August 21st, 2020

David Stairs

A wild back yard

Except for a couple of thunderstorms, it hasn’t rained much in central Michigan this summer. It has been quite hot, and as usual, very humid. After aggressively mowing the grass in late May and June, it’s growth abates and it mostly browns off. The only way to keep grass green is by watering it, and in a world of diminishing clean fresh water, there has to be a better use for it than golf green lawn grass.

In my back yard, reduced mowing and drought means the onslaught of drought hardy wild flowers. Chief among these in July is daucus carota or wild carrot, otherwise known as Queen Anne’s Lace. Nearly octagonal, this lacey flower with a small red center was named after a monarch who supposedly pricked her finger while doing needlepoint, her drop of blood displaying at the center of her work.

I’m less interested in the apochryphal myth than the infinite variety in this delicate volunteer, and found myself documenting these variations one afternoon recently.

Reminiscent of nothing in nature so much as snowflakes, we learn in childhood that such things follow similar patterns but, like human beings, no two are the same.

Here’s to Mother Nature who, knowing better than silly humans, does not waste enormous amounts of time trying to make multiples look exactly alike.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

July 3rd, 2020

David Stairs

America has finally caught mask fever, fifteen years later than Asian people. There are still many who refuse to “suit up” including Covid deniers, those suffering from claustrophobia, and some who claim medical excuses. But the possible reasons for not wearing a mask are narrowing, with major airlines rejecting travelers who renege.

Into this mash up stepped San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design with their Let’s Face It family friendly mask competition. Over the last two weeks of May 363 people entered their version of a mask. Entries ranged from the silly to the profound, from frilly to functional, and featured entries from all over the world, including from kids.

There were many amazing entries, some very fashionable….

Some rather dark….

Some beauty-oriented variations on face covering.

My favorite was my own, of course, a mask made of moss. It not only filters Covid-19, but also water, bacteria, and worms.

As mask fashions evolve over the coming year, expect to witness everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, including the ways celebrities mask-vogue for their online red carpet events. Don’t be caught out— prepare stylish face coverings for special holidays and every day of the week!

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

June 13th, 2020

David Stairs

I thought I was speaking truth, but now I’m not sure that it wasn’t simply “my truth” rather than something absolute. Maybe absolute truth doesn’t exist, no matter how much we’d like to believe in it. But, if this is the case, then we’re really doomed.

At the House impeachment hearings in November 2019 Ambassador Kurt Volker said, “Criticism should remain private. Praise can be public.” I could not disagree more. It is through criticism that we best understand both success and failure.

During the House hearings, it became painfully obvious that people like Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill, if not whistleblowers, were at least willing to risk their careers for truth.

In Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud Tom Mueller brilliantly documents numerous instances of whistleblowing in government and industry. How come one never hears about whistleblowing in design? Is it because designers are without sin, or do we train them to believe that the profession can do no wrong?

A young Canadian friend of mine has expressed dismay with the way design criticism is managed in her country. She does not consider herself a trained critic, but feels she must wear that hat when she sees others cheer-leading for questionable initiatives that have huge potential to do harm, like Google’s Smart Cities initiative in Toronto. Fortunately, that project was finally killed, with partial thanks to my friend and her fellow critics.

Years ago, when the establishment still trusted me, I was contacted by one of the partners at Pentagram who was hoping to get some referrals from me to assist that studio with its move into African markets. No way on earth anyone I could refer would ever be of any use to Pentagram, even though one of my former students was working at the Kampala branch of Ogilvy at the time.

Another time a friend and I took a tour of IDEO when I was visiting him in San Francisco. We were whisked through the office and sequestered in a conference room and fed platitudes, as if we were conducting industrial espionage. A few short years later at a European conference I squirmed through a David Kelley presentation in which he mostly talked about himself. The founder of the firm that had pioneered a “human-centered toolkit” being self-centered? Who’da thought?

I have long considered these examples evidence of the sheerest forms of professional cupidity. This was brought forcefully home to me one day as I was querying the same San Francisco friend about a former colleague of his who runs a social enterprise project, and who I mistakenly thought still interacted with the students at his art school. “My students do not know who he is,” my friend wrote, “even though he has parachuted onto campus once or twice over the past several years to “think stupid” with students. He, like some other famous design offices (cough, IDEO, cough), has copyrighted a relatively meaningless ‘design process’ that is easily understood by, and therefore sold to corporate/institutional/political executives. Yawn.”

I hasten to second my friend’s tedium on this matter. Yet, the behavior he so justly derides is completely commonplace, an almost universal truism of contemporary design practice masquerading as social consciousness for the sake of profit.

This is where where righteousness resides and truthfulness becomes problematic because, well, who am I to act holier than thou? I mean seriously? As we used to say when teenagers, “Give me a fuckin’ break.”

But a larger problem than my hubris, as I see it, is the tendency for the design press to whitewash the industry. Most writers, critics, and design podcasters are so busy praising design and its “limitless” potential, that there is precious space leftover to state the facts.

I wrote something critical about Design Observer’s 15th anniversary publication, but, after a couple retweets, it was drowned out by the accolades for that weblog. I later criticized design podcasts altogether because, the medium’s potential notwithstanding, I saw the same things happening there.

I could direct you to the Wikipedia entry for a famous design non-profit, an entity that collapsed under its own weight and resulted in an embarrassing lawsuit. You would not find any mention of the real way the organization ended its days. It’s almost uncanny how the truth has been replaced by a more palatable narrative.

Years ago when I wrote criticizing its Design for the Other 90% exhibit I was lambasted by a famous design person affiliated with the Cooper-Hewitt for being a “smug expert.” At one time or another I have also been called a cynic, a narcissist, and a malcontent. Any of those would be more appropriate than “expert.” It was a bad description then, and although I have not become more expert with the passage of time— more smug perhaps— my evaluation of the Cooper-Hewitt was then and still is accurate, despite what that famous design person thought.

