February 11th, 2021

David Stairs


Deep fake of the Queen’s Christmas address; courtesy Channel 4

A man walks into a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. armed with an automatic rifle determined to free children he believes are victims of a peadophilic sex trafficking “deep state.” People interviewed at a Stop the Steal rally in Atlanta tell interviewers a commission is needed to investigate the Democrat’s efforts to corrupt a widely certified election. A man in Nashville (not Robert Altman’s version) destroys a city block blowing himself up at the same time in protest of AT&T’s roll out of 5G wifi service. In another era one might be tempted to agree that “the time is out of joint,” except this bizarro world is our everyday reality.

In his 1831 jaunt through America, officially to examine its prison system, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled widely, from the eastern seabord, through the South, and on to the then northwestern frontier of Michigan. In most places he found a literate, informed, politically aware populace that led him to publish his reflections about the new republic in Democracy in America. Needless to say, he would have been astonished that in less than two centuries America has devolved into the conspiracy capital of the universe.

It used to be that one could view a program about alien abduction, or read an article about anti-fluroidation and understand that you were encountering the wack-job fringe. But not any more. Political dystopia has reached such a fever pitch that one can’t decide who will strike first: 2nd Amendment zealots, egged on by a deranged lame-duck president, interfering with the Biden certification (check that one off), or anti-vaxxers overturning efforts to stem Covid-19 and thereby extend the American pandemic.

In my lifetime I’ve lived through Jonestown, Rajneeshpuram, and the Branch Davidians. Timothy McVey has been imprisoned for life, as has the Unibomber. Many books, movies, and television programs have been devoted to shilling theories about John Kennedy’s assassination, and Neil Armstrong went to his grave disgusted at having to contradict theories that the event he risked his life to achieve was a hoax. In a free enterprise society a certain amount of hornswoggling is to be expected. I mean, is anyone over the age of eight taken in by the spectacle of WWE? But there should be limits to what rational credibility needs to prove.

There are so many articles on the strange state of truth these days that Wikipedia, itself a cloud-based repository of questionable pop culture facts, has created a category for Post Truth Politics. “Truth Decay” is now a recognized meme, like fake news and alternative facts. And still, the conspiracy theories expand, but with profound consequences.

Holocaust denial resides with the White Nationalists who wear swastikas and burn Black Lives Matter signs. Climate change deniers troll Al Gore and Greta Thunberg, eternally hitched to a criminal fossil fuel cartel determined to ride the extraction industry right through to the last winter. Meanwhile, deep fakes ranging from Barack Obama to QE2 populate the social media channels, hoping to recruit against or, at best, embarrass their ostensible subjects.

Relativism, combined with an unflinching belief in free enterprise capitalism, contaminates many professions, including the design professions. The dangerous untruth that technology will save humanity, with design, that domain of creative people, best able to steer this technophilic mythworld, is the sum and substance of most design conferences, lectures, and academic programs.

As we enter deeper into the third decade of this dystopic century it behooves us to remember that our Republic was founded upon “universal truths,” not specific, personal, and relativistic fantasies. And that, while one might accept a conspiracy narrative in the name of satire, or humor, or just to be plain contrary, one should never grant it the distinction of accepted fact. As my Father was fond of saying, that’d be like “trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

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

January 9th, 2021

David Stairs

Steve Zdep is dead, that much is certain. He passed away on November 6th, 2020 from causes not revealed in his obituary.

I hadn’t seen or heard about Steve Zdep for over 50 years. My high school best friend Bernie Flanagan told me Steve had died in a 2020 holiday greeting. Last year was supposed to have been our 50th high school reunion but, like everything else, it was postponed due to Covid-19. I remember my Father attending his 50th reunion in 1985. I thought at the time, “This is crazy.” It seemed even crazier when mine rolled around. “No way I’m going out on the links with a bunch of old duffers,” I thought, mostly because I don’t play golf, but also because high school was not exactly the highlight of my life.

