October 1st, 2015

Malika Soin

The title of this essay is inspired from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s magical realist short story, “Light is like Water.” In the story, through textual narration, the reader visualizes the transformation of an everyday apartment setting to a sea world with floating objects. The realistic function of light is to brighten up a space but Márquez writes about the light from broken light bulbs drowning the apartment and submerging the objects. He also introduces floating and flying objects at the same time: a shawl flutters like a bird and floats in the apartment like a golden manta ray. He transforms mundane household objects into magical entities.

In an attempt to create objects that fly and float using the tools of graphic design I chose three familiar objects from Indian culture. In literature, words are used to describe different aspects of everyday reality, revealing even the most obvious elements in a new light. In design the visual tools namely form, shape, color, and type are used to perform the above stated function. These objects are chosen as a result of the nostalgia experienced due to my displaced cultural context from India to Canada.

Paper Cones

A street vendor selling food in paper cones in India

Paper cones are conventionally made out of discarded newspapers and are used as a “make do” utensil by street food vendors in India. To a native Indian, eating out of a paper cone brings back memories of eating street food. The object is not only an ingenious money-saving strategy by a vendor but is also an environmentally friendly option as the paper is reused before it is recycled. The ingenuity of objects like the paper cone often goes unappreciated due their ubiquity in day-to-day Indian life.

In order to draw attention to cultural practices associated with a paper cone, a rediscovery of the object is made. The desired aim is achieved by investigating the context in which the object exists along with the object’s formal qualities. The context for a paper cone is the streetscape of India, which is an amalgamation of local and global visuals and practices. From vendors occupying streets in front of the shopping malls to the never-ending traffic on roads, it is easy for a paper cone to get lost in the chaos. Its materiality does not command attention from viewers since the practice of eating from a paper cone is naturalized. As a result, the user discards the object after it fulfills its purpose. For a paper cone to be valued as a cultural object it needs to be perceived as something that is precious, rather than disposable; a thing of physical or emotional worth. In Indian culture, “preciousness” as a material quality is predominantly associated with metals such as gold and silver, ornamentation and money.

Altered Paper Cones

The altered design uses laser cut Indian motifs as elements of visual ornamentation, endowing a cone with value. The materials used to create them are silver and gold toned papers, handmade and colorful papers, and even real Indian currency. The motifs are repeated to create patterns that are laser cut on the new papers. They not only function as decorative visuals but also transform the respective papers. The patterns perforate the paper, which is then shaped into a cone. Retaining the basic structure of a cone and manipulating its materiality and visual appearance puts the viewer in a conflict due to the blurred distinction between its status as a purely functional everyday object and a uniquely designed artifact. This cone then performs an altered function; it is not only a utensil but also an ornamental object worthy of appreciation. As these cones now replace the conventional paper cones, their interpretation challenges their conventional perception as unimportant objects. The reconstructed paper cone provokes thought and engagement; a rediscovery of the original object. Interacting with these unconventional objects starts a discourse on the perception of everyday objects and what is recognized as or deemed valuable in a culture.

Paper Soap

The visual transformation of an Indian paper soap package is titled Pigment. The particular soap strips investigated here are an example of a commonplace design found in everyday Indian culture. The paper soap is used when traveling, owing to its compact form and dimensions. The Indian marketplace is saturated with skin-whitening products that are applied on skin, such as creams and soaps. A user is made to believe that the frequency of their application on skin is related to the whitening effect on their skin. They are advertised and packaged using images of light-skinned women. It comes as no surprise that the image used on top of the soap strips package also perpetuates the notion that beauty is directly proportional to fair skin. The top of the package displays a fair woman washing her face in a joyful gesture signifying her satisfaction with the effectiveness of this product. These connotations of beauty are prevalent in post-colonial India. Through magical realist design one can intervene in this object to reveal it as an agent of cultural ideology.

