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.

I was in Vancouver that day in October 2003, and heard Helfand and Drenttel’s talk, although I didn’t know about DO at the time. Their thesis seemed a little unusual for a roomful of designers, focusing as it did on the problem of “fake science” imagery and the abuse of scientific icons like the periodic table, but their central idea of a less crassly commercial design practice was intriguing. After the conference I wrote a long-forgotten piece entitled “The Power of Affluence” in HOW Magazine online where I criticized the aspirational callowness of middle-class designers who spend thousands of dollars every year attending such events. It seemed to me then, as it still does now, that the question of Design’s “power” was more wish fulfillment than self-fulfilling prophecy.

The first piece I have my students read in design issues class is Disabling Professions by Ivan Illich. It is always something of a culture shock for these twenty-year-old Americans to encounter the socialist Croatian priest who moved to Mexico and developed a philosophical practice critical of Western society. It is especially disheartening for them to encounter someone criticizing professionalism. Most of my young middle-western students hold that word sacred, and have been raised to believe becoming a professional is the ultimate goal of their expensive education.

In his essay Illich, not for the first time, criticizes professions as self-aggrandizing elites that prey on citizens by making them dependent on professional services. In the industrialized world today people are generally barred from building their own homes, tending to their sick, winning squatter’s rights for property, or burying their dead, privileges that have been usurped by a variety of professions. The claim that professionals “infantilize” citizens does not seem to me as powerful an argument as that, by stealing personal agency, they deny people a necessary sense of accomplishment and self-worth. Illich railed against the medical profession, which he felt created a sinecure for itself without improving the overall health of the masses. Surgical delivery, at an all-time high in the US, not only bumps up the cost of childbirth, but disenfranchises midwives while convincing women they cannot be responsible for their own pregnancies. Illich also took aim at mass education, and at what he considered neo-colonialism masquerading as altruism in the foreign aid sector.

Illich’s description of professional elites pretty aptly limns the graphic designers who complain that the public’s general knowledge of design software has damaged their professional standing while filling the world with “bad design.” Design itself does not have aspirations to high culture; it exists in all corners of the world and at all levels of society as one of the most demotic human activities. But the professionalization of design, design “expertism” in a neo-liberal sense, certainly aspires to the upper echelons of society with all their associations, awards, museums, publishing houses, and socially-connected universities and academies, and the swag they carry, a coveted goal for many designers.

One of the questions Bill Drenttel asked during his Vancouver presentation was, Whose culture are we talking about?, and, given design’s history, it’s an important question. From 2009 to 2013 Design Observer attempted to cover things other than high culture (and here I’m not equating “low” with “pop”). Rather, for this brief period, under Julie Lasky’s guiding hand at Change Observer, DO actually grappled with matters outside the East Coast designerati’s wheelhouse, albeit with a benevolent grant from the gatekeepers at the Rockefeller Foundation, even publishing my criticism of the Cooper-Hewitt’s ham-fisted attempts to take into account the world’s “other 90%.”


A hipster doofus can’t resist criticizing anything establishmentarian. It’s in the genes.

Unfortunately, since Drenttel died in 2013, and especially since becoming an appendage of the AIGA (the professional organization for Design) in 2016, Design Observer has pivoted away from such activities and resumed the role of arbiter of taste in matters of Design with a capital D. This shouldn’t be surprising. The two editors of Culture is Not Always Popular, Jessica Helfand and Michael Beirut, are both AIGA medalists and run a podcast entitled “The Design of Business and the Business of Design.”

Helfand and Beirut explain in the frontispiece to their book that they had to necessarily be selective— Design Observer has published the work of over 900 writers since 2003— and that their former architectural blog, Places, as well as Change Observer, both deserve books of their own. Unfortunately, given the state of a majority of the seven billion people in the world today, this is a less than satisfying declaration, but it does give an idea of the priorities of the DO editorial staff.

