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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February 24th, 2018

David Stairs

When we speak of malls today Americans generally mean the air-conditioned, all-inclusive mega-mall with its food court and full-service-everything. But when I was a kid growing up in upstate New York such things didn’t exist, or, if they were being developed in cold places like Southdale Center (1956) we didn’t know about it. Of course, the idea of an indoor galleria was not new. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, arguably the modern world’s first mall, was constructed in the 1860s in Milan, Italy.

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January 23rd, 2018

David Stairs

Ruin porn is everywhere. Photos of Detroit’s semi-preserved Michigan Central Station abound, and photographers continue to document while critics and journalists debate the pros and cons of what Dora Apel in her recent book Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (2015) terms the “deindustrial sublime.”

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December 28th, 2017

David Stairs


Slingshot made from bicycle innertube

I’ve talked many times about how successful African DIY design is when it comes to recycling materials. Most African nations are not heavily industrialized, except those involved in mining, so technology and manufactured goods are often imported. What’s more, the climate in many parts of the continent fluctuates between hot and dusty, or torrentially wet— not an ideal scenario for many materials.

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December 2nd, 2017

David Stairs

There’s a little place in the Indian city of Agra famous as a testament of a man’s love for a woman.

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November 17th, 2017

David Stairs


Completion of Kampala’s Northern Expressway has been plagued by delays in right-of-way acquisition

Returning to Uganda for the first time in ten years has held a few surprises. The charm of its people, and the beauty of Uganda’s countryside are unchanged, but the congestion in the capital Kampala is alarming. Partly this has to do with migration and growth. As the nation’s population increases, the sprawl of Kampala explodes.

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October 29th, 2017

David Stairs

I was recently in Prague, which in June 2017 celebrated the 75th anniversary of one of the most heroic and daring commando actions of the Second World War. On June 4, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia was attacked on his way to work when his Mercedes slowed at a bend in the road. His assailants, Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were Slovakian and Czech volunteers who had been trained in Britain and parachuted into Czechoslovakia to conduct Operation Anthropiod.


SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (courtesy Wikipedia)

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October 2nd, 2017

David Stairs


courtesy TheNation.com

The iconic images of Houston under 10 feet of water should have by now burned themselves into your brain. “How did we get to this point?” you ask. With one word: Design.

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