October 31st, 2014

David Stairs

As a person who answers a lot of mail inquiring about socially responsible design internship options, a recent Skype conversation with some grad architecture students at Ball State University got me to dusting off some serious criticism of the “faux humanitarianism” of do-gooder design.

Inevitably, I return to Ivan Illich’s To Hell With Good Intentions, where he criticized a group of young Americans intending to do development field work in Mexico in the late ’60’s for being pretentious, complacent, and hypocritical middle-class idealists. “If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as ‘good,’ a ‘sacrifice’ and ‘help’.”

There’s an important message here, one we are often reluctant to accept.

The current obsession with helping others through design “interventions” is a subject that has gathered a certain momentum over the last decade. I think it’s less a matter of whether such initiatives are sincere than how they arise. Illich might refer to it as the result of “bad conscience,” and to an extent this is probably accurate. Middle-class sons and daughters of the industrial north, beginning to suspect the affluence that is their birthright, get a latter day notion to “pay it forward.”

Not a week passes that I am not asked by a design student somewhere in the developed world about opportunities in social design. The vast majority of these inquiries are heartfelt, if also callow. I do not have any “placements” to make, am certainly not an “expert” in social design, and am usually at pains to help students realize that their best opportunity always begins within themselves, not with any existent system or infrastructure that can grease their skids and save them from “reinventing the wheel.” Young people have usually not yet realized that it is humanity’s Sisyphean fate to reinvent wheels.

Just as with any creative human endeavor, most social design initiatives begin with a curious observation followed by an inquiry. “Then, depending on one’s disposition, shouldn’t it be easy to find a way to encourage or discourage them?” you wonder. Not unless we also attempt to encourage/discourage other forms of entrepreneurship, I would argue. Let’s face it, the real disease of America in its most malign form is a fantastic melange of democracy and free enterprise capitalism, not the intentions of do-gooders. We need to address the causes of our troubles, not just their symptoms.

Where design do-gooderism often fails is in its inception, not its application. Here I am reminded of the firestorm Bruce Nussbaum created four years ago when he momentarily referred to social design as “neo-colonialist,” a serious and often valid complaint. Valid because not one in a thousand designers realizes that the Lord Cornwallis who surrendered the American colonies at Yorktown in 1781 is the same man who defeated Tipu Sahib, the last Sultan of Mysore, at Srirangapatna in 1799, thereby opening India to colonization. Or knows anything about the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, the one that carved Africa into European spheres of influence? The bitter taste these experiences left in the mouths of millions of people worldwide makes a necessity of walking on eggshells, but again, Illich would say we have “an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy.”

Personally, I have no argument with altruism per se, and consider it a social benefit, if not a selector for human evolution. The design profession however, and this includes its educational branch, is a late-comer to the concept of altruism, and design criticism has been more apt to gush over apparent success stories, than criticize their “indelicacy.” This automatically makes design suspect, but also suggests why there has been such a craze for “social.”

The fact that many young people are idealistic ought to be applauded. Adolescents, obviously, can be a bit cynical— they are often seeing the “man behind the curtain” for the first time. But once people enter their twenties, an urge toward service arises. Frankly, the thought of a whole generation of millenarian cynics paints a dystopic landscape of hopelessness and anomie no one really wants to live to witness. On the other hand, by institutionalizing altruism, as we do with social design education programs, we not only commercialize it, but glorify it, and glorification is au fond anti-natural.

Talk of social networking design solutions often masks serious efforts to open new markets for the profession, a perennial problematic. Whether your name is Pentagram or IDEO, corporations are by no means disinterested entities. Just because they like cell phones and motor cars doesn’t mean people in non-industrial places want to import our social mores and economic systems. It’s more of the backhanded colonialist mush people in the developing world have been fed for 150 years.

Whether the acolytes of design do-gooderism are here to stay or are just living through a self-congratulatory phase remains to be determined by the historians. It’s only been five years since David Berman’s Do Good Design was published, and a majority of the designers I speak with seem pretty sure social design is a good thing. I’ve written previously about the dangers of remote solutions to local problems. This includes the importation of outside ideas by enthusiasts determined to render assistance to their fellow man.

Increasingly, governments have divested some of their collective interest in social programs as a result of budget cuts. This has opened the floodgates for George H.W. Bush’s “1000 points of light” approach to volunteerism which sometimes works for awhile, until its bald opportunism and myopia are exposed. While Christian missionaries go door to door in their efforts to save the unredeemed world, the contemporary saints of design are being canonized, penning their hagiography for future generations of altruists.

