Reflections on AIGA Medalists

The occasion of the AIGA Centennial Gala on April 25th led me to some thoughts on the identity and choice of the AIGA medalists over the years. The AIGA medal was first awarded in 1920 to Baltimore printer Norman T. A. Munder. Between then and 1954 it was given out erratically with some years (e.g. 1921 and 1933) skipped entirely and in others (e.g. 1924 and 1950) with two being presented. Then from 1955 to 1972 only one was given annually. For several years in the 1970s (1973, 1976 and 1979) and the early 1980s (1982) more than one medalist was awarded, but on three of the occasions it was because there were partners in design such as Charles and Ray Eames. Beginning in 1987 and continuing until 2003 there were two medalists annually with three being given out in 1999 and four in 2000 (with two being partners). In celebration of the 90th anniversary of the AIGA in 2004 eight medalists were anointed. Then it was back to three a year from 2005 to 2010 with a fourth in 2007. Four were given out in 2011 but none in 2012. To make up eight were awarded in 2013. And then in the centennial year of 2014 AIGA presented a whopping 24 medals. The trend has clearly been an increase in medalists per year, spurred by the realization that many deserving individuals in the past did not receive one because of emphasis on a single awardee and also by a desire to expand the pool of medalists to include women and minorities.

Women and the AIGA Medal
The issue of gender disparity among the AIGA medalists was brought up at the ceremony last Friday by medalist Louise Fili who pointed out that only 17% of them over the years have been women. She said that she was not sure of her calculations so I decided to look at the increase of female medalists over the year and to see if any trends could be discerned. Here is a cumulative breakdown by decade of AIGA medalists by gender and a list of each woman and the year they received the medal. The percentages have been rounded off.

1920–1929: 9 men, 0 women (0%)
1930–1939: 16 men, 0 women (0%)
1940–1949: 25 men, 0 women (0%)
1950–1959: 36 men, 1 woman (3%)
May Massee (1959)
1960–1969: 45 men, 2 women (4%)—Romana Javitz (1967)
1970–1979: 58 men, 3 women (5%)—Ray Eames (1977)
1980–1989: 70 men, 5 women (7%)—Lella Vignelli (1982) and Bea Feitler (1989)
1990–1999: 88 men, 11 women (11%)—Tomoko Miho (1993), Muriel Cooper (1994), Cipe Pineles (1996), Zuzana Licko (1997), April Greiman (1998), Katherine McCoy (1999)
2000–2009: 124 men, 22 women (15%)—Laurie Haycock Makela (2000), Paula Scher (2001), Deborah Sussman (2004), Sheila Levrant de Bretteville (2004), Caroline Hightower (2004), Jean Coyne (2004), Meredith Davis (2005), Lorraine Wild (2006), Ellen Lupton (2007), Gail Anderson (2008), Carin Goldberg (2009)
2010–2014: 150 men, 34 women (18%)—Jennifer Morla (2010), Elaine Lustig Cohen (2011), Jessica Helfand (2013), Lucille Tenazas (2013)

The trend is clearly upward, though slowly. The big increase in female medalists began with the 90th anniversary celebration and accelerated with the current centennial celebration.

Louise Fili implied that the percentage of female medalists was low relative to the percentage of women in the profession. She is absolutely right about that. But there are reasons for this. First, this demographic change in the profession did not begin until the 1980s and since we can assume it requires a stellar career of at least twenty years to qualify as an AIGA medalist we should not have expected to see a surge in female medalists until the early 21st century which is what has happened—albeit boosted by the large number of medalists in 2004 and 2014. Since 2000 26% of the medalists (85 medalists in total) have been women. And for the centennial 33% were women. This is still far below the percentage of women within the profession. So, what other factors are at work?

Of the 34 women who have received the AIGA medal since Mae Massee in 1959, eight have gotten it in conjunction with their husband partners, eight have been married to medalists from other years, and two have been partners in design with their husband. Of the remaining sixteen female medalists, three were not designers (Massee, Romana Javitz, and Caroline Hightower). Finally, a large number of female medalists have been lauded for their efforts as design writers, educators and activists as much as or more than their achievements as designers. Among them are Cheryl Heller, Sylvia Harris, Jessica Helfand, Ellen Lupton, Lorraine Wild, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Laurie Haycock Makela, Katherine McCoy, Meredith Davis and Jean Coyne. Even Cipe Pineles and Muriel Cooper can be considered in this category. In contrast, while male medalists have also included non-designers and those who have been notable design educators as much as designers (from Stephen H. Horgan in 1924 to Ralph Caplan in 2011), the percentage is much lower: 18% vs. 33%. (I have calculated that 29 men—22 of them before 1975!—fit into the category of non-designers and design educators, though such categories can be slippery.)

