How a New CEO Paved an Innovative Path Amid Ongoing Challenges

Johnson-Pave a path November 1, 2021 By: Bennie F. Johnson

No one said leading was easy, but few anticipated the lengthy crises we continue to endure. A new CEO got his abrupt shift early in his tenure. His measured, inclusive, and communal response helped guide his association to success.

When I accepted the offer to become executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design, my mandate was to bring change. Less than 90 days into the job, the pandemic hit, and we faced decisions that would impact our staff, our programming, and our association. In that moment, we had to evolve, be dynamic, and work in concert with the community that was also evolving around us.

My goal was, and is, to be proactive, envision what’s around the corner, and build a more contemporary association to be responsive to the needs of the community. We looked at the nexus of our greatest needs and the biggest opportunities and ideas so that we could inform, equip, and empower our staff, our volunteers, and our members. It was critical to develop an adaptable and fluid leadership style that could ebb and flow through the challenges 2020 presented.

Embrace Purposeful Change

I have always believed that change—more importantly, purposeful change—is what helps us see what is truly essential. I view our mission as a lens of change: to advance design as a professional craft, strategic advantage, and vital cultural force. That’s why AIGA spent the last 18 months spearheading a comprehensive research initiative to better understand the design profession.

Our 2021 AIGA Design Point of View research not only demonstrates the value and impact design brings to an organization, but also helps us create resources to meet community needs. We have the opportunity to innovate and transform the way the world views design and illustrate the value not only in our community, but to the world around us, and this new research is helping us do that.

It was critical to develop an adaptable and fluid leadership style that could ebb and flow through the challenges 2020 presented.


What 2020 gave us was the perfect opportunity to rebuild, renew, and create purposeful change for our profession. Our programming team led the way by providing inspirational and extensive learning experiences for our community. In 2020, we held over 200 virtual learning experiences, and we will come close to that number in 2021.

We are also piloting several professional certificate programs for creatives—we have launched several with plans to launch more before the end of the year—to meet the demand for professional development. While we could not gather in person, we found ways to create meaningful networking opportunities to support each other.

Be Strategic

There is amazing power in coming together to share resources, learn together, and draw strength from each other. We created new programming, including a new virtual fireside chat series with industry leaders to share insights and knowledge; empowered our team to do the work of rebuilding through programming and resources; and encouraged others to join us in that work.

We knew that together we would be able to create a more contemporary professional association for design. Taking the time to envision that end goal made us all stronger and more resourceful—and made our association more resilient in the process.


AIGA took time to listen. It was not always easy, but it was integral to our success. While change is an easy word to say, it is not an easy undertaking in reality. We would not have been able to pivot in chapter leadership training, programming, and begin the rebuilding that was necessary for AIGA to emerge stronger if we had not taken the time to listen and be present.

We are still listening and will continue to listen to our members, our volunteer leaders, and our community to understand and meet their needs as we navigate what comes next.


Optimism has never been more important. Our research has shown that six out of 10 people in our community believe design has a role to play in helping the industry emerge stronger from the crisis. And that is what we are doing: We are emerging stronger, more empathetic,  and more optimistic for a brighter future for our industry.

As unpredictable as it is to lead during these times, what keeps me—and the AIGA design community—going are the lessons, insights, and creative solutions my staff, members, volunteers, and the design community are devising as a result. Designers are problem solvers at heart, and they are living up to the challenge to bring change and do big things. 

Bennie F. Johnson

Bennie F. Johnson is executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design, in New York City.