Last month we celebrated our chapter’s rich history, so it’s only fitting that this month’s Member Spotlight is our chapter’s Legacy Co-chair, Alex Zahradnik. Alex has spent time putting together our chapter’s history from its start in 1981 to the present. Check out the timeline of our chapter’s achievements in the past 35 years and learn more about all of the work Alex has done for our chapter in the design community in Philadelphia below.
Tell us a little about yourself. What is your current job?
I am the assistant director of graphic design at Drexel University, where I manage the branding, support researchers with visual language and information graphics, design exhibits for the Drexel Collection, and produce posters, booklets, wayfinding and environmental graphics for various colleges, schools, and the University. I work with the Design Activist Institute, a design collective where we collaborate on grassroots projects, using tactics from community organizing applied to strategic design. Right now we are focusing on local environmental justice issues. I am also involved in a few community organizations and activist groups, like Philly Socialists and the Philadelphia Tenants Union, and enjoy serving the role of designer within those types of structures.
How long have you been in the field?
It’s been about 13 years or so. I graduated from the University of the Arts in 2002 and shortly thereafter started working for a web hosting agency where I first started learning how to write code from the people who worked there. Around that same time, I was freelancing as much as possible and collaborating on a “serialized visual novel” that is still one of the most unconventional DIY projects I’ve ever worked on.
What important milestones do you credit to getting to where you are now?
That’s a great question! Many of my personal breakthroughs are probably related to various activist efforts far away from the world of design. When I was about 25 I became heavily involved in “sustainable design” which was instructive but eventually radicalizing on a personal level as I learned more. My experience in activism and organizing since then — for gender, racial, and economic equality, for climate justice, against police brutality, war, and surveillance — has been illuminating and a positive challenge to link to my modernist design education and praxis.
Why design? What inspires you to do the work you do?
I am always so moved when I see or read about people who selflessly sacrifice themselves for a cause. It has been emotional to read about the courageous efforts at the Sacred Stone Camp standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline protecting sacred sites and the health of the environment. I really look up to the White Rose, the resistance group who designed and distributed leaflets and painted graffiti against the Nazi regime in Germany, some of whom paid with their lives for it.
How long have you been an AIGA member?
It has been 11 years now.
Why did you join AIGA?
It had always been my intention to join AIGA as a student when our faculty would urge membership, but I couldn’t afford it. I joined primarily because I wanted to see what I could do to give back to the design community and to find ways in which I as a member of the design community could give back to Philadelphia.
How have you benefited from your AIGA membership?
I have been given so many opportunities through AIGA that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I should acknowledge AIGA for the conversations they facilitated on green design. Around that time, I got involved on the ethics committee when it was helmed by Jenny Profy in 2005 and 2006. Some of these talks, debates and discourses — sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in groups, sometimes at large events — were just so enlightening at the time, especially those in which my friend and colleague Craig Schlanser was involved. I have also learned that facilitating public discourse, curating exhibitions of work for the public, and researching our local design history in order to tie it to the future are rewarding endeavors for me personally.
What do you enjoy most about the Philadelphia Chapter of AIGA?
There are many unique aspects of the city itself that extend to our chapter: competition which serves to elevate the practice; a cultural, intellectual and technological savvy; a forward-thinking philosophy; and a certain level of gritty, working-class toughness. Of course, the people who make up the chapter are the most important element and without them it wouldn’t be the same.
Why should someone be a member?
The long list of rewarding aspects of membership would have to include opportunities like being able to give back to the design community, serving and shaping the future of design in a focused way, and working with others to make positive changes in the world using design as a tactic, amongst many others!