While becoming more smug I have also grown less sanguine, less enthusiastic, and yes, less hopeful as the years have rolled by. My friend Wes Janz once quipped that Designers Without Borders ought to be renamed Designers With Some Borders, a suggestion I supported then and wrote about later. What he could not have foreseen is that an even better designation might be Lose the Designers/Keep the Borders.

This weblog was started fourteen years ago in response to the dearth of serious writing about design for the commonweal. Over the years, more designers and academic programs have gotten serious about so-called “social design.” At the moment I am perhaps feeling Wes’s influence on me once again, because I’m wondering whether I should transform this weblog from Design-Altruism-Project to Design-Relevance-Project. Probably it’s long overdue. Perhaps I’m just feeling the weight of years.

Then again, maybe I’ll sleep on it. After all, death guarantees ultimate irrelevance for all of us eventually. Better to not spurn relevance while one is still breathing.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

May 14th, 2020

David Stairs

Courtesy Wikipedia

America’s got troubles. I don’t mean the song lyric kind, but, you know, serious troubles. And they’re not the soft purring type you might find on a now infamous classic sci-fi show. Those are tribbles, the sort that pundits and wags like to compare to Donald Trump’s hair.

Donald Trump, not his hair, is in large part responsible for America’s troubles however. His ability to foment international hostilities, for instance. Or his underhanded way of hastening the transfer of wealth to corporate interests with his rollback of environmental protections. And most of all, he will be remembered for his unrelenting ability to politicize the Covid pandemic.

The Buffoon-in-Chief might be forgiven for not seeing the threat clearly before mid-January. Few Americans did. But his wilful avoidance of the scientific truths that have been obvious since late February must go down as one of the most shamelessly self-serving acts of cowardice in the history of the republic.

There are other acts of cowardice that can be cited, like the collaboration between business and politics that converted our healthcare system into a for-profit orgy unable to handle a public health crisis. But when it comes to solo acts of cowardice, Trump trumps all.

As the President continues to fumble and dissemble his way through the disaster more courageous people have risen to the forefront, individuals like Cuomo and Whitmer and most of all, Fauci. It is no surprise that after being upstaged by the good doctor for three solid months Trump is beginning to publicly challenge and contradict him. If there is one thing we can be sure about in 2020 America it’s the vanity of our fearful leader. And there is no wrath like that of a pussy spurned.

As we head into the great unknown of post-lockdown with the dire predictions of the nation’s chief epidemiologist ringing in our ears, many seem unfazed that Trump is more inclined to prefer the reassurances of chief engineer Montgomery Scott’s famous line, “It’s no tribble a’tal.”

And in a nation less focused on science than science fiction, there are those who will naturally look the other way as our troubles deepen. We will have only ourselves to blame.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

April 19th, 2020

David Stairs

Are you just about sick and tired of seeing pictures of viruses?

Courtesy NIH

Bill Maher recently went on a rant about how the media is peddling panic porn and he may be right. But there is an easier way to deal with it than raising your blood pressure. Just feast your glozzies on these other “coronas.”

Courtesy NASA

Some are beautiful natural phenomena.

While others are beautiful manufactured objects.

Some are predictable, even if they’ve ceased production.

Courtesy Educalingo

While some will be around for a very long time.

And some, well, just are what they are.

So, don’t let the virus get you down. It may be the meme of the moment, but it doesn’t even own its own brand!

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

March 31st, 2020

David Stairs

A sign of our times

There are interesting new ways to mark the passage of time. I generally take account each week when I venture out of my home to grocery shop.

Two weeks ago everyone was very focused on wiping down the handrail of their grocery cart. Last week, the retailer, Meijer, decided it would be more economical to have their greeters pre-wipe carts.

This week tape lines 6′ apart appeared on the floor of the local post office. I also noticed several people at Meijers wearing gloves, and some wearing masks. I’m reminded of the scene in Cabaret where by the end of the film nearly everyone in the club is dressed in a brown shirt with a blood-red armband. Feature drift. These things happen gradually.

I have not purchased any hand sanitizer, but I did discover a cannister of sanitizing wipes under the sink. It’s been there for years and I’ve never used it before.

My youngest son told me about his recent trip to the grocery store. He and his friend purchased some bleach and proceeded to sanitize every item when they reached home. I told him I had no intention of wiping down my groceries, then found myself doing just that. I will probably return to a habit we developed when we resided in sub-Saharan Africa: washing all produce in bleach water.

If you’ve ever read an account of plague, by Defoe or Camus or anyone else, you know the sense of denial you feel that “it can’t happen here,” so that when it does, the empty grocery shelves and hysterical news reports seem altogether surreal.

Last week I posted some examples of the ways scientists are modelling their pandemic informatics. This week I discovered This site compiles the information uploaded by researchers from around the world in an effort to model the phylogeny and transmission of viruses. Their graphics for ncov, novel Coronavirus, give one a glimpse of its 100-day romp through homo sapiens and canis lupus familiaris, the common dog. You can even view the data sets in four different layouts and follow an animated transmission path.

Courtesy of The Telegraph

Fast Company recently referred to the N95 mask as “the most important design object of our time.” As pranksters continue to waste masks by applying them to public statuary worldwide, I begin to wonder when someone will erect a statue to Lady Macbeth, who neurotically kept washing her hands in an effort to remove the blood she had spilled.

Now we all seem like 20-second obsessed Lady Macbeths. But I imagine nobody would get the point of her statue unless it was wearing a mask.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

March 17th, 2020

David Stairs

Informatics is enjoying a renaissance.


If you haven’t already encountered it, this graph is bound to become the most talked about x-y axis since Al Gore’s Nobel prize-winning acceptance speech. And it represents events more immediate than climate change, if not more important.

We are used to seeing happy little info-graphics in our daily news feeds. These, often the invention of the in-house designer, are seldom as rigorously scientific as the charts popping up in articles and on websites these days. But an awakening is underway.