From its inception until the early 1960s, the AIGA was an organization dominated by those in the book trade and, to a lesser extent, advertising. This is reflected in its choice of medalists. The first medalist outside of those realms was M.F. Agha in 1956 and the next Walter Paepcke in 1960. But in the past half century plus, there have been very few medalists from those two fields (three in advertising: Gene Federico 1987, George Lois 1996 and perhaps Cheryl Heller 2014; and eleven from the book world: Giovanni Mardersteig 1968, perhaps Leo Lionni 1984, perhaps Alvin Lustig 1993, Samuel Antupit 2001, Ellen Lupton 2007, Carin Goldberg 2009, Elaine Lustig Cohen 2011, Jessica Helfand 2013, and this year Louise Fili, Chip Kidd and perhaps Abbott Miller). (I say perhaps for some of the individuals above because some of them have shifted their design practice over the years with, for instance, Louise Fili moving from publishing to packaging and identity; and Leo Lionni moving from advertising to children’s books. Thus, hard and fast judgements about how to classify a medalist are often difficult.)

Notice that in the book world category women hold their own against the men. I think there is a correlation between the paucity of female AIGA medalists and the shift toward corporate and institutional design as the dominant force in the AIGA after 1960. The marginalization of book design—and also magazine design and even album cover design (back when there were record albums to be designed)—has been one reason that deserving women designers have been overlooked for medalist status. The percentage of female medalists in these three areas out of the total is higher than for men, even given the book bias of the first forty years of the AIGA medal: 47% (16 out of 34) vs. 32% (48 out of 150).

Another reason that women have been overlooked for the AIGA medal is, I believe, because those that do work in areas beyond book and magazine publishing and, in the past, the music business, have either worked with male partners who have had their name first on the company door or, if on their own, have had smaller design practices than their comparable male counterparts. In the first instance, their impact has been diluted or hidden as their male partner has often garnered all of the attention and praise. Massimo Vignelli complained about this situation in Designed by: Lella, his recent tribute to Lella Vignelli, his wife and partner:

For decades, the collaborative role of women as architects or designers working with their husbands or partners has been under appreciated. Fifty years ago, it was standard practice that the head of the office was the man and the woman partner had a subordinate role. At best, the woman’s creative input and professional influence was only vaguely accepted; often her contributions were dismissed and sometimes even forgotten.


Lella and I were affected by these standing mores early in our careers. It is why we purposely built the notion of the two of us as a brand, but it took time for the others to see and understand this. The architectural and design press had a bad habit of crediting only the man, forgetting the woman partner. For many years, our Vignelli office sent photographs of projects—with proper credits—to the magazines, but too often we would see the published material crediting my name only.

Female designers who head their own companies often work on smaller scale projects than their male counterparts, partially out of inclination but more often due to continuing sexism in the business world in general. As far as I can tell, not a single female AIGA medalist is (or was) the sole owner of a firm of over twenty-five employees. Smallness is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a liability by large clients, whether they be corporate or institutional. This has hampered women designers in their careers—as most of them well know—and similarly in gaining recognition from their male peers in the profession.

These are generalizations of course but they hint at why women are still not as visible in the profession as their numbers indicate they should be.*

Missing male AIGA Medalists
The focus on the small number of female AIGA medalists has obscured the fact that many deserving men have failed to be honored with the medal. Some of this is due to the simple fact that as long as the AIGA only honored one individual in a given year, other deserving individuals would inevitably be left out. This is no different from the most valuable player awards in sports or the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy et al awards in the arts. But since 1987 the AIGA has clearly sought to rectify this situation as it has not only continually increased the number of awards given out but has given many to luminaries from the past, even if deceased (e.g. Ladislav Sutnar in 1995 or Lucian Bernhard in 1997). Yet there are still many deserving to be honored. They have been overlooked because of bias as much as because of a numbers game. Two biases stand out: one against designers outside of New York and New England that held sway prior to the 1980s; and one against designers, men as well as women, in publishing and bookmaking since the 1960s.

