thorough investigation of the question”. Were designers to be mere “mouthpieces” of propaganda? members wondered. In 1968 Heinrich ‘Heiri’ Steiner claimed that “our duty is to bring order and beauty into a world which would be dull and empty without our participation”.

But, in Bos’s account of each year’s congress, this idealism of the 60s and early 70s appears, by the 80s, to give way to a more comfortable, clubbable atmosphere. Instead of great debates on urgent issues, congress seems to be one long round of fancy dinners and self-congratulation as members entertain themselves with hat-making contests and recipe books. By 1995, as Bos himself says, “AGI was threatening to become AGeingI, a bulwark of self-important, rather elderly elitists.”
Pentagram partner Paula Scher remembers first going to AGI when she was in her 20s, not as a member but to accompany her husband, Seymour Chwast, who is 17 years her senior. “What I saw there was a bunch of really famous, very powerful, men who were all Seymour’s age,” she says. “Then I became a member when I was 41 or 42 [in 1993] and everybody else was still Seymour’s age!”

“It had to change or die,” Scher says. “The younger generation of designers just didn’t want to join. It was time to reactivate what the original intent was, the notion that you pull together those people in all different design disciplines, that inspire or are influential in a variety of capacities, to share information, influence each other and then inspire and influence younger designers and practitioners to a more exciting possibility. That’s really AGI’s goal – to elevate, educate and inspire.”

Since the turn of the century, AGI’s membership profile has become steadily younger. The likes of Matt Pyke, Jan Wilker, Hjalti Karlsson, Marion Deuchars and Marian Bantjes represent a younger generation who once again see AGI membership as valid and valuable.
“I think AGI has quietly been reforming itself over the last 10 years,” says Deuchars. “Many of the original members are either dead or ageing. A club cannot exist on its illustrious past alone and I think AGI was well aware of that. Members are getting younger, more diverse; the categories for membership are wider.”

Membership to AGI is by invitation only. Each year, the individual countries propose new members who must submit a selection of their work to the membership committee. By no means all applications are accepted – rumour has it that one very well known Dutch studio has been turned down twice. Scher says that, rather than judging style or craft, prospective members are assessed according to their influence on the profession. “It’s a hard thing to judge but there are ways to think about it. If you have somebody who is an illustrator, the question is, is this the person who did the work that influenced other people who do similar work? In other words we want the originator of the idea not the peer practitioner.”

Deuchars gives some insight into the process: “Margaret Calvert put me forward as a prospective AGI member. That is the normal procedure. Someone from the British members group will nominate a candidate. The prospective member will select some work (the brief was 10 great projects, work of significance, no personal/unpublished work),” she says. “The British members view that selection and if the proposal is strong enough, a decision is made to put it forward for the international committee. It was made clear to me that just because I had made it through the British selection (no mean feat, I think, as Brits are pretty hard to please!) then I would not necessarily make it through the next stage. I was told some members had applied three times before being accepted. I think the international selection of work is tough. Often work that might be appreciated in one country is lost on another. It’s a good test if your work manages to transcend cultural diversity and taste,” Deuchars claims.

An international committee, currently made up of some of the younger members, makes the final selection, with the successful candidates’ names read out at the end of each year’s Congress.
For Sean Perkins of London design studio North, AGI membership offers a more meaningful validation of his work than awards success. “Corporate identity work [which North specialises in] doesn’t translate well into awards because people don’t understand strategically why you do things,” he says. The AGI process, he argues, offers a “proper judgement” of the work with “an understanding and a respect for what we do. Most graphic designers don’t want to belong to a club: I avoid things like D&AD like the plague. But with AGI you are only invited to be a part of it if you’re good enough. I was chuffed I got in.”

Perkins says he “was always aware of AGI but to me it was Rand, Glaser, Crouwel – this body made up of the true greats of graphic design which didn’t have a great deal of relevance to today.” But then he noticed that friends and peers he respected around the world were joining. “I went to the one in Hong Kong last year and it was fantastic. I enjoyed it much more than any other organised design group thing I’d been to. I can’t see where else I’m going to get the opportunity to listen to so many great designers. For me the best thing was listening to the Chinese members talking about how they deal with political issues and with the challenges of commerce, and getting to know the Japanese designers. We look at their work in books, but we have no understanding of how they got there, the issues they faced.”