While we whiled away a decade enraptured by the dystopian fantasies of the zombie apocalypse, the world’s public health infrastructure gathered dust. Regional disasters, like West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, were mere news stories, someone else’s problem isolated on a continent thousands of miles away. Besides, Ebola is a filovirus, transmitted only through direct contact. The threat of an airborne pandemic was the stuff of history, ’til now.

At the moment, informatics like the Malthusian graphs of geometric transmission might be tickling your awareness.


And then there are the mortality rate projections, both the overall percentages, which decline as the virus spreads, and the rate of doubling by nation.


There’s also the “social distancing” concept. If ever a public health term was poised to become meme of the year, this one’s it. If you’d thought our digital and social media tools had already distanced us, it’s good to be reminded that one hundred years ago, when there was no Internet to fall back on, the United States suffered over 600,000 and the world over 50,000,000 deaths from the H1N1 Spanish Flu.


Not to imply that people are going to become visualization experts overnight, or that there will be a balloon in the numbers of people interested in statistics, but there is certainly something compelling about a graph that could be predicting your own death….. or survival.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

March 2nd, 2020

David Stairs

I suppose bookmarks are a personal thing. Some are woven; some are printed; some are just bits of stuff. My son uses a piece of red thread. I won’t say that I collect bookmarks either, but when I am in a bespoke store I will not leave without one. In honor of my favorite bookstores, I’d like to share their bookmarks.

Out west, in Portland there’s Powell’s City of Books. This venerable warehouse on West Burnside Street is always crowded and, while I’d like to say you can find anything there, the greater liklihood is that you will get lost looking. For those who like to get lost, this will not be a problem.

Across the country in Ann Arbor is Literati. Ann Arbor is a college town, home to the 48,000 wolverines of the University of Michigan. Arguably the cultural hub of the state, JFK famously spoke outside the Michigan Union in October 1960 while campaigning for the Presidency. Good place to open a bookstore.

City Lights in San Francisco is one of the most famous. Founded in 1953 by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, friend to the Beats, it has been in the same location in North Beach since then. Three floors jam-packed with carefully selected books, it is a browsing paradise.

Finally, I’ll cite Red Emma’s, a vegan restaurant and cooperatively owned “radical infoshop” in Baltimore. Named for famous activist Emma Goldman, Red Emma’s wears its politics on its sleeve. I was looking for a limited edition by the music ethnographer Ian Brennan, famed for recording music the improsined, the abandoned, and the misfortunate. Red Emma’s had it.

Whatever your taste in books, support your small independent bookseller, and give the Evil Empire— you know which one— a hard pass.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

January 19th, 2020

David Stairs


“We Are the Borg.”

With these words, Maurice Hurley, writing for the Star Trek TNG episode Q Who?, unleashed one of television’s most implacable adversaries on the world. But, as with much speculative fiction, Hurley and his co-writers were only mining the literature of science and engineering probability.

When the episode first aired in 1991 we were already waist-deep in Terminators, Robo Cops, and Six-Million Dollar Men. Men had been playing God with Golems since before Mary Shelly patched Victor Frankenstein’s creation together in 1818, and cyborgs had been clanking about from the time of L. Frank Baum’s Tin Woodsman (1910) and Karl Kapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots (1919). The Borg were no different.

Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985) and Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) had set the stage for dystopian adversaries, like the Borg, but few could see far enough into the future to anticipate what was before their very noses, and has become truism thirty years further on.

Yet, the great granddaddy of prognosticators was neither Mary Shelly, nor any of the Hugo Award winners of the past 50 years. That distinction goes to a Victorian social philosopher named Samuel Butler, whose late 19th century morality tale, Erewhon, predicted so many future twists and turns.

Butler had worked at a sheep station on New Zealand in the 1870s, and set his tale in a land whose name was an anagram for “nowhere” in the very place Peter Jackson chose to film his Tolkein Middle Earth trilogy. But more than its antipodal setting, Erewhon is remembered for equating illness and crime, for proposing a world in which children choose their parents, and for postulating a society that chose to put a brake on technology before it became too smart or too dangerous for civilization.

Despite what has been written since about intelligent machines, our AI, our robotics and our big data are only as perceptive as the humans who designed them. Consequently, we’re still surrounded by pretty dumb machines. Faster and less prone to tire than humans perhaps, but no smarter.

As we enter more daringly into the realm of what’s called Post- or Transhumanism, we’d do well to reflect on the past. The “quantified self,” one that measures and records every step, each movement, and eventually every thought is already a reality for many. The dependence upon Fitbits and iPhones that has lead to the documentation of new illnesses and addictions in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) implies that some will not need cybernetic implants to qualify as “transhuman.” Disorder indeed.

I want to assert that designations like trans- and post- human are not only hyperbolic, but maybe even anachronistic, considering the state of the world. While some might consider Jeri Ryan’s Seven-of-Nine before she was severed from the collective to be the quintessential Borg, I propose that being a cyborg is more a state of communing with a “hive-mind” than of cybernetic implants, one that a majority of humans may have already adopted.

The wholesale abandonment of privacy and independently controlled data for the hive-mind convenience of social media and phone apps is so widespread as to make the notion of cyborgs seem quaintly old-fashioned, Buck Rogers meets Steve Rogers by way of Roy Rogers, or perhaps a new manifestation named Katniss Rogers.

In other words, the future, so breathlessly anticipated, is already here, while the past, so shamelessly replicated, holds all humanity’s stories as open secrets. Not to worry though, whether you groove to the Borg’s cube-in-space version of the rectilinear universe or not, there’s no problem with being assimilated. If you are a genetic permutation of the human race, you are already a card-carrying member of the collective.

Look into your Borg mirror and recharge

The poet wrote, “The fault, …., is not in our stars, But in ourselves.” Whether, along with technological apologists, you believe technology can change the future is immaterial. Human genetics, despite the Genome Project and CRISPR, is still a four-billion year experiment of planetary evolution. Resistance isn’t really an issue. You don’t even have to comply; you were born compliant.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

December 15th, 2019

David Stairs

Who doesn’t love a podcast?

