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.

Recently this came home to me in another way when I read Justin Zhuang’s post on the AIGA Eye on Design site entitled The Seriously Lighter Side of Design Criticism. Zhuang is a graduate of SVA’s MFA in Design Criticism, and has written extensively on design in Singapore. For the AIGA he was commenting on three sites: Zander Brade’s The Passable Designer, Christopher Simmons’ The Message is Medium Rare, and Edwin and Krisztina Heathcote’s Reading Design. The latter is really just a compilation site, so I’ll focus most of my comments on the first two examples.

Zhuang’s thesis-in-a-nut-shell is that these sites demonstrate “…how critical writing about design can be smart, funny, and unexpected.” The Message is Medium Rare, is a blog of about three dozen ruminations, “lessons” Simmons’ gleans when comparing design and life while eating “America’s favorite food,” the not-so-humble hamburger. Simmons is the principle at MINE, a San Francisco design studio, and an adjunct faculty member at California College of Art.

According to Simmons, he launched this “side project” when he and his colleagues began critiquing their burgers at lunch. “As designers,” he informs us, “we tend to be critical of the world around us, even when we’re just at lunch.” The blog proved so popular that within a month of launch he was logging 40,000 unique visits. This did not surprise me. Simmons is well known and liked in the Bay Area design world, and his column is witty and urbane. And, after all, the 17th century inventor of the essay, Michel De Montaigne himself, was famously lighthearted in his choice of subject matter (He once wrote an essay entitled “Of Thumbs”).

The Passable Designer, London designer Zander Brade’s satirical design news site, self-describes as “Breathtakingly honest coverage of the world’s least self-absorbed industry.” By creating a series of brief, ironic vignettes, Brade muses upon such design profession pitfalls as job jumping, workaholism, and the horrors of bad kerning, while struggling to seem not too self-absorbed. In one passage he laments the time wasted discussing the limits of the hated typeface Comic Sans: “Despite the conversation not being interesting in any way, shape, or form, and had consisted now for a full thirty six minutes of little more than joking complaints that Comic Sans should never have existed, the group proudly soldiered on.” Spending 36 minutes making shop talk in an era when one could be following tweets is indeed a deplorable waste.

False irony aside, not only do I risk revealing myself here as a Sanctimonious Old Fart, but by taking on young graduates of MFA design criticism programs, a self-taught outsider like me also exposes himself as a Humorless Sanctimonious Old Fart Who Still Uses Email. But, oddly enough, I don’t actually have a reputation for being humorless. In fact, my work has long been considered funny and transgressive. So why do I fail to appreciate the humor in Zhuang’s choices?

One of the things that set me off was Zhuang’s opening salvo. He writes: “If the term ‘design criticism’ brings to mind long, rambling essays that pale in comparison to their accompanying images and layout— you know, the serious, yawn-inducing stuff most word-averse designers feel duty-bound to plow through…” As an academic, I and my colleagues fight an ongoing, and apparently losing, battle with anti-literacy. I can’t speak for Simmons’ students at CCA, but my design students at a mid-west land grant institution are seriously aground on the shoals of “word aversion.” Perhaps this is because most of what they are forced to read is not interesting to them, but the contention also seems to be that perhaps serious stuff is just not as entertaining as the things they prefer to read. Another way to look at it is to suggest that most dreary old design text only exists by virtue of its supporting graphics and layout, and this is another sort of scary.

While I recognize that the writing formats of a living language vary and evolve, just as the language itself does, there seems to me to be a distinction between criticism, which is evaluative, and rhetoric, which is meant to carry the moment. The ancient art of persuasion exists in our society in politics, advertising, and the law. Modern criticism is more derivative of dialectic or philosophical thought. For a real head-busting explanation of these matters check out the Wikipedia entry for rhetoric.

Perhaps I’m placing too much emphasis on what I perceive as substance, a slippery slope if there ever was one. I’m not opposed to people obsessing about burgers, although there are certainly enough foodie blogs doing that already. But we are saturated with triviality every day, and advertising has an uncanny way of converting the deep into the superficial, often with the overt assistance of the design profession. The Heathcote Reading Design compilation actually co-opts works by 20th c. heavies, like science sociologist Bruno Latour. And Simmons’ blog cites one of the primary rhetoricians of the 20th century in his blog’s title, although few of my students would get this. So, to quote an infamous bit of 80s ad rhetoric somewhat germane to Simmons’ blog, “Where’s the beef?”

The mystic 18th century poet William Blake could “See a world in a grain of sand…,” but I feel we overreach when we see design in every grain of sand, let alone start living our lives according to the iterative process. Granted, criticism is an art, not a science and, as such, is more subject to style than methodological rigor. And there’s nothing hipsters like more than the idea of being “edgy;” it’s the ultimate nod to lifestyle fetishism. But when style is too self-consciously clever, when it self-defines as critical while giving a wink-and-a-nod to literacy, when, in passing, it lulls its audience into a self-gratified state without requiring much from them in return we’ve left the domain of criticism and entered the realm of amusement. And there, my dear readers, the joke sits squarely, resolutely, and ponderously upon us.

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

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.

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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.

Paper Cones


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

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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.

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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