This past summer I had the privilege to meet with two former presidents of the Portland chapter of AIGA; Monica Mo and Angela Larisch (formerly Espersen). Both of these devoted volunteers lead the chapter through and out of the pandemic, a truly historic time for AIGA as a whole.
Monica served on the board for 3 years as programming director managing events like dMob, Career Tools, and studio tours. She spent another two years as VP, and finally maxed out our 6-year tenure serving one year as chapter president.
Angela began volunteering with the Portland chapter as Career Tools chair, and eventually rolled onto the board as education director. Angela was asked to run for president after just one year on the board.
Leading up to the pandemic, the chapter had planned to participate in Design Week and host 42 separate events over the course of a year. Then COVID-19 forced lockdown and social distancing.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Chapter funding, which came primarily from sponsors, was hit hard so operational expenses had to be reduced to stabilize monthly revenue against spending.
The board moved to Zoom to hold required monthly meetings. Initially, Monica’s primary goal was to keep the board and chapter members engaged. Monica empathetically recalls, “While I could tell that there were folks who wanted, for various personal reasons, to quit at the time, I pushed for board meetings to still happen.”
Remote and active board members looked inward, and through virtual discourse came to recognize that many non-profits originated from a white supremacist system. The board itself reflected that fact by lacking enough diversity to make decisions for the local design community. Case in point, Monica was the 1st Taiwanese-American chapter VP. Her predecessor Salvador Orara was the very first Filipino to lead the chapter.
Ultimately, the outcome of that discourse culminated in a community resources page with links to services related to anti-racism, social justice, and mental health. For more details see Monica’s blog post from late 2020.
Later, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, two other initiatives came into greater focus; advocating for designers of color and supporting agencies in doing better by holding them to a higher standard through the Transparency Initiative. In collaboration with OSU’s Center for Advancing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the Design for Good committee created surveys for both agencies and community to partake in. Monica recalls, “We surveyed agencies about what their commitments had been. Were they able to implement new policies? Were there any barriers and where did they need help? We also surveyed creatives about their working conditions.” The committee eventually launched a microsite and will follow up with a report of the results this fall!
Bringing People Back Together
After Monica rolled off the board, focus shifted back to event programming. Angela recalls, “Thanks to Monica we were [financially] sustainable. This gave us the time and space to do something different. So, we decided to not put on a bunch of online events, but [instead] to spend all of our time and effort re-envisioning what the organization would be and what programming would look like when we came out [of COVID]. As an organization we were able to take a step back and think more critically about what we did, and did not, want to carry forward.”
“We realized that there wasn’t a clear direction or path to us staying relevant and keeping our impact high. Our goal became [to determine] how we could become what felt like a center to the design community through programming that would bring people together. That is where the magic happens. We missed that and wanted to be the natural place to go [for] the design community.”
Just prior to a board-level strategic retreat, Design Week Portland announced that they were dissolving and not going to run the festival anymore. “So we thought ‘let’s put a pin in that’, but if we were trying to give something to the [design] community that would be an amazing thing.” says Angela.
After the retreat, the board began to outline a 3 year vision plan to streamline event programming with a focus on making it more cohesive and inclusive. According to Angela, “The industry is changing so quickly. Design has become more of an umbrella term and we’re trying to become more of an umbrella organization.”
No one on the board had attachments to prior events except Angela who, back in 2005, networked at a dMob. “I was like these were my people! It was very inspiring just to see so many professionals.” As pandemic restrictions started to ease, the board decided the first event to bring back consistently was dMob. “You become a more well-rounded person when you talk to someone who has a different [professional] background. You can learn so much from just one conversation. That is what makes the design community here so interesting.” says Angela. In October of 2021 the chapter hosted a dMob outdoor pumpkin carving event. By January of 2022, dMob was running as a monthly in-person event.
PDX Design Festival
A few months later the board revisited the idea of a design festival. “AIGA Portland has been in the [design] community for over 30 years, and profitable and sustainable, so it felt like we were the local organization to take it on.” A small team of chapter volunteers planned an experience flow while external vendors applied to host lectures and run workshops. “The PDX Design Festival wasn’t about us.” says Angela. “We had great presenters [who] brought many different disciplines into the fold and we were talking about all of it!”
The PDX Design Festival was profitable, a huge accomplishment and game changer for the chapter just coming out of the pandemic. “Post-pandemic, people are still more selective about what they go to. But they appreciate big moments, and that is why the design festival is so important.” says Angela. “We’re creative people, we need a little inspiration, we need novelty. It is important to not become too siloed working from home.”
COVID broadened communications with other chapters, and people from other countries participated in online programming. The board came to recognize that the chapter could serve more than just Portland and easily reach out to Bend, down to Eugene, and up to Vancouver, WA.
The Portland chapter also started an online mentorship program which supports students studying in both Corvallis and Eugene. “We’ve found that people who act as mentors learn as much as the students do. You learn a lot about yourself and how design changes.” says Angela.
Getting Involved Now
Heading into this fall, AIGA Portland needs new volunteers to lead event programming and apply for grants. If you’d like to get involved, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
Angela says, “Volunteering should be joyful and sustainable and positive for everybody. That people don’t become over stressed, but that they are a part of something that matters. It’s more about quality over quantity.”