Conventional paper soap packages found in India

The visual intervention has been accomplished by exaggerating the form of the paper strips to reveal its ideological function. The two dimensional surface of paper is transformed into a textured three-dimensional surface. The paper is slit in the shape of an X at various places, the slits are folded outwards and the multiple strips of folded papers are layered on top of each other to create a texture. The soap strips used are brown and white in color. This visual treatment is used as a metaphor for skin. The object can be appreciated for the beautiful intricate pattern before peeling showcases rich texture due to the layered brown and white paper. However, the patterns start to fade as the user peels through the layers of soap. The color transitions from an intricately crafted brown surface to a blank white space. The effect of this transformation is strengthened, as the user is directly responsible for the act of peeling.

Morphed paper soap package titled “Pigment”

The related shape and scale contribute in enhancing the experience of the human body with the modified artifact. The object visualizes notions of beauty and skin color as being relative and ironically presents it to a viewer. Once opened, the modified content of the package imparts unexpected information that forces a viewer to consciously evaluate the visuals consumed in a culture. Additionally, due to its coarse nature, the texture can be interpreted as a grater, implying that by using these soap strips one can scrape off skin color. This complies with the cultural notion of using soap to lighten skin color. The experience of using the soap is intensified due to the sharp folded edges of paper which further lends to a violent visual.

Clay Cup (Kulhad)

Conventional form of a clay cup (kulhad) found in India

The third object selected is a clay cup called Kulhad, from an everyday Indian context. A kulhad is a cup made out of fired unpainted terra cotta. Clay cups are made in bulk by local potters and predominantly used for serving tea at roadside tea stalls. Kulhads are meant to be smashed on the ground once their purpose is fulfilled. Since they are made out of clay their disposal is easy and environmentally friendly. They have been valued for their materiality and the effect they have on the aroma of the tea. Breathing in the aroma of the tea is essential to the experience of drinking from the clay cup. Even though clay cups have many merits, they are now being replaced with plastic.

A kulhad wrapped in the designed textured sleeve

The intent of the investigation was to defamiliarize a kulhad in Indian culture in order for it to be looked at as an object worthy of rediscovery and not forgotten with time. The Kulhad is juxtaposed with a disposable coffee sleeve, conventionally found in a western context in order to make the clay cup unfamiliar. The coffee sleeve imitates the texture of a clay cup and is branded as “clay.” For an Indian in a western cultural context, a coffee cup wrapped in this sleeve poses as a substitute for the experience of holding a clay cup and the feeling of its textured surface. The textured sleeve evokes nostalgia and can be marketed to Indians living away from home.

A packaged designed textured sleeve

In India, a kulhad wrapped in this sleeve would appear strange. This juxtaposition is created to rediscover the kulhad by drawing attention to its qualities. In keeping with their origins, the altered sleeve and the clay cup each retain their conventional proportions. The sleeve meant for a coffee cup placed on a palm-sized kulhad produces a disjointed image— the sleeve consumes the clay cup so that only its rim can be seen. Physically a kulhad wrapped in a sleeve would be protected from being broken into pieces. Visually, the sleeve signifies that the clay cup is a precious and valued artifact that needs to be cared for and protected. However, in actual use, the sleeve functions as an obstruction. This experience calls to question what it means to add value to objects. The component that is meant to add value in fact diminishes it, thus bringing to light the worth of the original.

The textured sleeve in use in a western context, wrapping a coffee cup

To summarize, these objects that fly and float can integrate in the Indian culture and can perform two functions. First, they can enable a discourse on design and its role in the everyday. Second, they can make an audience conscious of their habitual responses to quotidian life through graphic design. Consequently, these transformed objects challenge an audience to recognize the ideologies perpetuated in a culture through everyday objects.

Malika Soin is a communication designer born and brought up in India, presently based in Toronto, Canada. Her interests lie in investigating everyday culture, how culture has the power to influence design and how design can have an influence on culture. The current essay was excerpted from her 2015 MDES thesis at York University. malikasoin.com

August 28th, 2015

David Stairs

Whenever visiting Portland, Oregon I am always struck by the huge number of bicyclists— aggressive, self-righteous, ubiquitous. No matter that many of them weren’t even born yet when I was bike commuting— it’s great to see so many! But there is another meme at work here. I am a Prius owner, but I’ve never been anywhere that has more Priuses per capita, and if such a place exists I’d be surprised.

