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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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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