I originally wrote this article for the wonderful design blog UnBeige. Props to Editor Stephanie Murg for her edits and the introduction.

The annual AIGA Awards are a little like the Oscars, but with better kerning, bolder eyeglasses, and much less Botox. At this year’s gala celebration, co-chaired by Pentagram’s DJ Stout and Su Mathews of Lippincott, guests were encouraged to wear hats shaped like buildings (make your own with this handy template). I stepped out to lash a cardboard Eiffel Tower to my head and scope out the scene.

AIGA Medal Winners
From left, AIGA medalists Ralph Caplan, Robert Vogele, and Elaine Lustig Cohen with AIGA executive director Richard Grefé; reveling designers strike a pose in the urbane photo booth. (Photos: Angela Jimenez for AIGA; Denise Ginley and Steven Robinson)

Much like the return of migrating birds and an elevated pollen count, spring brings with it the design industry’s very own prom, the annual AIGA Awards. Last week’s event, entitled Bright Lights Big City and held in Manhattan at the Altman Building, didn’t make use of the pastel ubiquity of April, but instead opted for a deco-inspired architectural theme, where the entire event was set in black-and-white, referencing the Beaux Arts Ball of 1931 in which architects dressed in costumes of buildings they had designed. This year’s guests were invited to design and create hats in the shape of their favorite buildings, bringing some unexpected wit and levity set against the relative severity of black cocktail attire.

However, the focus of the evening isn’t fashion, it is to honor the newest recipients of the prestigious AIGA medal. This year’s honorees were not simply accomplished design professionals in their own right, but together represent four of the essential archetypes of design. Ralph Caplan represents The Observer, following his career as a design author and having gained the unique ability to find perspective and turn that into something informative and enticing. Elaine Lustig Cohen comes to us as The Artist, creating groundbreaking work in typography and illustration, and raising the status of the designer and of design as a whole. Armin Hoffmann is The Mentor, demonstrated by the generations of design students he taught directly, and the enduring popularity of the Swiss style so closely linked to him. Finally, Robert Vogele embodies The Entrepreneur, demonstrating that classic American story of a regular Joe who created a scrappy upstart that became a thriving business and influential design practice. To the younger designers in the audience, it was inspirational—our challenge is how to embrace these qualities in our careers and become the next archetypes of design.

AIGA Medalists
Steven Heller and Milton Glaser bracket a group of AIGA medalists past and present. (Photo: Angela Jimenez for AIGA)

While the medal-presenting portion of the evening was steeped in sentiment and reflection, the mood was generally light, with a strong sense of community. Local firms such as Carbone Smolan Agency and Lippincott brought a large contingent of their New York staff, but designers from across the country were also present, ready to reconnect and laugh, to eat and drink, and to ham up their “team photos” in front of a custom backdrop, wearing cardboard hats shaped like skyscrapers and monuments.

Readers should know that the annual AIGA Awards night isn’t an evening of stogy old designers blowing windy praise and discussing the obscure edges of art. It’s a varied cross-section of our business, a grab-bag of today’s most passionate designers discussing and celebrating what they love.