For one thing, as just stated, design is a universal human activity. Despite NASAD accreditation for design schools and licensure requirements for architects, despite prizes and competitions for corporate promotion, in much of the world design serves human need first and foremost. Here I think of the jugaad movement in India. The elitism of people who see themselves as handmaids of “culture” does not register on the streets of Kampala or Nairobi or even Ames Iowa, and the notion of design criticism is of small concern there. For example, Beirut, who designed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 H→ logo, has had to concede it was simply not up to the task of outperforming Trump’s low-brow MAGA hats.

Second, Design with a cap D has made some halting progress toward recognizing its role as a social undertaking over the last twenty years. By purposely avoiding the other 90% Culture is Not Always Popular reverses this trend. The history of professional design, especially of the Euro-American kind, has always been whiter-than-white and primarily male, despite some minority associations, and DO, for all its boasted breadth, has always situated itself close to the wellsprings of power (just recall the many articles about Aspen, or Bellagio, or Vignelli). In today’s world this is a travesty. If design can’t ameliorate the standard of living for the world’s poorest peoples I honestly can’t think of a fitting purpose for it. That this might dis-empower professional elites is unfortunate for them, but generally to the common good.

Because of its phenomenal popularity, Ivy League pedigree, and AIGA affiliation, DO’s fifteen-year anthology will be taken as gospel by many, just as the weblog has also been uncritically accepted by many. I’m not saying that there aren’t good writers at Design Observer (some have even been my friends), or that their insights aren’t occasionally interesting or provocative, merely that their purview is far more conventional than the weblog’s original banner of “design : culture : change” would lead one to believe. The irony is that while the original talk was a call for intellectual catholicity, here, where 18 of 67 essays are by the founders of DO, one can only give a wink and a nod to the cheek of running thousands of article titles on the book’s end papers in the name of inclusiveness. Whose culture indeed.

Victor Margolin once wrote that designers, and here I paraphrase, are “primarily focused on delivering comforts to middle-class consumers.” Design Observer and its podcasts suffer much the same fate— easy reading/listening for middle-class professionals by middle-class critics and essayists. While Culture is Not Always Popular the talk was a cry for more breadth in design, this book— and I’ve been through it from cover to cover— feels like a middlebrow placement exercise by a friendly academic press editor for an aspirational brand in a publishing world of intense competition and diminishing returns.

In the end Observer Omnimedia LLC will continue to publish whatever it damn well pleases, just as it always has. Funny thing is, I agree that culture is not always popular, obviously, and also agree with that statement’s accompanying critique of the insipid influences of pop culture in general. But I will never fall in line with the suggestion that design is also free to be elitist— not anytime, anywhere, or anyplace. Those who do feel such confidence, whatever their disposition, race, or proximity to New Haven, can strike their poses on the Design Red Carpet while suffering the consequences of being considered silly by anyone with a gram of political acumen.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project. He wrote a few articles for Design Observer during its middle period, from 2006 to 2013.

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.

Stefan had turned down an earlier invitation to talk in 2011. It was just after he’d returned from his “sabbatical” in Bali, and he wanted to get his studio back up and running. This time around, he was hard at work on his Happy Film and needed cash to feed the ever-growing monster.

As we chatted it came out that Stefan knew Gary Hustwit, the maker of design documentaries, and had asked him for advice. Sagmeister admitted that film making was more challenging than he’d imagined, a thing he’d not been trained for, and he felt he needed all the help he could get. As it turned out, I had an idea for a film, and I too needed advice. I asked Stefan for Gary’s email.

My exchange with Hustwit was brief and to the point. I asked him if he had ever considered making a film about social design. He admitted he had not, but that it was a good idea. I asked him if he’d consider taking it on and he said, “I’m over my head with other projects. Why don’t you do it?” Thus began a three-year 50,000-mile sojourn to do a thing I’d “not been trained for.”

Luckily, I struck gold early. Eric Limarenko, the resident videographer and film faculty member in my college, was pushing up against his tenure decision, and willing to be my tech partner. Eric, who got his masters degree at SCAD, worked in industry for the Home Shopping Network, and not only knew all the potential production pitfalls, but is a bonafide genius with Adobe Premier. He would be invaluable in post-production, but also was a guiding light in the technical aspects of interview recording.

