The AIA embarked upon an important journey earlier this year—a year-long project called Repositioning the AIA. The goal, according to the Institute, is to better understand what “the role and voice of the AIA” should be at a time when the profession (and practically every other organization and individual) faces massive change on most every front: social, cultural, technological, economic, political, et al.
To help guide the process, the AIA has retained blue-chip graphic design firm Pentagram as well as branding firm LaPlaca Cohen, which has worked with an impressive roster of cultural institutions, from the National Gallery of Art to the L.A. Philharmonic. The repositioning is in very good hands.
The word “branding” brings to mind visuals like the Nike swoosh. And while new graphics could emerge as one outcome of the AIA repositioning, the initiative promises to do far more than simply revamp the old “chicken-on-a-stick” logo.
The AIA has been conducting surveys and interviews with the membership, architects’ clients, and the general public—and has reached some 30,000 responses as of this August. Here’s what clients had to say when asked about their “experiences, motivations, and barriers to working with architects,” according to a recent project update on the AIA website: “The leading motivator cited for working with an architect was ‘Architects have knowledge of construction requirements and building codes.’ This statement was selected over twice as frequently as ‘Architects have superior design expertise.’ ”
That alone is pretty revelatory—and there’s more: Members of the general public, for their part, “believe it is difficult to know where to find a qualified architect and choose the right architect for a project.” Intelligence such as this, taken cumulatively and with an open mind, could help steer not only the reshaping of the AIA brand, but also the very way that the Institute translates its mission into deeds.
Positive change requires asking difficult questions and being willing to sweep away some long-held prejudices and opinions. To that end, consider the following enjoinder from LaPlaca Cohen and Pentagram: “The AIA should honestly assess how many attributes on the list below accurately describe the AIA community:
• Progressive, not reactionary
• A vital resource, not a superficial designation
• Universally beneficial, not limited and elitist
• Adding value, not additional financial burden
• At the cutting edge, not a follower
• Public facing, not behind closed doors
• An architecture resource for all, not just for industry insiders
• Results- and benefits-focused, not process-driven or self-referential … ”
LaPlaca Cohen and Pentagram are being provocative here, but in an extremely smart and well-intentioned way. Their list exposes core issues to the light—issues that practitioners themselves are raising, in increasingly public forums. Witness the reports from the field that my colleague Jane Kolleeny (until recently an editor at Architectural Record and GreenSource) is posting at aia.org/repositioning. The reports, based on her interviews with groups of members across the country, make it perfectly clear that there is widespread desire for the Institute and the profession to change in meaningful ways.
If you ask me, it’s a very good thing for the AIA to be doing a bit of soul-searching. Institutions as a whole are notoriously resistant to change, especially when change is thrust upon them. And the emergence of social media combined with the difficulties presented by the Great Recession, climate change, and an aging population are forces well beyond the profession’s control. What we can control is the way we respond to such forces, which makes the Repositioning the AIA initiative a wise and ultimately essential endeavor. There should be no doubt about the necessity for change, or our ability to determine the correct path to take next. We simply need to keep an open mind.