Geographic bias
Prior to the creation of AIGA chapters in the 1980s, most AIGA medalists came from the Atlantic Coast between Philadelphia and Boston, the heart of the design industry for most of this time. The exception was Chicago which was largely frozen out and, in response, created the Society of Typographic Artists in 1927. The first AIGA medalist from beyond the Hudson River was the papermaker and paper historian Dard Hunter of Chillicothe, Ohio in 1931. Between then and 1990 only a handful of individuals from beyond the New York and New England—ignoring five from Europe which will be discussed below—were given the medal: Porter Garnett of the Laboratory Press at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh in 1932, William Kittredge of the Lakeside Press in Chicago in 1939, Edwin and Robert Grabhorn of San Francisco in 1942, Walter Paepcke of the Containet Corporation of America in 1960, and Charles and Ray Eames and Saul Bass from Los Angeles in 1977 and 1981 respectively. Since 1990—and the expansion of the number of medalists awarded each year—geographic bias has lessened signficantly: 46 (excluding Europeans again) out of 85 have been from west of Pennsylvania.

Why have Europeans received the AIGA medal? Is the medal given by the AIGA to anyone deserving of it regardless of location or is it reserved solely for American practitioners? This seems to never have been discussed. The Europeans—and one Canadian—who have gotten the medal have all been deserving: Stanley Morison of Monotype Corporation in 1946, Jan Tschichold in 1954, Willem Sandberg of the Stedelijk Museum in 1962, printer Giovanni Mardersteig in 1968, Graphis founder Walter Herdeg in 1986, Bruce Mau in 2007, Armin Hofmann in 2011, and Wolfgang Weingart 2013. But it is still an odd list since there are a number of deserving Europeans (as well as non-Westerners) with American connections or influence that have been bypassed. It should also be noted that a  fair number of medalists have been immigrants and emigres to the United States: 24 of them from the Australian Henry Lewis Bullen (1934) to the Austrian Stefan Sagmeister and Filipino Lucille Tenazas in 20013.

Book bias
Prejudice against book designers and others involved in publishing has already been discussed in relation to the number of female medalists, but it should be reiterated that qualified men have been the victims as well.

Suggested future AIGA Medalists
Here are the individuals (and some businesses and institutions) that I believe are deserving, selecting names of those who period of influence began in 1895. Following past AIGA practice, some individuals are not designers but educators, design writers, patrons and others who have had an impact on graphic design and the design profession. I have placed the names alphabetically within groups for better comparison, even though the categories are not immutable. Rather than write up short briefs in support of each individual or organization I have provided biographical links wherever possible.

Ruth Ansel, Margaret Armstrong (1867–1944), Lillian Bassman (1917–2012), Edna and Peter Beilenson (1910–1981) and (1906–1962), Betty Binns (1929–2005), Eileen BoxerJacqueline Casey (1927–1992), Mildred Constantine (1913–2008), Inge Druckrey (b. 1940), Helen Dryden (1887–1981), Linda Florio, Mildred FriedmanHelen Gentry (1897–1988), Sara Giovanetti, Jane Grabhorn (1911–1973), Marilyn Hoffner (d. 2012), Corita Kent (1918–1986), Florence Knoll (b. 1917), Mary Wells Lawrence (b. 1928), Annie Liebovitz (b. 1949), Bonnie Maclean (b. 1949), Joyce Nesnadny, Jackie Pinsler, Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl,  Nancy Skolos, Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842–1904), and Jeanyee Wong (b. 1920).

Book Publishing and Printing
Merle Armitage (1893–1975), Paul Bacon (b. 1923), Warren Chappell (1904–1991), Richard Eckersley (1941–2006), Irwin Glusker,  David R. Godine, Philip Grushkin (1921–1998), Robert Josephy (1903–1993), Marshall Lee, Hal Marchbanks, John Henry Nash, Ernst Reichl (1900–1980, George Salter (1897–1967), Jim Sherraden, Roderick Stinehour (b. 1925) and Carl Zahn.

