January 13th, 2017

David Stairs

Control is the object of consolidation, what Nietsche once called the “will to power.”


Soul Searching

Consider the rise of multinational corporations. Monopoly is the capitalist ideal. Although shrouded in so-called antitrust laws preventing market domination— the idea being that competition is healthy for markets— captains of industry have always sought market dominance. For brief periods of time some capitalists, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller to name two, dominated their industries and became enormously wealthy.

Consolidation follows each and every industry from inception to domination to restructure and final collapse. As technologies change, industries come and go. Businesses, like Sears, achieve market dominance only to lose it to a later, more innovative competitor. Some corporations, like Standard Oil, morph into multinationals like Exxon, then merge with chief competitors, like Mobil. In this way numbers one and two remain at the top of the heap for a time.

The capitalist tendency toward consolidation long ago made the jump from heavy industry to service and software. Because of the ephemeral nature of the latter, it has become possible to not only grow out of all proportion, but to accumulate additional services at a frantic pace. Perhaps the classic example of this trend is Microsoft. Since becoming dominant during the 1980s as a result of its Windows licensing agreement with IBM, Microsoft has acquired upwards of 200 smaller companies. Some of these purchases, like 2016’s LinkedIn at $24 billion, exceed many of the business world’s previous large-scale mergers.

Not to be outdone, Google’s parent Alphabet has purchased nearly the same number of companies in 14 fewer years, since 2001, including Motorola and Youtube. And Yahoo! has acquired 114 companies since 1997. Not far behind are the cash flush behemoths Facebook and Adobe, both hellbent on controlling their little corner of the web. And let us not forget Jeff Bezos’ Amazon juggernaut, now entered into the movie production and distribution business.

Consolidation and merger are the order of the day in advertising, too. Agencies merge with other agencies, then are swallowed by large conglomerates. Ogilvy & Mather became part of WPP in 1989, while Chicago’s Foote, Cone & Belding was absorbed by the Interpublic Group, and merged with Draft Worldwide. J. Walter Thompson Worldwide, one of the globe’s largest agencies, with 10,000 employees in offices the world over, has been expanding since its founding in 1864.

This brings us to a curious recent instance of consolidation in something as abstruse as design writing: AIGAs’ collaboration with Design Observer. Design Observer— “writings on design and culture”— with its 800,000 Twitter followers, is now being presented by AIGA— “the professional organization for design”— with its 26,000 members. Design Observer had itself previously absorbed the architecture journal Places, and then Debbie Millman’s podcast Design Matters, so the AIGA deal seems a bit of a role reversal in a world where small fish usually get swallowed by bigger ones.

In the ongoing war for people’s minds, AIGA has the distinct advantage of utilizing faith as a recruitment tool. Just as with any major religion, reliance on the very human need for belonging drives recruitment initiatives at AIGA. And self-generated professional pride is the stuff of self-made professional legend in the design world. #Design Observer is touted as having been founded by Judith Helfand and Michael Beirut, and in the present design sphere it is perhaps natural that the surviving founders of DO, both AIGA Medal recipients, would want to lend, or should I say lease, credibility to their professional organization.

The problem as I see it is ultimately one of self-parody. Sheer size is seldom a sign of excellence, as one can see from many of the preceding examples, but criticality can have a lot to do with credibility. Writing at AIGA has always been shallow, more about cheer-leading for the profession than generating much in the way of criticism. And more recently, this might also be said for Design Observer. Gone are Rick Poyner’s incisive essays, or the efforts that characterized Julie Lasky’s Change Observer days. Although I appreciate the need for readability, DO’s current nod to the culturesphere follows a retreat from hard-hitting critique with an implied prefererence for inoffensive “observations.” But even observations imply a form of judgement, or connoissership, which would be a boon for AIGA. In a certain sense, the union with AIGA is probably a match made in heaven for two well-aligned entities, except I worry that, given DO’s reach and prior relevance, it might not be such a good omen for design criticism overall.

Then again, maybe consolidation’s the best thing that could happen here. While editorial influence of a perceived major critical brand could lend a sheen of legitimacy to an ambitious “professional” organization, a change in control of a major critical outlet, even if collaborative, exposes that outlet to scrutiny of a sort that would not occur otherwise. As Design Observer and the AIGA mix their design DNA, the quality of what they provide will take on the same look and flavor, opening the field to newer, fresher, and more challenging initiatives. I have no doubt such voices will arise, and look forward to their imminent arrival.

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

November 20th, 2016

Carter Scholz

In the prehistory of personal computers, Lee Felsenstein and some others created Community Memory in Berkeley in 1974: a publicly available teletype terminal, connected to a mainframe computer via 110-baud modem. Users could post and read messages at a few different sites. Felsenstein had read Ivan Illich, and he saw this as a tool for conviviality. It was a novel vision in a time of monolithic mainframes: computers as liberating and empowering, both personally and socially.


Lee Felsenstein / Courtesy Lee Felsenstein.com

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October 22nd, 2016

David Stairs

When I think of blue and red the notion of Democrat and Republican naturally come to mind. One can find any number of red-blue maps online that attempt to represent our political differences. I even wrote about it here after the last Presidential election. Happily, there is another, earlier visual application of red and blue: the road maps of the 1930s to 1950s.