Some weird personality or obscure ideology you need to catch up on on that long commute to work in the morning? Needing to block out ambient noise in your open space office cubicle? What better way for a busy person to stay both informed and amused?

Since 2004 people have been grooving on podcasts. Everyone has listened at one time or another to Malcolm Gladwell or Ira Glass’s slickly produced podcasts where the editing, sound design, and overall writing are all impeccably tight. Gladwell can choose almost any oddball topic and turn it into an interesting hour. One can only wish the same were true for design podcasts.

Journalist Roman Mars anchors a podcast he calls 99% Invisible. Like Glass and Gladwell, 99pi as it’s known is an omnibus program that attempts to colonize all of existence in the name of design. Everything is evaluated by the same denominator, from how best to pick peppers to the flaws of Frank Lloyd Wright. And why not you may ask. The world needs those who make it more interesting. Except the world is already fascinating, and not in need of constant expert interpretation, especially by those who would view it through a singular delimiting lens, like design.

Design podcasts seem to fall into two broad categories: 1) the skills-training tutorial and 2) the personality cult interview. You can google “design podcasts” to find a listing of “12 Essential Design Podcasts,” or “Fifteen Best Graphic Design Podcasts,” but many of these are simply dreadful. Most carry advertising, so they require subscription. They will all require you to agree to submit to cookies. And many, if not most, are either selling things like logo design skills or, worse yet, business acumen. In keeping with the profession’s obsession with profitability, such sites seek money up front. Far be it from anyone in design to flirt with the idea of Creative Commons licensing of information.

The personality cult interview sites, the real domain of “pod people,” where not symptomatic of pure New Haven-NewYork-Baltimore axial nepotism, tend to imply that the hosts are expert at programming interviews most designers might want to hear. But designers, while thinking they are exceptional, are really a conservative lot, and listening to the personal trials and successes of those deemed charismatic by a group of design “taste makers” is usually a recipe for not-so-veiled elitism.

Take Debbie Millman’s Designmatters for example. A recent recipient of the AIGA Medal who oversees the masters program in branding at SVA, Millman has been running her podcast since 2005, touting it as “the world’s first design podcast.” Like Design Observer, the AIGA-run site that houses Designmatters, Millman’s podcast frames itself as “…an inquiry into the broader world of creative culture…” In other words, it’s not just about design and designers, even though that’s supposed to be Millman’s bailiwick, but about creativity, the great subjective trough.

This is also the problem with Jarrett Fuller’s Scratching the Surface podcast. Fuller started his project as part of the requirements for his MFA at MICA, and, as saying only nice uncritical things about others usually will, it has made him into the darling of the contemporary New York design set. Fuller likes to interview designers, which appeals to human vanity, but also underlines a seminal problem with all of these programs: the hosts seem to think they are interviewing “extraordinary” people.

There are definitely plenty of interesting people in our world, and precious few of them ever appear on The Tonight Show With Stephen Colbert. Contrarily, just because a person works in design or the arts does not necessarily qualify them as being extraordinary. This misconception of the importance of professional celebrity I will call the TED-ification of America. The number of individuals holding forth on TED channels, whether national or regional, is indicative of the extent to which we’ve become obsessed with expertism. In an un-heroic age where everyone is deemed exceptional— perhaps the most American of diseases— suddenly no one is terribly interesting.

An exception to this wave of demi-hero worship would be the Dutch site Failed Architecture. Here we have a perspective aiming to engage in critical dialogue rather than cheerleading for design. The “icons” of the field, ranging from Le Corbusier to Bjarke Ingels and beyond, are subjected to insightful and not always fawning critiques. And, billing itself as “A Podcast on Architecture and the Real World,” the socio-political aspects of architecture do not get lost in the aesthetic haze.

Another exception might be the Curry Stone Foundation’s Social Design Insights, not because it makes the most stimulating listening, but because they at least reduce the scale and narrow the scope of discussion to a manageable size. And to their credit, they also deal more with the political end of the design spectrum, rather than disappearing into the fog of “culture” and “creativity.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the best critical writing is coming out of architectural circles. During the years Emigré was published, communication designers riding the wavefront of the digital revolution often led the critical discussion. These days perhaps it has to do with our heightened awareness of environmental degradation, and the perception of architectural critics that the world’s building mass has more than a little to do with it.

My advice to the producers of most design podcasts would be to stop assuming that your taste in topics is infinitely spellbinding, and spend a little more time with planning, writing, and sound editing. Or maybe give up trying to be taste makers altogether. The Two G’s, Glass and Gladwell, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is a reason they are crushing it on podcast notoriety, and it’s got everything to do with marrying good ideas to great production quality.

No doubt, in an era of reduced literacy audio interviews aren’t going away anytime soon. I guess I’m just one of those people who doesn’t love podcasts, especially design-related ones, believing that they primarily benefit people who think they have a finger on the pulse of what’s trending. In this I imagine I am very much alone, like Kevin McCarthy in Don Siegel’s original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, hopelessly shouting alarms at passing motorists in the middle of a busy highway. But mark my words, at this very moment someone is putting their hand in your pocket for the uneven exchange of an hour ill-spent listening to a person they have decided you should like. Don’t be taken over. Pick up a good book instead, and escape into reality.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project. His voice can be heard on the introduction of Digging the Suez Canal With a Teaspoon, but not on any podcasts, and he’s keeping it that way.

November 1st, 2019

David Stairs

Have you ever been in a super loud environment? I don’t mean the usual sort, like a kindergarten classroom or a football stadium on an autumn weekend— a scene of audio cacaphony— I mean a visually loud room. The Victorians were sometimes guilty of visual clutter, with their knick-knack trophies and flowered wallpaper, but they had nothing on modern commercial interiors.

I’m certain you can think of such a place. Perhaps it is your local Walmart or Nike Store, with their ubiquitous logos. Or possibly, it’s your favorite restaurant chain, bedizened with food super-graphics and advertising. My candidate would be Planet Fitness, the health and fitness chain alternative I was left with when my local on-campus workout place closed in 2017.