Fabian Baron (b. 1959), John Berg, Bill Bernbach (1911–1982), Roger Black, Peter Bradford, Bob Cato (1923–1999), Art Chantry (b. 1954), Henry Dreyfuss (1904–1972), Ralph Eckerstrom (1922–1996), Nicholas Fasciano, S. Neil Fujita (1921–2010), Robert Gage (1922–2000), Bob Gill (b. 1931), Morton Goldsholl (1911–1995), Malcolm Grear, Al Greenberg, Irving Harper (b. 1916), Clarence Hornung (1899–1997), Egbert Jacobsen (1890–1966), Ray Komai (1918–??), Willi Kunz (b. 1943), Mo Lebowitz (b. 1932), Harris Lewine, Alexander Liberman (1912–1999), J. Gordon Lippincott (1909–1998), Reid Miles (1927–1993), Noel Martin (1923–2009), Victor Moscoso (b. 1936), Erik Nitsche (1908–1998), Robert Miles Runyan (1925–2001), Arnold Saks (b. 1931), Jack Summerford, Dietmar Winkler (b. 1938), Benjamin Sherbow (1878–1922), Lou Silverstein (1919–2011), Wes Wilson (b. 1937), and Lance Wyman (b. 1937).

American Emigres
Jean Carlu (1900–1997), Erté (1892–1990), Gyorgy Kepes (1906–2001), Raymond Loewy (1893–1986), and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946).

American Exiles
John Alcorn (1935–1992), Robert Brownjohn (1925–1970), Paul Peter Piech (1920–1996), and Henry Steiner.

European and non-Western Designers
Otl Aicher (1922–1991), Max Bill (1908–1994), Neville Brody (b. 1957), Cassandre (1901–1968), Wim Crouwel (b. 1928), Alan Fletcher (1931–2006), Adrian Frutiger (b. 1928), Abram Games (1914–1996), Karl Gerstner (b. 1930), Takenobu Igarashi (b. 1944), Massin (b. 1925), Josef Müller-Brockmann (1914–1996), Bruno Munari (1907–1998), Gerrit Noordzij (b. 1931),  Emil Ruder (1914–1970), Niklaus Troxler (b. 1947), Hermann Zapf (b. 1918) and Piet Zwart (1885–1977).

Illustrators, Artists and Photographers
Ralph Barton (1891–1931), R.O. Blechman (b. 1930), René Clarke, Miguel Covarrubias (1904–1957), R. Crumb (b. 1943), Brad Holland (b. 1943), Rea Irvin (1881–1972), Rockwell Kent (1882–1971), Helmut Krone (1925–1996), Barbara Kruger (b. 1945), David Levine (1926–2009), Joseph Low (1912–2007), David Stone Martin (1913–1993), Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), Art Spiegelman (b. 1948), Dugald Stermer (1937–2011), Chris Ware (b. 1967), and Andy Warhol (1928–1987).

Type Designers, Letterers and Calligraphers
Arnold Bank (1908–1986), Ed Benguiat (b. 1927), Morris Fuller Benton (1872–1948), Raphael Boguslav (1929–2010), Father Edward M. Catich (1906–1979), F.G. Cooper (1883–1961), Oswald Cooper (1879–1940), Freeman Craw (b. 1917), Rick Cusick (b. 1947), Tim Girvin (b. 1953), Gerard Huerta, Robert Hunter Middleton (1898–1985), Ed Rondthaler (1905–2009), Robert Slimbach (b. 1956), The John Stevens Shop (John Howard Benson, John E. Benson and Nicholas Benson), John Stevens [not related to the shop], and Sumner Stone (b. 1945).

Patrons, Writers, Educators, et al
Aaron Burns (1922–1991), Ernst Detterer (1888–1947), Alan Fern, Ed Gottschall (1916–??), Ken Hiebert (b. 1930), Steve Jobs (1955–2011), Rob Roy Kelly (1926–2004), Donald Knuth (b. 1938), McRay Magleby, Douglas McMurtrie (1888–1944), Victor Margolin, Eliot Noyes (1910–1977), R. Roger Remington, George Sadek (1929–2007), Lanny Sommese (b. 1943), Paul Standard (1896–1992), Frank Stanton (1908–2006), Richard Wilde, and Merald E. Wrolstad.

This list is neither complete nor perfect, but a starting point for a discussion of future AIGA medalists. Looking at the names on it is clear to me that the AIGA missed a prime opportunity during its centennial year to properly honor those who helped make its history. But there is always next year to begin to rectify things.

*An interesting footnote to this discussion of gender disparity among AIGA medalists is a consideration of the gender breakdown of the AIGA executive directors from the position’s inception in 1948. Blanche Decker was the first employee of the AIGA, working as the assistant secretary from 1930 to 1958. In 1948 Stanton L. Catlin was named the first executive director. There have been five executive directors, three female and two male, since:  Joyce Morrow (1953–1970), Ed Gottschall (1973–1975), Flora Finn Gross (1976), Caroline Hightower (1977–1995) and Ric Grefé (1996–present).