Wilker, who is now president of the AGI’s US chapter, remembers that when he was initially approached to be a member, “one of my first gut reactions was ‘great, but isn’t it a bit too early to become part of the establishment already’? I was hesitant to leave the safe position of opposition and anti-establishment that I thought I was part of. But soon after I embraced it fully and was very grateful that we got accepted. Now that I’ve been a member for couple of years [he and business partner Karlsson joined in 2009], I more and more dearly cherish AGI as a place to spend time with people who easily become friends, that all care deeply about graphic design in one way or the other. It is a warm and positive bunch of people that are unified by their dedication to what we do almost every day.”

Scher who has just finished three years as AGI president, handing over to publisher Lars Muller, offers a more specific assessment of the value of AGI membership. “It’s worked for me on a lot of levels, some of them are personal and some of them are professional,” she says. “On a personal level, I made all these girlfriends in France. That was a big deal for me: to have a whole network of women designers, whose work I admire and who I would otherwise never have got to know, has really enriched my life. The sharing and the exchange is very valuable. On the professional level, knowing how things work in a particular economy and how it frames the work are interesting pieces of knowledge. So, for example, my French girlfriends all work in the cultural arena. They can’t do commercial work because of the way France is socialised. On the one hand, they are limited in terms of what they can do and how much they can earn, but on the other hand I think their work is amazing and spectacular and much more innovative than most of the work that comes out of the United States. It’s an interesting case study to compare how cultures and governments affect output.”

Scher believes that, in some respects, AGI has taken over from AIGA as the organisation that US designers look to. “AIGA has become a completely professional organisation: it’s not about elevating design, it’s about making design a serious business profession these days,” she says. “Younger designers used to want to be active in AIGA, but now they want to be in AGI because the designers are better. They want to be where their peers are. AGI is first and foremost a social exchange. You make relationships with other people and they call you when they are in town: if I’m in Barcelona, I see all the Spanish members – it’s wonderful.”

In these days of social media and online friendships, can such an organisation still be relevant? “It has the same relevance it always had,” Wilker argues. “A group of designers that are highly dedicated to their craft, that come together annually for a meeting of all generations. For me, it’s making sure there’s a continuation and exchange between all age groups and areas of design … seeing three generations of designers come together every year is something beautiful and worthwhile that gives our profession meaning.”

Those generations will come together in London at the end of September when AGI stages both its Congress and its Open conference at the Barbican. While Congress is a members-only event, the Open utilises AGI members as speakers for a conference which is heavily targeted at young designers and students.

“The AGI Open is different from every other conference,” says Scher. “It is paid for and run by designers who are members of AGI. There’s nobody paying for us to speak, nobody paying for our flights. It’s completely self-supported on behalf of the organisation. We love the Opens because they are exciting. It’s a design cavalcade of all kinds of work, in every kind of media, showcasing the still viable and phenomenal abilities of individuals who are indefatigable, who want to elevate what they do and love it.”

While AGI certainly appears reinvigorated, both women and designers from outside its US-European-Japanese heartland are still under-represented (women make up just over ten per cent of AGI’s 470 members). However, the organisation is actively moving to correct that, working to identify possible new members in the developing world, while AGI London, for example, is only putting female designers forward for membership this year. Scher stresses though that such moves must not compromise the quality of members’ work. “My personal view is that there should be more women members because there are more great women designers than are currently members. That said I don’t think someone who is mediocre and a woman should be in. It’s the responsibility of the group to bring in talented women as well as talented men. What’s different now is that the membership knows them. Before, those guys knew each other but they didn’t know a lot of other people – I was put up because they knew me. If the social network is broader, the membership is broader. If it stagnates, you’re in trouble.”

Among the speakers at AGI Open this year will be Astrid Stavro, Marina Willer, Frith Kerr and Marion Deuchars who is helping to organise the event along with Perkins and a host of other London-based AGI members, led by Spin’s Tony Brook.

“Having Open in London is a chance to celebrate and inform but also to bring some of the most diverse and international talent to one great city,” she says, “but we also wanted to give the Open audience a bit of the members’ experience. Rather than just come and watch each designer give a lecture, we want to provide people with a more interactive experience, to meet some designers face-to-face. What do we want from AGI? To hear stories, to learn something, to be inspired. It can do all that and more.”

Scher cites the Barcelona Open of 2011 as an example of the Open’s importance. “[Through all the different speakers] you could see the discipline, it was all graphic design,” she says. “I remember people in the audience coming up to me and saying ‘God, this makes me happy to be a graphic designer. I can’t wait to get back to work’. I think it was [Eye editor] John Walters who wrote afterwards ‘Long live graphic design’. It was a rallying call for the profession. Open is the chance to come and look and hear about all this wonderful stuff that is going on all around the world.”

AGI Open is at the Barbican, London from September 26 to 27. For full details and tickets, go to agi-open.com

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