April 24th, 2021

David Stairs

Another day, another mass shooting. We’re led to believe by television that Mayhem is a guy in a suit, played by actor Dean Winters, who causes mass upheaval wherever he goes. If only it were that simple.


Glock semi-automatic pistol designed by Gaston Glock

The sheer cupidity of newscasters clucking their collective tongues while pols dole out “thoughts and prayers” like medieval indulgences, one more for our charm bracelet of disasters, stoking our collective shame. In a land of cowboys, everyone takes the gunslinger for granted. Of course he’s got to gun someone down, that’s the way of the West isn’t it? But the idea that it has to be school children, or families shopping at malls, or elders gathered at a prayer meeting seems a bit antithetical to classic Hollywood notions of good and evil.

In 2020 nearly 20,000 Americans died from gun violence. This does not include an additional 24,000 gun-related suicides. Taken together, multiples more people died by guns than in motor vehicle accidents (16,000+). Whether the work of a militarized police that spews lethal force in all directions, or a trigger happy stand-your-ground populace, it wasn’t always this way.

The accelerating epidemic of gun deaths in America sits close by the door of the firearms industry and the NRA. At the 150th year since the founding of the NRA, the organization has been on a 50-year rampage in its reinterpretation of the Second Amendment. Originally a collection of sportsmen, during its first century the NRA often supported gun control legislation, especially during the gangster-ridden Depression, and again after JFK was assassinated. NRA officials in the 30s were actually on record as being opposed to general arms carrying. This changed in the 1970s when the current phase of “gun rights absolutism” began.

In the mid-70s, as a design student intern at a small Providence ad agency, I designed a brochure supporting handgun control. On the outside it said, quite unpoeticly, “Guns Kill Kids……..” Then, when one turned the page it continued “…..and Everybody.” Pretty direct, since that’s what guns are designed to do. This was six years before John Hinckley Jr. shot and paralyzed James Brady in an attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life, and nineteen years before the gun control law bearing Brady’s name became law in 1994.


Remington Bushmaster assault rifle with silencer

Current levels of mayhem can be dated to 2005’s Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act which largely immunizes gun manufacturers from liability suits in the event their product causes death. There is some leeway in interpretation, and in 2019 Remington was found liable for the manner in which it advertised its Bushmaster, the weapon used in the Sandy Hook killings, as a rifle capable of mass destruction. But generally, new gun control legislation is more often held to be “unconstitutional,” a position strongly maintained by the Republican Party in contradiction of all historical interpretations.

How do we get out of this self-perpetuating nightmare? The notion that more guns will make us more secure can only be viewed as an industry advertising cliché when we are awash in guns. And laws legalizing open carry or empowering teachers to carry guns at school are the last redoubt of the lunatic fringe who define security as having the ability to kill anyone.

Perhaps industrial designers should take a Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm” by refusing to participate in the design and manufacture of firearms. Of course, where profit is involved, it will take more than an ideological stance to stem the rising tide of blood.

As the 21st century rolls on, this big, complex, fraught thing known as modern America is going to have to come to grips with its 18th century frontier freedoms and finally admit that some forms of freedom are really slavery by another name.

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

March 15th, 2021

David Stairs


Tom Tierney’s Rita Hayworth paper doll published by Dover

As I sit by my Thermopane picture window reflecting on the wintry scene outdoors, I am distracted by the arrival of a mated pair of songbirds. A male cardinal hops onto my bird-feeder while his subtle mate shelters in a nearby bush.

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February 11th, 2021

David Stairs


Deep fake of the Queen’s Christmas address; courtesy Channel 4

A man walks into a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. armed with an automatic rifle determined to free children he believes are victims of a peadophilic sex trafficking “deep state.” People interviewed at a Stop the Steal rally in Atlanta tell interviewers a commission is needed to investigate the Democrat’s efforts to corrupt a widely certified election. A man in Nashville (not Robert Altman’s version) destroys a city block blowing himself up at the same time in protest of AT&T’s roll out of 5G wifi service. In another era one might be tempted to agree that “the time is out of joint,” except this bizarro world is our everyday reality.

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January 9th, 2021

David Stairs

Steve Zdep is dead, that much is certain. He passed away on November 6th, 2020 from causes not revealed in his obituary.


The author in more innocent times

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December 9th, 2020

David Stairs

With states reporting record numbers of infections, there is no doubt that this Christmas season will be one many will find hard to forget. The malls and retail centers we so precipitously abandoned way back in March do not have the same attraction of earlier years. Since Covid is THE story of 2020, even overshadowing the presidential election, we’ve scrounged up a few holiday suggestions for that extra special Christmas 2020 memento of the years’ most familiar meme.


A “Clovid” orange

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November 2nd, 2020

October 26th, 2020

David Stairs

Max is over, thank God.

And by Max I mean Adobe Max, that brightshiny overripe bells-and-whistles software tradeshow masquerading as an allconsuming excuse to be pretentiously jejeune.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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April 19th, 2020

David Stairs

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


Courtesy NIH

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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.

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March 17th, 2020

David Stairs

Informatics is enjoying a renaissance.


Courtesy LiveScience.com

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.

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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.

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January 19th, 2020

David Stairs


Paramount

“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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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-algorithmicly determined

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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)

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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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