Next I needed a cast. I thought of the many people I’ve met in the “social design space” over the past twenty years, and decided who I most wanted to participate. Unbelievably, everyone I asked agreed, even a few people who did not end up in the film, so next I set about developing an outline, and a series of questions specific to each participant. I didn’t want to make a traditional film praising the greatness and potential of design— social design is much too complex for a simplistic treatment. I wanted a balanced presentation, one that discussed the topic warts and all.

In 2016 I applied for and was granted sabbatical leave for the next year, so Eric and I began our travels. We visited the indefatigable Wes Janz in Muncie, where he was finishing a 22 year career teaching architecture at Ball State, and Victor Margolin, before he and his wife Sylvia left their long-time home in Chicago to move to D.C. Early in 2017 John Thackara and Arvind Loydaya visited Michigan, and we captured them there. Then, in June/July of 2017 we made a swing up the West Coast interviewing Arden Stern, the amazing Elizabeth Chin, and Garland Kirkpatrick in L.A. and Emily Pilloton in Berkeley at her Girls Garage.

In September 2017 I left for a tour of Europe, Africa, and India with my youngest son Lucien, who was on a gap year. With Luco as my assistant, we collected interviews from Sumandro Chattapadahay in Delhi and the immensely talented Tasos Calantsis in Pretoria, as well as valuable “B reel” footage. Finally, long after our return, I interviewed Liz Ogbu at her home in Oakland summer of 2018 to complete the collection.

It would be an understatement to say that spending time with such an array of brilliant people was a blessing. It’s also a cliche to say that boiling many hours of conversation down into 70 minutes of amazing statements was an often painful process. I mean, with so many pearls scattered on the cutting room floor, one has to wonder whether he made the right decisions.

Six months later, after endless edits and betas, after quality circles, and last-minute changes, the finished product is available at Vimeo. In his 2015 book, Design, When Everybody Designs, Ezio Manzini, the Italian philosopher of design, describes the twentieth century as the period when design involved itself with technology. He predicts that the twenty-first will be the century of social design.

Digging the Suez Canal With a Teaspoon is the first serious cinematic attempt to define this social design century. I think it is true to its subject. I hope you’ll agree.

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

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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November 17th, 2017

David Stairs


Completion of Kampala’s Northern Expressway has been plagued by delays in right-of-way acquisition

Returning to Uganda for the first time in ten years has held a few surprises. The charm of its people, and the beauty of Uganda’s countryside are unchanged, but the congestion in the capital Kampala is alarming. Partly this has to do with migration and growth. As the nation’s population increases, the sprawl of Kampala explodes.

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October 29th, 2017

David Stairs

I was recently in Prague, which in June 2017 celebrated the 75th anniversary of one of the most heroic and daring commando actions of the Second World War. On June 4, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia was attacked on his way to work when his Mercedes slowed at a bend in the road. His assailants, Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were Slovakian and Czech volunteers who had been trained in Britain and parachuted into Czechoslovakia to conduct Operation Anthropiod.


SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (courtesy Wikipedia)

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October 2nd, 2017

David Stairs


courtesy TheNation.com

The iconic images of Houston under 10 feet of water should have by now burned themselves into your brain. “How did we get to this point?” you ask. With one word: Design.

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August 13th, 2017

The third and final article in our series on the American prison system. —Ed.

Hannah Boyd

For you, DJ, the person who shared part of his life with me.

And for you, former mayor of Indianapolis Greg Ballard, the person who vehemently rejected the concept of prison slave labor, the implications of the 13th amendment, and the profiteering by corporations that makes everyone complicit in the practice of neo-slavery(1).

On day one of our architecture studio, we are tasked with designing a 4,000 bed jail with 27 courtrooms and administrative offices. The project had been an effort by former mayor Greg Ballard to consolidate the sprawling jail network that currently exists in Indianapolis (2). The project never came to fruition, and the new mayor, Joe Hogsett, is currently reviving the project with new ambitions (3).


The 13th Amendment

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