Nevermind the numerous large-screen televisions conveying their tawdry menu of over-produced gorp, from Jerry Springer to music videos and cooking shows. Disregard the horrible music spewing from multiple speakers with its girl-pop lyrics and Fabreeze locker-room commercials. Planet Fitness is the visual equivalent of Dante’s 6th hell, and the fact we all take it for granted is indicative of how desensitized we’ve become.

Uplifting gears at Planet Fitness (If only people cared as much about the actual planet!)

From the purple and yellow palette to the cutesy admonitions writ large on every wall, Planet Fitness is a designer’s wet dream, a place where restraint and good taste have to be checked at the door.

Ceiling gear above entrance to locker rooms

Every square foot is filled with corny references to gears, from the clock on the wall to the giant gears marking the service counter and locker entryway, even the wallpaper and shower curtains. Other than referencing a roomful of spinning machines, it’s a terrible way to symbolize human bodies in motion.

The PF “thumbs-up” logo is on every surface, from soap dispensers and hand driers in the locker room to the ass-end of every weight machine in the place. There’s even an etched-glass thumbs up window for the Black Card Spa, PF’s top members’ perk.

Such an interior can only be the result of branding run amok, designers so cluelessly fascinated with their own navel-gazing cleverness that they can’t grok the difference between promotion and propaganda.

Branded trash container and towel dispenser

I’m certain there will be those among my readers who will think, “There can be no such thing as too much branding, only too little.” But I propose that, as banal as a gymnasium interior can be, to decorate said interior in a way that makes it both offensive to think about and painful to look at is to ultimately fail in one’s efforts.

The extent to which Americans have permitted corporate over-branding of their private and public spaces is less a testament to the power of their vision than it is an example of their collective blindness. How we got here is obvious. Less clear is how we can return to creating sane spaces for human work and play.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project

September 14th, 2019

David Stairs

Illustration by Chris Stairs, age 9

I often think about stubbornness. My son Chris is a Leo, and he can be one of the most stubborn people I know. This is not to criticize my son, or to implicate all Leos, but it is a character trait they are somewhat known for.

There are good and bad forms of stubbornness. Standing your ground over moral issues isn’t the same as stand your ground race-driven gun abuse, although some would disagree. When I think of being a good butthead I think of Sam Ervin pursuing the denying Richard Nixon through the swamp of Watergate, not of George Zimmerman shooting Treyvon Martin.

What led me to this topic is my ongoing, seemingly never-ending disillusionment with what I encounter in the design press. Last month it was a profile on AIGA’s Eye On Design. It’s silly, really, to get upset over the breathless and self-aggrandizing clichés that appear on that site, but as a barometer of taste in the profession, it’s really depressing.

Then there’s Twitter. So, if you want to know what people are thinking, reading, getting excited about, check out what they are tweeting, right? Except, the pop-cult memes that even the literati tweet about come across as pretentious fluff. If one were looking for an electronic instance of low-end psycho babble, you could find it on Twitter, and not just from POTUS or Kim K, either, but from well-known designers who have decided this is their preferred social media platform.

The spirit of The Butthead is rearing its ugliness within me, and there’s apparently not a damn thing I can do about it. A serious example would be my reaction to the LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation. Published in 2015 at Art Center as part of the Designmatters program, I poured through this volume while preparing for an interview, becoming more and more frustrated with every page. It’s not that I am at odds with efforts to commit corporal acts of social design mercy— hell, society has many problems that designers ought to address— but the doublespeak that takes over every “professionalized” discussion of any design topic is irksome.

I’ve been railing for years about the way we use clichéd language in the design profession. All of the “thought leaders” who do the “spade work” “building capacity” through “interventions,” those “change agents” with their “boots on the ground” enthusiasm and their “human centered” mentality who “unpack” reality for the rest of us continue to occupy the same daises at design conferences, and, for very good reasons— none of which make any sense at the moment— reap the rewards of those who play the pseudo-non-conformists’ conformity game. “Toolkits” be damned, people who behave like “tools” should be treated as such.

So, passing from the terminally trite through the horrifically hip I alight at last on the AIGA’s new Design Educator’s Community periodical Dialectic, a “scholarly journal of…” you guessed it, “…thought leadership.” Here reality comes face-to-face with “theoretical speculation,” the dialectically heavy kind that makes résumé lines for those seeking tenure. If you have an appetite for fashionable academic words like “precarity” and “decolonialize” you’ll find more than enough to feast on here. But if it’s accessible fare you hope to find, then, to play fast and loose with Annie DiFranco lyrics, you might “find yourself starving and eating the words you have read.”

There’s Elizabeth Resnick’s Developing Citizen Designers, now a couple years old. I have to admit, there are so many new, academically driven social design titles coming out I am only gradually catching up with them, as they finally catch up with me. (Resnick herself has another new title, The Social Design Reader, (available in August 2019). This one looked pretty and sounded fetching— after all, who doesn’t want there to be more good citizen designers in the world? Unfortunately, here we have over 400 pages of mostly college studio case studies by art school design instructors trying to get students to be socially relevant. Design is not an elitist human activity, as this book should emphasize, except when it’s practiced by a self-aggrandizing profession. Also, the projects here are primarily graphic design, as if architects and product designers don’t need social training too. And, as with the LEAP dialogues, we’re in the land of social-design-as-the-currently-fashionable-meme.

Finally, I alighted on Dunne and Raby’s 2013 Speculative Everything, an unusual design book from MIT Press. One-hundred eighty-nine pages of propositions later, I am both exhilarated and perplexed. On one hand, the book is unabashed in its support for cloud-seeding as an occupation. But it accomplishes this feat by mining what could only be considered conceptual art and its protocols, which will be problematic for many designers. The book ends with a thought experiment that divides the UK into four “micro-kingdoms” based upon speculative combinations of ethics and economics, with some clever if outlandish ideas. If dreaming about how society could evolve rather than trying to solve current problems is your gig, read this book. Oh hell, read it anyway and feel inspired!