I attended Christian Brothers Academy, CBA to those who know it. A Catholic preparatory school in Syracuse, New York, CBA was opened in 1900 by the teaching Brothers of Saint Jean-Baptiste de la Salle. These days it’s co-ed, but when I attended it was all male. We were the 70th graduating class. On graduation night at the Onondaga County War Memorial 175 of us were onstage in white dinner jackets with red carnation boutonnières. We looked pretty smart. CBA was a competitive place, athletically and academically. My classmates went to Ivy League schools: John Wu to Yale, Mike Tyo to MIT, Charlie Burzalow to Columbia. I had a different trajectory. From attending a school with no art curriculum, I intended to go to art school, and, after a couple years at SUNY Oneonta I transferred to RISD, the closest I ever got to the Ivy League.

My CBA classmates went into the professions. They became lawyers, doctors, and university lecturers. Steve Zdep became a dentist after attending Georgetown. I assume he was a good dentist, since he also taught dentistry. But as I said, that was after my time. I knew Steve in a different capacity. You see, Steve Zdep played trombone, and so did I. We played together in high school for a year, before I tired of marching in the cold and being yelled at by our dictatorial band director. But Steve and I went back even further, to grammar school. We also played in the Saint Margaret’s grammar and middle school band. In fact, that’s where my horn ended up, after my Mom pestered me about donating it to the parish for years. I remember Steve as a mediocre trombone player. I don’t mean this as a criticism; I was no better. We both blatted our way through Pomp and Circumstance each year at graduation. But Steve was such a laid back, easy going kid, it wasn’t possible to be mad at him when he flubbed.


The author in more innocent times

For me the most salient event regarding Steve at Saint Margaret’s School was not the band. Years earlier Steve and I had been in the same kindergarten class, Helen Maloney’s downstairs half-day afternoon session. I was a big cry baby. At first I cried every day, wouldn’t let go of my Mother. We all recognized our seats by the little gummed label animal stickers on the backs of our chairs. Mine was a deer. I don’t know what Steve’s was.

The social event of the 1957 school year in kindergarten was Steve Zdep’s fifth birthday party. Steve’s Mother Edy made sure of that. I remember it mainly because he was the only kid who celebrated his birthday in school that year. There was a big chocolate sheet cake. I don’t remember any presents, in fact, I don’t remember much else about the event other than the cake. After kindergarten Steve and I were still classmates, but never in the same home room again. That’s how it went— separated at cake.

Now that Steve Zdep is dead, the world will never be quite the same. Of course, this is true for every human life. With each passing year the obituaries roll in as more and more of the people I grew up with slide down death’s trombone, like in a funeral march from Tremé, to join Steve in the Great Hereafter. It’s not that I object to death, railing against the inequities of human mortality. I know what’s coming and I assume it ain’t gonna be fun. But I do recognize that there is some sort of balance in the universe. I know this because of Steve Zdep. He may have been a middling trombonist, but he was a good dentist, proven by the fact that his son, Steven R. Zdep, is also a dentist. Just as my kids, Maya, Chris, and Luco, are all in Art and Design. What goes around.

So, I’ve survived my trombone-playing kindergarten-birthday-party-celebrating former-grammar-and-high-school-non-home-room-classmate. One can only hope for a legacy half as good.

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

December 9th, 2020

David Stairs

With states reporting record numbers of infections, there is no doubt that this Christmas season will be one many will find hard to forget. The malls and retail centers we so precipitously abandoned way back in March do not have the same attraction of earlier years. Since Covid is THE story of 2020, even overshadowing the presidential election, we’ve scrounged up a few holiday suggestions for that extra special Christmas 2020 memento of the years’ most familiar meme.


A “Clovid” orange

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November 2nd, 2020

October 26th, 2020

David Stairs

Max is over, thank God.

And by Max I mean Adobe Max, that brightshiny overripe bells-and-whistles software tradeshow masquerading as an allconsuming excuse to be pretentiously jejeune.

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August 21st, 2020

David Stairs


A wild back yard

Except for a couple of thunderstorms, it hasn’t rained much in central Michigan this summer. It has been quite hot, and as usual, very humid. After aggressively mowing the grass in late May and June, it’s growth abates and it mostly browns off. The only way to keep grass green is by watering it, and in a world of diminishing clean fresh water, there has to be a better use for it than golf green lawn grass.