Priuses on the Toyota lot awaiting distribution

Prius has had a long developmental trajectory on the road to becoming the world’s favorite hybrid. Introduced in 1997 and now in its fourth generation, it took over a decade for Toyota to reach the one million in Prius sales mark (2008). It would be an exaggeration to imply that the car has a nationwide following. In the horsepower-hungry midwest, muscle cars and big pick-ups are the norm. But in urban settings where standing traffic and bumper-to-bumper freeway scenes are common, the Prius more than holds its own.

Unfortunately, while the air may be cleaner and the national trade balance in oil (not cars— all Priuses are made in Japan) better as a result, larger numbers of hybrids do not translate into less gridlock. Backed-up traffic in the Rose City is reaching epic proportions.

Arterials, like north-south I-5, or east-west I-84, are clogged every morning and evening in a typically American version of commuting psychosis. Even I-205, which was a late addition, built to alleviate traffic and encircle Portland to the south and east, has fallen to demon gridlock.

Even Priuses can’t relieve overcrowding

This affliction is no fault of anyone in particular, not the men who planned the system in the ’50s, and certainly not of Toyota which, if anybody, has done its fair share to alleviate some of the disadvantages of cars in an urban setting. One might as well blame Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein for creating Portlandia, their 22-minute satire that has done much to draw attention to “America’s Most Livable City.”

The truth is that Portland gets many things right. In an initiative/right-to-die/weed friendly state like Oregon, one encounters a good deal of independence. This, plus emphasis on the environment— Portland buses run on biodiesel and garbage trucks on natural gas, and its lightrail system is second to none— draws thousands of transplants to the Beaver State each year. But, while population grows, Oregon is also a place with no major industrial base. Neither mining nor wood products play a significant role in the state’s economy any longer and, while companies like Nike house their corporate HQ in Portland, all manufacturing is done overseas.

Environment plays well in PDX, even when the claim is somewhat absurd

This results in an economy that is heavy on service and supportive of entrepreneurism. It’s not a coincidence that Portland has become the epicenter of not only coffee and beer culture, but of a revolution in food preparation and eating. Food trucks have, in many places, converted empty lots from eyesores to lively gathering places. And retail has been invigorated. A casual stroll down SE Hawthorne Boulevard on a Sunday afternoon reveals the fact that almost any idea can be transformed into a retail outlet, be it beer growlers or gourmet donuts.

In keeping with this tendency toward independence, Portland also supports a thriving “hand made” culture. In fact, Tender Loving Empire, which specializes in a combination of home grown music and hand-made objects, features work from my daughter Maya’s Frankie & Coco line of custom-made bags and purses.

The fundamental cause of heavy traffic and commercial rejuvenation is population density, and Portland is struggling mightily to come to terms with it. Many areas feature historic houses, like this Victorian located in the Boise-Elliot neighborhood.

The Henry C. Keck House, located at 53 NE Thompson St., a structure on the National Historic Register

But residential density means many houses are jammed close together on too small lots…

Which can result in disaster in the event of fire.

Adjacent properties destroyed by fire

Then there’s the matter of development vs. redevelopment. In some neighborhoods old houses are demolished and replaced by new in-fill. If the structure is limited to two stories this is not always offensive. The problem is, in many areas large multi-story structures are being built with little consideration for surrounding architecture. These tend to be apartments, or condos, and add to the already critical shortage of on-street parking.

In Irvington, neighbors are resisting such incursions. Homeowners who object to plans to replace a former filling station with an eight-story multiplex have started a movement to prevent it. Yard signs convey the general sentiment in support of existing structures.

As I wrote just one year ago, whether Portlanders are building a brave new world or loving their environment to death remains to be seen. For the moment, hordes of foodies, fashionistas, and hipsters— not to forget Prius owners or cyclists, have created an interesting if not always sustainable mix. One can only hope the sheen lasts long enough to benefit future generations.