No, I’m not a Leo, or a Taurus either, but as an Aries I’m a head-butter of sorts. I’ve had occasion to wish it were different but, like the scorpion who stung his ride as they swam across the river, I can’t help it— it’s just my fuckin’ nature. “The Dude may abide, man,” but in my case the Butthead rules eternal.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project

August 6th, 2019

David Stairs

Affluence isn’t free.

Giraffes at a gallop on the Serengeti, Tanzania

In May 2019 the UN released a report about the state of the natural world. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported that species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, and that the rate is accelerating.

IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, stated that catastrophe could still be averted by ‘transformative change’ but warned, “…by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”

Elephants in Queen Elizabeth Park, Uganda

In America it is difficult to defend the view that privilege carries responsibilities. Everywhere one turns for examples one is met by negative instances, from the occupant of the White House on down to individual citizens, and including many major corporations. I can only think of a couple instances of responsible corporate behavior, and that from exemplary players like Tesla and Herman Miller.

Nathan Shedroff, the founder of a MBA program in design strategy at CCA, is greatly invested in expanding the intersection of design and business, as are Jessica Helfand and Michael Beirut, who run both a podcast and a conference entitled The Design of Business/The Business of Design. None of these people seem to have a clue that design is complicit in its role in the degradation of nature, or that a merger of design and business is bad for nature. It’s as though no one can apply what the Eames’ taught us about orders of magnitude to our effect on the environment.

A few examples will suffice. The IPBES report states that there has been a 10x increase in plastic pollution worldwide since 1980. Every clever new cost-saving application of plastic to packaging adds to the nightmare scenario. I can’t get my preferred brand of environmentally friendly cat litter in anything but a plastic bag. I can’t buy house paint that does not come in a plastic container. Given current recycling trends— nowhere left to offshore plastic except the ocean— this does not bode well. The coffee section of my grocery store has been taken over by hundreds of flavors of coffee all available in Keurig-friendly plastic pods. It is estimated that over 40% of American homes are currently outfitted with a Keurig machine, quickly vaulting this new beverage phenomenon into the waste-crisis category.

The difficulty for designers is that, although society as a whole has defined a problem, no one seems able to propose effective examples of ‘transformative change.’ It would seem a crisis custom-made for a group of self-styled problem solvers like designers. Instead, the profession is locked in a “head-up-butt” position, like major corporations that fail the self-regulation test.

Americans, as the primary example of over-indulged humans, are burdened by a plethora of choice, as any trip to the store will attest. Increasingly, as the returns from environmental degradation come to devalue the quality of life, Americans might discover that their highly-valued “freedom of choice” is really just slavery by another name.

The concept of free will has been a topic of philosophical contention for thousands of years. It factors into any discussion of whether a person has control in this life. It has been codified into law through famous documents, like the Declaration of Independence (1776), or the US Constitution (1787). But these examples of Enlightenment-era thinking were written at a very different time, long before humanity was exerting terminal pressure on the natural environment. For a modern American to adhere to a belief in perpetually extensible freedom of choice is tantamount to a death wish. In fact, philosopher John Zerzan refers to techno-capitalism as a “death trip.” And a lot of people seem to be coming down on the side of death these days.

How might we better behave? Building electric cars and connecting the power grid to a sustainable source is a start, but a high-end solution, and one governments have done a poor job of promoting. What about simply limiting individual choice? This will seem like a facile suggestion to some. After all, at D-A-P we’re already on record as being dubious about human self-regulation. But perhaps a little “imposed regulation,” that boogeyman of libertarians, may be necessary.

China, famous for draconian edicts, codified a one-child-per-family restriction in an effort to control runaway population growth. China has been the world’s most populous nation since the time of the Roman Empire, so it would seem a good place to start thinking about zero population growth, albeit at a cost to personal freedom. Unfortunately, China is also the nation recently implicated as the source of illegal CfC emissions, ignoring the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the world’s first effective climate accord. Some you win, some not as successful.

Auto manufacturers are required by government to demonstrate improvements in the overall efficiency of their fleets. This allows GM to offset the production of millions of big Silverado pick-up trucks and Tahoe SUVs by selling a few ten-thousands of Chevy Bolt electric vehicles. Again, this is looking at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. What if vehicle owners were taxed by the mile for vehicles that fell outside certain efficiency thresholds? If citizens were forced to shoulder the true cost of inefficiency, you would soon see changes not only in the way vehicles were designed, but in the way people drive. Just as asbestos litigation bankrupted its liable manufacturers over the past forty years, markets, so finely attuned to customer satisfaction, would instantly respond.

The days of unlimited choice of Keurig flavors are coming to a close

As improbable as such examples seem, it is not improbable to state that we are coming to an era of reduced choice. In market economies, choice has always been driven by the false ideal of unlimited growth. Now that it is obvious to a first-grader that unlimited growth cannot coexist with a finite ecosystem, perhaps designers, engineers, advertisers, industrialists, and the politicians who represent them should face the music and hop off the economic merry-go-round before we spin the Earth itself right off its axial gyre.

Choice costs. Unlimited choice is insupportable. Don’t ask Madison Avenue for its opinion on this matter, but do pay attention to the UN’s biodiversity report. Your great grandchildren will thank you. I’m pretty sure they’d be more interested in a clean sustainable environment than the choice of 400 flavors of coffee. We need to be able to give them this gift.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project

July 1st, 2019

David Stairs

Since when did coding corner the market on the definition of “smart”?

I recently attended a UCDA design conference where Helen Armstrong was one of the keynoters. Ms. Armstrong, a multiply-credentialled academic with deep ties to the AIGA, talked about Big Data, and how designers can/should employ it to their benefit.

Yellow-cyan-indigo paint scheme non-algorithmically determined

Armstrong began her presentation by asking the audience how many had interacted with data that morning. Of course, nearly every hand in the room shot up in a classic example of techno-enthusiasm. As an instance of the apparent ubiquity of computing technology, I suppose the question is inescapable. But as an example of putting convenience above discretion, it was more telling still. I too, had recently visited the Amazon site. I’d nearly been tempted to sign up for a no-charge Amazon credit card, which would have saved me $50 on that purchase. I had the forms all filled in when I thought better about the personal info I was about to relinquish to big data. It seemed more valuable than $50, so I cancelled the transaction.