“Why criticize genuine efforts?” I was chided by the graduate students at Ball State. “Aren’t there enough problems in the world to go around?” In this question lies one of the key philosophical stumbling blocks: our inclination to think of life as a problem in need of solution. Insofar as problem setting/solving seems to be part of the human genetic makeup, it becomes a “wicked” or inescapable difficulty. We’d have to be less, or maybe more human if we really wanted to change. And here I’m thinking more of Theodore Sturgeon’s collective of paranormal children in More Than Human than Ray Kurzweil’s cyber-human Singularity.

Watching St. Paula Antonelli or St. Emily Pilloton on The Colbert Report shilling for design innovation is not terribly instructive. In an unholy Age of Hucksterism we are all in a hurry to make public fools of ourselves. It’s bred in the memetic bone from the moment we view our first television commercial. Self-promotion 101 is required reading in much of our design curriculum, too. How compulsively self-referential my students are as they prepare to enter the job market! A society obsessed with self-consciousness is bound to suffer an overdose of entrepreneurial zeal. Then again, Colbert is a comedy show, so we probably shouldn’t allow the irony to escape us.

In fact, there are just too many excellent examples of how one can avoid the curse of self-absorption. Mohandas K. Ghandi became famous for his approach to civil disobedience. As the historical link between H.D. Thoreau and M.L. King Jr., Ghandi now seems less important as an instance of rebellion than as a shining example of cultural resistance. Ghandi understood that one could accomplish much simply by not participating, by opting out, by knowing when to engage and when to ignore the profane world, both civil and commercial. This has been the method of mystics and holy men for millennia. Then again, in a land of 330,000,000 deities, holiness is usually sitting right next to you on the bus.

When writing about technological determinism in 1968, economist Robert Heilbronner asked a question for the ages: “Do Machines Make History?” Today we could pose a similar query about design altruism, only its history has yet to be inscribed, and no one can be sure whether we’ll evolve to a higher plane of enlightened caring, or remain the same idealistic youths who harden into mid-life opportunists.

Our species is an embodied contradiction. We need to contemplate the inherent conflicts of our nature in an effort to expand, revise, and redefine what it means to be altruistic. In so doing modern day saints will need to pardon us if we make a Faustian bargain about how much do-gooderism is appropriate, let alone what is necessary to get into Heaven.

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

September 23rd, 2014

David Stairs

I grew up in a subdivision of a crossroads-small town named Mattydale, N.Y. In the early 20th century the area had been comprised of dairy and vegetable farms that supplied the city of Syracuse. In the 1920s the farmers sold out, and from then through the 1950s suburbia sprouted where carrots and cabbages once had grown. The earlier developments were diverse, with homes of various ages occupying the same block. Across from my parent’s house, built in 1926, was a Cape Cod constructed in the ’50s, itself sitting on land that once was a chicken farm adjoining the farm house next door.

In my early college days I knew friends who had grown up in Levittown, N.Y. I didn’t think about it much at first, I mean, what’s in a name? Only later, when I came to know why Levittown existed did I begin to question its sanity. The late ’40’s were all about developing affordable living spaces for returning GIs and the families they would raise. John Entenza’s Case Study House project in California was one approach, small, select, specially designed. Levittown, the mass-produced racially discriminatory version, was another. Both projects were constructed upon a concrete slab using pre-fab materials, but there the similarities ended.


Rapid tear down of existing structure in early June…

What got me thinking about quick-and-dirty design was some of the activity in the town where I currently live. Mt. Pleasant, Michigan is a college town, subject to the ebb and flow of large numbers of nomadic students. As the university has grown, so has the community, the two being fairly interdependent. Lots of old residential housing near campus has been converted to student use and, over the years, some of these structures have gotten a little rough.


…in this case an old brick house

A local builder has taken it upon himself to restructure these neighborhoods. Rezoned from residential to multiple use in the 1980s, several recent projects have been approved that remove old houses and substitute for them with pre-fab replacements. This process is very rapid. A vintage house, even a brick one, can be torn down in a couple of days and be built over and reoccupied within eight weeks.


By August, a fully occupied cookie-cutter replacement

In its heyday, Levittown added 30 houses per day. Nothing like that is happening here. But the formal mediocrity, and rapid construction techniques— every house is raised upon a pre-fab tilt-up concrete slab basement— results in the loss of architectural diversity, replaced by predictable variation in surface texture and exterior ornament.