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September 19th, 2016

David Stairs

Downtown Mount Pleasant, Michigan on the morning of July 16th, 2016

Some things about the Michigan summer are a certainty: mosquitoes, humidity, and recreation vehicles. Summer’s the season when snowmobile trailers are swapped out for boat hitches, and the weekend traffic going north on Michigan’s highways likely includes people from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois headed for resort towns near Michigan’s lakes.

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August 19th, 2016

David Stairs

I’ve written the past couple of summers about Portland, Oregon and its environmentally-friendly culture. I visited my family again last month, as I normally do in July, just in time for the unveiling of a major new corporate/municipal project. On July 19th Portland launched the Biketown bicycle-share initiative. With a fleet of Dutch-designed bikes, and a system of around 100 rental stations, Portland joined the ranks of cities like New York, in pursuit of the notion of universal car-free mobility.


A Biketown bike locked outside the Niketown store on MLK Boulevard in Portland

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July 15th, 2016

David Stairs

When I first saw the house, a big old Victorian three-story I thought, “This place is great, but it’s way too big.” I’d been living abroad for a couple of years, and returning to rental space in a college town, where rentals are either of the townhouse variety, or student-destroyed older homes, had me on the real estate market. I already owned one house, but it was in another state, and this wasn’t helping my current situation.


photo: Al Wildey

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June 13th, 2016

This is the third in an annual series of essays by students of the Ball State University Architecture program. Previous works by Jesse McClain and Phil Borkowski appeared in 2014 and 2015. —Ed.

Kenna Gibson

I am from a small town 10 miles away from Muncie, Indiana. Muncie: home of Ball State University, former home of Ball Corporation, BorgWarner, Delco Remy, General Motors, A. E. Boyce Company, and Westinghouse Electric. The list of industries that have left the city is much longer than the list of those that have stayed. For my third year architecture studio, we were to connect machines with the rust belt. What we were supposed to create, probably something that would aid the citizens, neither I nor my professor, Wes Janz, really knew. Easy enough, I thought, because I live in the Rust Belt.

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May 7th, 2016

David Stairs

It’s been 10 years since this article first appeared as Bruce Mau and the Apotheosis of Data. We’re re-posting it here in our continuing celebration of D-A-P’s tenth anniversary, and because it is no less pertinent now than it was in 2006. —Ed.

Soothsaying: The New Science of Designing For Nine Billion “The wits, therefore, of the Utopians, inured and exercised in learning, be marvelous quick in the inventions of feats helping anything to the advantage of wealth of life.” 1 —Thomas More Utopia

Foretelling the future has been professionalized. Once the domain of soothsayers, astrologists, and mountebanks, now, futurology has become the domain of designers and other improvers of humankind.

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April 7th, 2016

David Stairs

Last week I was talking with my 16-year-old about his piano lesson when I asked him whether his tutor had emailed him before rescheduling a recent lesson. “Dad,” he chuckled, “I can’t believe you said that.” Translation: no one of sound mind uses anything but text as a means of communicating these days. I reminded him that not long ago I might have wondered if his instructor had “called” him with the message, but the point was made. There isn’t a day that passes when I am not reminded of how quickly I’m obsolescing.

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March 7th, 2016

David Stairs Design Altruism Project started ten years ago today with this post. From its humble beginnings it essayed to represent new notions of professional practice from a variety of viewpoints, both new and established. We wanted to celebrate our tenth anniversary with an uplifting story. Read the rest of this entry »

February 2nd, 2016

David Stairs

I haven’t yet been able to locate a source that estimates the overall number of vehicles that have been manufactured in the last century. In 1950 there were 50,000,000 cars in the world, not necessarily including all of the 16,500,000 Model Ts Ford produced between 1908 and 1927. In 2010 the number of passenger vehicle on the world’s roads passed 1-billion for the first time, figuring among them parts of 23,500,000 Volkswagon Beetles, and 40,000,000 Toyota Corollas. Let it suffice to say, we’ve built a helluva lot of cars since Henry Ford instituted the $5 workday.

With oil prices tanking to under $30 a barrel, car ownership is becoming a reality for greater numbers of people worldwide. China is now the world’s largest auto manufacturer, having produced upwards of 20,000,000 units in 2015. Ironically, car sales in America have declined, while pickup and SUV sales are booming. This closely follows the overproduction of oil, and implies a short-term lack of concern about climate change.


The all-time best-selling American vehicle, the Ford F-150 Courtesy of Consumer Reports

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January 1st, 2016

David Stairs

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: design is not supposed to be about self-expression. It’s iterative. It’s altruistic. It’s problem solving. But it’s not supposed to be self-expressive. Considering the number of huge egos in the design world, this feels less and less plausible with the passing of time. In his lecture of 2003 celebrating Archeworks 10th anniversary Victor Margolin wrote that “Design is essentially a middle class profession that has delivered a comfortable life for middle class people, while also indulging the wealthy.”

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November 12th, 2015

David Stairs

I first met Evelyn Nabooze as a shy, pretty girl of thirteen in 2006 in a partly finished building near Bombo, Uganda when I served lunch to her and some other kids at James Lutwama’s place. James and I had been friends since he’d first approached me outside my apartment at Makerere University in 2001 hoping to collaborate.


Serving lunch at Arcadia Valley in 2006

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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.

A street vendor selling food in paper cones in India

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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 Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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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