News stories about the ways that ubiquitous computing, cloud computing, big data, or smart phone apps are changing our day-to-day existence have become relentless. More of this techno-triumphalist cheerleading is certainly unneeded and unwelcome. It is not surprising to find it seeping into such vulnerable audiences as those at design conferences who, generally, are “techno true believers” and “early adopters.” But when you stop to consider what is being compromised, the gains lose a lot of their luster.

Armstrong cited some of the most famous applications of Big Data, like autonomous vehicles and facial recognition. To her credit, she also mentioned the down side of ceding control, citing examples such as the Cambridge Analytica data breach, or the implications of retailers like Walmart employing universal recognition surveillance to determine the “happiness” of customers. But I propose that the problem goes much deeper, all the way to the core of what it means to be human.

Ms. Armstrong also talked about how Google uses images from its geographic recognition software as “captcha” instances, the better to employ everyone’s involuntary participation to improve their location algorithms. I asked Armstrong if she was encouraging us to help make machines smarter while making human beings dumber. She averred that it was “a conversation that needed to happen.” Unfortunately, as evidenced by the Facebook CA debacle, such controversies are only mooted after they become public, and it is in most corporations’ best interests to stonewall public inquiries into their proprietary assets. Just ask Mark Z.

The other end of the human equation that I hear people talking about has to do with the huge experiment in behavior modification corporations are running on our youth. Educators are constantly complaining about how students don’t write as well, can’t remember as much, don’t exercise memory without access to technology, and generally seem less capable than once-upon-a-time. Granted that academics are accomplished bellyachers when it comes to the “younger generation,” but I’m still concerned about the way traditional skills are being eroded by superficial gratification and ephemeral convenience.

My standard example of self-reliance is way-finding. As a point of pride, I do not use GPS when I travel. Typically, I prepare for a journey by researching the route, understanding directions, etc. I’ve left for a multi-car field trip and beaten students to the destination because their GPS sent them in the wrong direction. For the UCDA conference I drove 700 miles in an unknown direction to a part of the country I’d never visited. When I got lost in the western reaches of rural Virginia I stopped to ask directions, which I’ve also done in downtown Detroit and the heart of Africa. If I’d been using GPS I would have subbed Siri’s default voice for the soft gentle twang of the local Virginia dialect, which was a definite improvement. Armstrong told me that one of her daughters, who is autistic, benefits from using GPS to navigate in her own neighborhood. This left me at odds, wondering how Helen Keller ever survived, let alone prospered, without the benefit of an app.

Different times evoke differing solutions, I suppose. GPS is only one possible example where I might invoke a memory of Helen Keller. When I try to use voice recognition software to transcribe subtitles for film, the mistakes are so legion that I might rewrite the text from scratch in the time it takes me to correct the transcription errors. Conventional wisdom recommends that I search for better software, maybe something Google has crowd-sourced from the public without permission, but the Luddite in me recoils.

Of course, there are adverse examples, too. I did not have the details of the venue I was to present in at UCDA Tennessee because the conference organizers, assuming everyone is phonetech savvy, spent more effort developing a conference smart phone app than being clear in their emails. This was a distinct disadvantage for a person who does not carry a phone. Granted, mine is an outlier position in a society obsessed with the mobile internet, but even the internet has been superceded by proprietary apps, which, apparently, no one seems to object to.

My young son Luco pointing the yellow-blue way

As reported by the AIGA website, the Pentagram collective recently hired data visualizer Giorgia Lupi as its 24th New York partner. Described as a “digital humanist,” whatever that means, Ms. Lupi is a living reminder of design’s latest addition to its capitalistic toolbox. And it is things like this that make me want to open a studio called Non-Algorithmic. In that business, partners and clients alike would be required to check their smart phones at the door, and employees would spend at least one afternoon per week finding their lunch by aimful wandering. I think I’m on to something, but it’s definitely not digital, and it won’t require a certificate in coding from Google U. Wish me luck.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project

May 24th, 2019

David Stairs

While most people these days don’t think much about cattle when they discuss branding, they also probably don’t focus on Apple’s iconic 1984 Superbowl ad as the catalyst for a whole new generation of brand differentiation. Yet, the upsurge of interest in brand fascination is traceable to the 1980s and its emphasis on supply-side economics.

CMU’s Centennial Sculpture, by Charles McGee (installed 1992; relocated 1999; birds voluntary)

When I finally became part of the academy in 1994, my land-grant institution had recently celebrated its centenary. To mark this occasion, it invested in two things: a sculpture, and a logo. For the centennial sculpture, a committee commissioned Detroit artist Charles McGee, whose black-and-white enameled steel “Gateway Sculpture” was later moved from the center of campus to a small island in the middle of a remote pond. The centennial logo, later referred to as “the outhouse,” fared even worse. A variation on the “Old Main” trope of university logos, the campanile of Warriner Hall marque, gone and all but forgotten, was replaced less than a decade later with a word mark.

Central’s Centennial logo, the “Outhouse” 1992

About two years after I arrived on campus, a new marque was created by a student of mine who moonlighted as a work study student at athletic marketing. This marque, later referred to as the Action C, was an extra-bold obliqued sans serif cap C with speed lines and the drop shadow that defined so much design of the late ’90s.

The Action C, 1996

Earlier in the century, Central’s mascot had for a time been known as the Bearcats. At some point, this designation changed to the Chippewas, named for the local band of Anishinaabe people, the Saginaw Ojibwas. This created a marketing problem for the school by the PC end of the century. The Bearcat logo had been a cap C, and the Action C reverted to this style, updating it while allowing the school to retain the Chippewa nickname with tribal consent, so long as it was used respectfully and did not promote stereotypes.

