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In 2018, following the departure of Julie Anixter, officials at AIGA began an intense search for the next executive director—and last month, the organization announced that they had found the ideal leader: Bennie F. Johnson.
Johnson comes to AIGA from the Council of Better Business Bureaus, where he oversaw strategic partnerships with the likes of Google, the FTC and Coca-Cola. Prior to that role, he served as chief global marketing/global business development officer of the HR Certification Institute, advisor to Kaleo Software, and director of marketing at other organizations.
Johnson discovered design while earning his bachelor’s at Yale—though it had already been part of his purview for quite some time. “Design was a driving force in my development in life before I even had the words to articulate it,” he says.
Here, Print catches up with Johnson to discuss the new position, the organization’s future, and more.
It seems like AIGA had a pretty rigorous and intense search for the role. What was the interview process like?
They worked with Nonprofit HR, which is the leading search firm in the space of association industry management. Our board was completely all in and in great alignment, I think, every step of the way. It was multiple interviews and conversations with the board at large. It’s probably one of the largest search committees I’ve seen. … Questions about leadership, about financial discipline … realizing that the organization was at an inflection point like many organizations are and looking for a robust mixture of skills and background and experience, but also with a passion for the core subject of design, and brand- and design-thinking.
What uniquely prepared you for the role?
I’ve been in the industry nonprofit space for about the last 10 years, but have been in the professional community, growing brands, growing businesses, my entire career. And so understanding the nuances of a chapter or federated model … but also understanding how to grow, refine and reposition brands and experiences. Having experience in both startup spaces and in legacy relaunch spaces has been really valuable for me. It gives you an opportunity to think about what’s new, but also what parts of our legacy and our past experience are relevant as well. That combination of those energies, that’s what’s really prepared me.
Right off the bat, what have some of your priorities been? I’m sure a lot of absorbing.
And I don’t take that lightly. My first priority has been—and the team has heard me say this, and the board and our stakeholders—to be in a learning posture and to be open to listening, asking questions, observing. And as I take that in, providing questions that prompt challenge. Right? Why do we do this? Why are we thinking about this and what does this mean for us? … Coming in as a new leader gives you the opportunity to have an objective lens informed by your experience, informed by other examples, but it allows you to look at things fresh. When I say “listening,” it’s often an active listening that combines all the senses—of observing, of watching what’s happening. I’m listening for what’s said and unsaid. That’s really what I think initial leadership is about.
This may be too early to ask, but what are some of the biggest things you want to accomplish at AIGA?
One of the things that I really want to strengthen and position is thinking of AIGA as a true community in practice. And I think about that phrasing really particularly—this professional community that we, as a kind of central organization, are there to really create and develop resources that empower; that we are able to cultivate and encourage and create network and community that allows us to amplify our connection; that we’re a learning organization creating insights, rigor, standards, and things that strengthen our profession and community. And understanding that we are an evolving profession, as contemporary professions are. …
We’re particularly dynamic when you think about all of the great practitioners, both emerging, established, and Medalist. When you think about the diverse needs of business, today and tomorrow, and the impact that design and the strategic principles of design have on our work and our world, this is an incredible time to be a part of AIGA—but it’s also an incredible time to shape and forge the organization to best represent and advance that type of profession.
The Council of Better Business Bureaus had a chapter-based structure, right?
Right, right. We didn’t refer to them as “chapters”; in our nomenclature, they were “bureaus,” but yes, you have the same federated model. We had over a hundred.
In your time there you led an enterprise-wide restructuring. Do you have any big ideas for anything like that in the works?
No. … Not only did we have chapters, we also had national programs, which were their own unique creatures, with stakeholders and requirements. And we grew to a point in which restructuring made sense to rationalize our business portfolio. You had parts that were completely separate, which then caused confusion around resources and names.
But that’s not a consideration at this point, in any way, for AIGA, which is a different type of organization. And I think we have a simple core that we’re about the design profession, and that covers everyone from enthusiasts and hobbyists and people who love design, all the way to the legendary Medalist. It covers individual practitioners and students all the way to design departments within multinational corporations and the corporations themselves. And I think there’s a lot of work that we do that’s mission-reinforcing, and our structure kind of fits that. It’s a great way to think about the organization positioned in a really strong way to be a backbone for gathering and cultivating community. The chapter structure gives you that. There are opportunities for impact nationally as well as regionally and locally, and a federated chapter model gives you the best of all of that.
What do you feel works best about AIGA overall from what you’ve observed and seen so far?
You know, the commitment, dedication and passion of stakeholders and members—both individual and companies and leaders. The first thing that blew me away was the welcome that I received from the community, and the diversity of backgrounds and experiences, and the common feature of a love for AIGA as the professional association of design. And that was without question. Whether you were a year in design or 50 years—I was seeing kind of this deep commitment and it was humbling and it still is. And also exciting about what we can accomplish together. …
In other professions you’re sometimes bound together by licensure. This is a space that’s bound together by passion. That’s really powerful. That’s the gravity that keeps us together. And I think that really sets us apart from many others.
In what you’ve taken in so far, have you identified any areas that you want to improve?
I’m a big believer that we can always be better. That’s part of that learning stance and posture. Our world is changing and more dynamic in innovation in both incremental, disruptive and transformative ways. Not all innovation is completely big ideas. Sometimes it’s doing the regular just a bit better. I think that’s kind of the goal that we’ll come into. We’re going to make sure that we’re delivering through our service. Our leadership is going to come in through our service, our commitment, and our support of strengthening community. And so it means doing a lot of the little things incrementally better … dreaming bigger, and then pushing for transformative things in a way that respects and amplifies the profession and our members.
What would you want your impact or your legacy to be at AIGA?
I’m a big believer that in this world, in our life and the things that we do, our goal is to make things better than we found them. That’s in any space. … That’s kind of a goal that drives you and it gets you up every day to push for relevance and impact. It’s just pushing to make it better than you found it.
Is there anything you want to add?
I think that we are a nimble, exciting organization that represents a dynamic and transformative profession. And what we hope to do is to continue to be the leading organization and advocate for our profession. We want to push this robust community and practice. We want to create the resources, as I mentioned before, that are able to empower. We want to amplify a network and connections. We want to be able to drive insights and learning and then be the real defenders of the standards and practices that strengthen our profession for all. And that’s what is important to me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.