Fashionistas in training, Coco and Frankie, with Dad Micah

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

July 24th, 2015

David Stairs

Ankole cattle grazing on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda

First of all, this story has nothing to do with cattle, but everything to do with wealth and its distribution.

In December 2012 I talked a group of students into helping me attempt to raise money online for an African NGO run by an amazing friend of mine. It wasn’t an easy sell. These were seniors, and they had their own idea about how to design their thesis exhibition. But I was tenacious, I kept coming back at them, and it didn’t hurt that the professionals they spoke with at a regional design studio told them they’d be foolish to pass up the opportunity.

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June 2nd, 2015

Philip Borkowski

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of published Masters theses that started last year with Jesse McClain’s Actively. Many thanks to Wes Janz for making it possible.

image: Wes Janz

Never before has human creation effected the world as much as it does today. While living next to a large construction site, I started to observe the frequency with which a 40-yard dumpster was being filled with what many people may consider waste. Here in the United States, we live in a throw-away society, but it has not always been this way nor is it this way in many other societies. “Up until the nineteenth century, recycling architectural elements from old buildings was normal all over the world. In other places around the world it is an integral part of their society.” (Bahamón 84) Today, extreme recycling still takes place in developing countries, not as an environmentally conscious decision, but as a way of life. We can learn from these developing countries.

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May 2nd, 2015

David Stairs

The discussion in my Junior-year studio at this week’s critique swirled around the value of Pinterest, that irrepressible repository of everything how-to-do-it. Is it a valuable source of inspiration, or a struggling student’s crutch? Is it gender specific, a creative and social outlet for stay-at-home moms, or does it apply to the testosterone set as well? One young man in the class thought it was not strictly for women, but then quickly clarified that he does not use it himself. This disagreement between me and some of my students was good natured, but it masked a deeper division than the usual generational gap.

Graphic by Marcello Duhalde found on Google

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April 4th, 2015

David Stairs

There are two or three things graphic designers are especially keen about. They like to make logos: Researching, executing, and branding a marque will cause most self-respecting designer’s hearts to flutter. They like to talk about type: Obsessing about letterform and the way it looks on the page and interacts with images is second nature to them. And they like to illustrate data: In fact, they have an almost childish glee for finding ways to interpret statistics in a playful manner. But designers are not the only ones who represent data, and because it is not their exclusive domain they need to better understand why this is so.

A Punnett square, demonstrating heritability of dominant and recessive characteristics after Mendel.

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March 1st, 2015

Victor Margolin

Before I go any further, I must confess that I am a man d’un certain age. Therefore my responses to new technology are selective and generational. I still favor transactions with other human beings over those with machines. When I was a boy in the early 1950s, almost all transactions were between one human being and another. The one exception for me was the gumball machine at the candy store around the corner from my apartment building in Washington D.C. I didn’t mind the absence of a live vendor in order to make my purchase. In fact, it was something of a novelty to put a penny in the machine and get a large colored gumball in return.

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February 1st, 2015

David Stairs


I once founded a town. It’s in the high desert about twenty miles outside of Bend, Oregon overlooking the magnificent Three Sisters Wilderness off in the distance to the west. I called the town Denial. At the time only two other people volunteered to live there, hence the sign. But many more would have qualified to be living in Denial.

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January 1st, 2015

David Stairs

Homo faber, humankind the maker, seems destined to design itself right out of a world.

MacGyver packin’

Unlike pharmacology, or agriculture, technology has a weak review process for testing its effects on the natural environment. We have user testing, of course, the way we discover what will make a product or service dangerous or addictive. And there are certainly safety regulations, but they often are 50 years out of date. Do you imagine Henry Ford thought much about crash-test dummies? Or John D. Rockefeller about climate change?

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November 30th, 2014

David Stairs

Ah, autumn.

A crispness is in the air. The delectable smell of woodsmoke, the warm sun burnishing a hundred shades of orange, the tang of fresh cider at the orchard, or a field full of pumpkins at sunset. Into this idyll clomp the Boys of Autumn toting the ultimate example of techno-idiocy: leaf blowers.

The Boys of Autumn

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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.

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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…

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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.


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.”


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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