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July 3rd, 2020

David Stairs

America has finally caught mask fever, fifteen years later than Asian people. There are still many who refuse to “suit up” including Covid deniers, those suffering from claustrophobia, and some who claim medical excuses. But the possible reasons for not wearing a mask are narrowing, with major airlines rejecting travelers who renege.

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June 13th, 2020

David Stairs

I thought I was speaking truth, but now I’m not sure that it wasn’t simply “my truth” rather than something absolute. Maybe absolute truth doesn’t exist, no matter how much we’d like to believe in it. But, if this is the case, then we’re really doomed.

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May 14th, 2020

David Stairs

Courtesy Wikipedia

America’s got troubles. I don’t mean the song lyric kind, but, you know, serious troubles. And they’re not the soft purring type you might find on a now infamous classic sci-fi show. Those are tribbles, the sort that pundits and wags like to compare to Donald Trump’s hair.

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April 19th, 2020

David Stairs

Are you just about sick and tired of seeing pictures of viruses?


Courtesy NIH

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March 31st, 2020

David Stairs


A sign of our times

There are interesting new ways to mark the passage of time. I generally take account each week when I venture out of my home to grocery shop.

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March 17th, 2020

David Stairs

Informatics is enjoying a renaissance.


Courtesy LiveScience.com

If you haven’t already encountered it, this graph is bound to become the most talked about x-y axis since Al Gore’s Nobel prize-winning acceptance speech. And it represents events more immediate than climate change, if not more important.

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March 2nd, 2020

David Stairs

I suppose bookmarks are a personal thing. Some are woven; some are printed; some are just bits of stuff. My son uses a piece of red thread. I won’t say that I collect bookmarks either, but when I am in a bespoke store I will not leave without one. In honor of my favorite bookstores, I’d like to share their bookmarks.

Out west, in Portland there’s Powell’s City of Books. This venerable warehouse on West Burnside Street is always crowded and, while I’d like to say you can find anything there, the greater liklihood is that you will get lost looking. For those who like to get lost, this will not be a problem.

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January 19th, 2020

David Stairs


Paramount

“We Are the Borg.”

With these words, Maurice Hurley, writing for the Star Trek TNG episode Q Who?, unleashed one of television’s most implacable adversaries on the world. But, as with much speculative fiction, Hurley and his co-writers were only mining the literature of science and engineering probability.

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December 15th, 2019

David Stairs

Who doesn’t love a podcast?

Some weird personality or obscure ideology you need to catch up on on that long commute to work in the morning? Needing to block out ambient noise in your open space office cubicle? What better way for a busy person to stay both informed and amused?

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November 1st, 2019

David Stairs

Have you ever been in a super loud environment? I don’t mean the usual sort, like a kindergarten classroom or a football stadium on an autumn weekend— a scene of audio cacaphony— I mean a visually loud room. The Victorians were sometimes guilty of visual clutter, with their knick-knack trophies and flowered wallpaper, but they had nothing on modern commercial interiors.

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September 14th, 2019

David Stairs


Illustration by Chris Stairs, age 9

I often think about stubbornness. My son Chris is a Leo, and he can be one of the most stubborn people I know. This is not to criticize my son, or to implicate all Leos, but it is a character trait they are somewhat known for.

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August 6th, 2019

David Stairs

Affluence isn’t free.


Giraffes at a gallop on the Serengeti, Tanzania

In May 2019 the UN released a report about the state of the natural world. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported that species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, and that the rate is accelerating.

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July 1st, 2019

David Stairs

Since when did coding corner the market on the definition of “smart”?

I recently attended a UCDA design conference where Helen Armstrong was one of the keynoters. Ms. Armstrong, a multiply-credentialled academic with deep ties to the AIGA, talked about Big Data, and how designers can/should employ it to their benefit.

Yellow-cyan-indigo paint scheme non-algorithmicly determined

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May 24th, 2019

David Stairs

While most people these days don’t think much about cattle when they discuss branding, they also probably don’t focus on Apple’s iconic 1984 Superbowl ad as the catalyst for a whole new generation of brand differentiation. Yet, the upsurge of interest in brand fascination is traceable to the 1980s and its emphasis on supply-side economics.


CMU’s Centennial Sculpture, by Charles McGee (installed 1992; relocated 1999; birds voluntary)

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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.

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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.

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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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