Central’s old “Bearcat C”

My only connection to any of these marques was to the 2001 university word mark. In the midst of a contentious public discussion, where the Associate Vice President for Marketing was taking heavy ordnance over outsourcing $12,000 for a new mark, I suggested the typeface that ultimately settled the debate, Emigre’s Fairplex. This experience taught me that the public holds a pretty high estimation of its own design taste, whether or not it owns the knowledge or expertise that goes with it.

The CMU Wordmark, 2001

A decade-and-a-half later, a new AVP, herself a CMU alum, embarked on a scorched-earth branding campaign in an effort to control all secondary marks on campus. In addition to the wordmark and Action C, the university occasionally used a great seal, and many on-campus entities had made their own logos. Her solution: make everything bleed institutional colors, in this case maroon and gold. Thereafter, every webpage, poster, sweatshirt, coffee mug, and publication assumed a predictable sameness, and designers working for the university had to learn to dream in PMS 209 (maroon) and 123 (gold).

The university seal

These days, most universities adhere to a rigidly protectionist policy toward their property, including logo and color palette. After all, such simple things are the stuff of nostalgia for thousands of alums, hence, potential donors and purchasers of university branded clothing and swag. Never mind that none of this stuff is produced by universities, but by a large echelon of licensed marketers and secondary producers with university branding agreements.

An example of current university branding

Yet, I can’t help but think that something essential has been lost in this rush to proprietize the university’s image. Perhaps it can’t be offset by the monetary gold PMS 123 bestows on CMU, but the rigidity imposed by such “branding standards,” while state-of-the-practice, reduces flexibility, and ultimately forestalls potential creativity. I know because my department’s efforts to develop a not-maroonandgold website to try to compete with other arts institutions was completely shut down, with the resultant university-imposed website one horse-snort shy of hilarious. The irony is that enrollments are tanking in the era of Trumpification. Michigan is bleeding population and jobs, with the pool of available 18-year-olds every institution is competing for accordingly reduced.

Architect’s rendering of Central’s proposed Alumni Center, with an Action C sculpture out front

I can’t say if/when this will ever improve. I’m biased to believe it may accompany a loosening of brand standards, and a return to unfettered creativity. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, all hail the Action C.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project

April 13th, 2019

David Stairs

The editors of MIT Press and Design Observer have compiled a collection of essays to celebrate that weblog’s 15th anniversary. Culture Is Not Always Popular sports the same title as the presentation Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel made at the 2003 AIGA Power of Design conference in Vancouver B.C., which was delivered the very week the Design Observer website launched, at the time a marketing slam dunk that quickly garnered a captive audience for the new site. Yet, despite the title’s heady aspirations, this anthology reveals DO not for what it has aspired to be— avant garde, but what it actually is: largely bourgeois.

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March 11th, 2019

David Stairs

In 2014 my program hosted a campus visit by the popular and likeable Stefan Sagmeister. Since I made the arrangements for his talk, and chauffered him from and back to the airport, we had plenty of time to visit. I told him his royalty for the visit was payback for the Sappi grant he helped adjudicate for me and my partner in 2003 and, despite the fact he did not know me at the time, I considered it a debt repaid.

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February 18th, 2019

David Stairs

On Christmas Day one year we visited our friend Kasule Kizito, who was staying at his home in Masaka. We traveled to Bukalavu taxi stage by matatu, where Kizito met us and took us to his home. Kizito was then attempting to repurchase land subdivided from his grandfather’s estate by his 70-odd descendents. On December 26th Kizito broke ground on the new brick house he was building for his eighty-year-old mother.

Stucco-covered brick house with corrugated steel roof

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January 8th, 2019

David Stairs

It’s seemingly on every designer’s mind these days. No, not sex (although that might be a close second) but social design. How did a matter of collective conscience come to rival primordial drives?

Not long ago only cranks and fuzzy-headed idealists were talking about social design. To perform a service “pro bono” was to earn a little social capital in an otherwise expensive and ultimately self-destructive manner. Working for free was akin to what slaves did. Design professionals in the great consumer economy deserved better.

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October 8th, 2018

David Stairs

Economic growth is one of those hot-button issues politicians are always promising to support. In fact, almost the surest way to a failed career in politics is to preside over an economic downturn.

This land in NE Portland won’t be empty for long

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August 16th, 2018

David Stairs

Way back in 2011 I first wrote about a wonderful device my friends in South Africa had come up with. Known as Eva, the Arivi paraffin stove had been an INDEX competition finalist in 2009, and had won an award from SABS, the South African Bureau of Standards, in 2011. While visiting them in Pretoria last Fall I caught a glimpse of social entrepreneurship on a micro-manufacturing level.

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July 13th, 2018

David Stairs

Homemade hotplates

Some of the most interesting places in modern day Kampala are the tinsmith’s stalls opposite the Balikuddembe Market. Here sheet metal is daily transformed from dross into useful implements for household chores. The scope of activity is only limited by the workman’s imagination as numbers of boxes and appliances are tinkered together.

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June 4th, 2018

David Stairs

Nativity façade of Sagrada Familia

If you are planning to visit Barcelona for reasons other than seeing the FCB, Futbol Club Barcelona, chances are you will visit a site designed by Antonio Gaudi. Gaudi is the city’s favorite son, and his works are among the town’s best-known tourist attractions.

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April 29th, 2018

David Stairs

The Original Omusajja along Entebbe Road

Along the highway leading from Uganda’s former colonial capital Entebbe to its modern capital Kampala there is a landmark that characterizes colonialism in a nutshell. Known as “Omusajja ku luguudo lweNtebbe” or just “Omusajja” for short in Lugandan, “the Man along Entebbe Road” is a fifteen-foot high statue of a white body builder flexing his muscles as the former symbol of durability for the Lweza Clays company.

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March 27th, 2018

David Stairs

Say what you want about Art Nouveau, but when it came to invention its practitioners were not short-handed. For an example, I turn to Gaudi’s most famous residence design.

Casa Battlo, or “House of Bones,” so named for its bone-like exterior columns

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