Whole blocks have been “terraformed” in this manner

This development approach is being pursued in other parts of town with a totally different end result. In areas outside the city limits and, therefore, beyond taxation, local professionals are erecting office parks. One particular project specializes in medical offices. These structures, one story brick facades with peaked, shingled roofs surrounded by parking lots and cheap landscaping, are representative of rampant design banality. They suck tenants out of previously occupied offices, creating a critical mass of mediocrity that can best be described by classic theories of sprawl.


Sub-urban professional plazas have conceptually much in common with the rapid replacement houses

The economic forces that result in the mushrooming of these developments, professional overcrowding, aging infrastructure, and the desire to own one’s own building, are not different from the factors that motivated the Case Study House project, but the results are distinctly different. Where the Case Study Houses were designed by people like Charles Eames and Richard Neutra, the structures I’ve described are designed by a latter-day Alfred Levitt— cheap, yes, by virtue of their low-end materials. And cheaper still, by virtue of their low-end design qualities. It’s strictly Lowest Common Denominator architecture.

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

August 27th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I like to go to a café in the morning to read the paper before I start work. I also enjoy meeting friends and colleagues in cafes. For some time, the Starbucks in my Chicago neighborhood was my choice for reading the paper and a Caribou Coffee a few blocks north of my home was the place where I chose to meet colleagues and friends. The reason for the distinction is that the Starbucks is designated as a high volume take out store with minimal seating, while the Caribou Coffee, now closed and soon to reopen as Peet’s Coffee, had better seating options for meeting others.

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July 22nd, 2014

The following is excerpted from Jesse McClain’s 2014 Master’s thesis—Ed.

Jesse McClain

Figure 1: Images from top to bottom: Top two images – Anawalt strip mining site in Southern West Virginia. Bottom image: Town of Keystone, West Virginia, near the city of Welch, WV. Photos: Jesse McClain.

SITE CONTEXT AND DOCUMENTATION

Southern West Virginia and Western North Dakota were both visited as part of the research process. These sites were chosen due to their similar connections with the energy industry and also their polar opposites in terms of economic prosperity. Welch, West Virginia is a small town which used to be called “Little New York” in the early 1900s. It was the city at the hub of the world’s first “billion dollar coalfield” and provided many of the area’s residents with a healthy and even prosperous income. Now it is deteriorating as the powerful strip-mining companies replace humans with machines and blow the tops off nearby mountains. Long-time Welch resident, Hilda Mitros, details accounts of personal and environmental violence experienced under the influence of the coal companies. She talks about gas and water explosions in and near her home as the earth becomes unstable with directional drilling and diverted water flow. Floods and sinkholes are commonplace in an area which is sacrificed for it’s fossil fuels. Hilda also reports that the decline in the economic and environmental health of the region has been accompanied by an influx of drugs and political buy-offs. She offers stories of attempts by community members to stand against the development of a major dumping site for disposal of out of state waste. The community was initially able to rally and protest this intervention but eventually, leaders were swayed through high pressure negotiation and shadowy bribery tactics. Hilda used to run a kitchen and bar and she remembers when the times were good and people prospered in a healthy community. I asked her if anything good was occuring in Welch and she said, “no, there is nothing good happening here.” A place that was once full of vitality and optimism is struggling to see a future that holds a promise of anything other than more destruction and abuse.

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June 30th, 2014

David Stairs

There is a concept in science, known as publication bias, that suggests editors of scientific journals prefer to publish positive test results over the results of failed, or negative tests. It’s human nature, one supposes, to prefer good news to no news, and it certainly is better for circulation. The only problem is, it makes for bad science. When a profession, take medicine for instance, is denied the knowledge that certain drugs did not perform the way their manufacturers claimed they would, doctors are less able to act in the best interests of their patients.

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June 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

If you are a white-collar worker making a decent salary, chances are that your paycheck will go directly to your bank so you can access it with a check or a withdrawal slip or draw on it with a credit card or mobile phone payment. There are banks that charge for such accounts, but only usually if the customer’s balance drops below a given amount. In many banks you will get the checking account free, while in some you will even earn a modicum of interest on it.

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May 10th, 2014

Daniel Drennan


“Believe in stone and survive.”

Framework

From the Declaration of the Palestinian People during the first intifada in 1987:

We will no longer be a subject people. If you order us to our camps, we will roam the countryside. Dig up our soil and bury us alive in it if you will. If you direct us to work in your factories, we will confine ourselves to our homes. Herd us into concentration camps if you will. If you instruct us to buy your produce and your products, we will grow and make our own.

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April 19th, 2014

David Stairs

At 10:02am on Saturday, February 23, 2014 I officially became old.


X-ray of surgical plate to correct a comminuted fracture of my right distal radius

As I left my house to take my dog Asali for a walk I noted that the front steps were blocked by snow. I’d been working hard throughout an unusually harsh winter to keep them clear, but a recent thaw— it had been 48°F the previous day— had caused snow to slide off the porch roof and pile on the steps.

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March 28th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I once thought that the greatest obstacle to reflective thought was the endless haptic texting that occupies the mental space of so many people but now I have a new culprit, data. Devices that have dissected our bodily functions into tiny shards flood the market, enabling us to either confirm the smooth functioning of our multiple organs, energy flows, and synapse synergies or else to detect glitches that merit our attention. Never have people had such an opportunity to be so aware of their bodies and take control of even the most minute irregularities in their physical performance.

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March 7th, 2014

David Stairs

Looking for love? It doesn’t matter if you have specialized tastes. Not only the “fetish-friendly” or the “transgerdered” are searching, but single moms, cancer sufferers, BBWs, middle-age widowers, cheating wives, and sugar daddies, too. The internet caters for all races, ages, and economic levels, no sexual preference too kinky or niche group too small.

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February 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

Everyone knows that university sports have become a big business and increased access to their aura and actual content is a great way to raise money. Besides luxury stadium seats, there are the intimate dinners with star athletes, free DVDs of great games, gifts of jerseys with the numbers and names of outstanding players on them, and even an opportunity to meet with coaches pre-game to put in one’s two million dollars worth of strategy advice. These ideas are good but they miss the mark.

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January 17th, 2014

Vassiliki Giannopoulos
National Design Awards
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128

Dear Ms. Giannopoulos,

Regarding your December 23rd email notifying us that Designers Without Borders has been nominated for the 2014 National Design Awards, we have this response.

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January 1st, 2014

David Stairs

An admission of personal weakness is not always a bad way to start a new year. I’m willing to stick my neck out and tell you a secret: I’m an inveterate maker of lists.

I can’t shop for food without using a list. At night I lie in bed evaluating the past with a list of events. In the morning I often compose an informal list of the days’ forthcoming activities. So, at a time of year when many people are generating lists of resolutions, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the idea for this post presented itself in list form.

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December 8th, 2013

Victor Margolin

In recent weeks, I have been involved in three chaotic attempts to introduce changes in services that I have come to rely on. These include banking, public transit, and healthcare. The website of Obamacare is not the only evidence of innovative change that is malfunctioning. I would venture to say that a good many if not most of the new services that are being rolled out at a dizzying pace have glitches that range from minor to catastrophic.

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November 15th, 2013

David Stairs

Ask my Indian friend: Americans are in a coma.

What would evoke such an evaluation? Last year, while I was living in Bangalore, an American friend visited and my son and I met her for lunch. While crossing a busy boulevard she grabbed my arm and said, “I’ll trust you to get me across safely. Yesterday I spent 30 minutes trying to cross MG Road.” At that point I almost became a hazard myself, I was laughing so hard.

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October 1st, 2013

Cansu Akarsu

During my short career as a designer I have been a true nerd, spending all my free time participating in every workshop and design competition I found from all fields. Life is easy when you are learning, especially when one recognition follows the other, and motivates you to work on anything you love to work on. Still, I realize now that all the competitions, exhibitions, and networking events are far from the real recognition that comes with a village mother sparing the few dollars she earns to buy the product you have designed – this is how one falls in love with social design. Designing in real life and carrying out the process in the field is, on one hand, more frustrating and challenging, and on the other hand it is more meaningful, fun, and provides a unique learning experience.

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September 1st, 2013

David Stairs

“Tool hedonism is in ascendance.” —J. Robert Oppenheimer

Imagine a world where waste is more significant than thrift, where advertising trumps taste, and where novelty is the be-all end-all of existence. Not hard, is it? You’re living the dream everyday. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1985 look at the effects of television on society, entertainment came under scrutiny as a real but questionable substitute for public discourse. Had Postman lived long enough, he might have entitled the sequel Designing Ourselves to Death.

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August 10th, 2013

David Stairs


View from atop the Middle Sister in the west central Oregon Cascades reaches 100 miles north to Mt. Hood.

On a recent drive across country I was thinking about what the land must have looked like two hundred years ago. Lewis and Clark described an “Eden” of endless vistas and limitless game, a land practically untouched by human hand since time immemorial. It must have been an amazing sight.

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