April 16th, 2017

David Stairs

Every once in awhile you meet a group of students that stands out. This was the case with my Junior studio a year ago. When we collaborated with the School of Businesses’ entrepreneurial contest, they were all in, and we just clicked. I knew 2017 would be my year to mentor our Graphic Design capstone project, and I wanted it to be good, so I signed up to teach the Fall senior studio leading into the winter capstone.


An 8’x16′ map locating the nation’s nearly 5000 prisons and jails won a student research grant

We began in September by talking about the nature of research process. I proposed a couple possible topics and they decided among themselves that they wanted to examine the American penal system. They subdivided into smaller research groups and began the laborious task of digging into deeper research.


A series of informational posters helped translate the meaning of the Prison Map

We took field trips to jails and prisons, listened to Byran Stephenson and Michelle Alexander talk about institutional racism, and watched endless numbers of movies about the prison experience. We knew early on that we wanted to make a map of all prison facilities in the land, a daunting task, so we put one of our most quiet and diligent people on the job in October.


Visitors to the exhibition were required to leave a fingerprint and sign the register

After the December holiday break, we had to begin planning the capstone exhibition in earnest. We spent at least three weeks brainstorming a name for the project. You might think it shouldn’t take that long, but honestly, it’s very easy to choose a bad title, and much trickier to choose well. We had to develop a theme and a narrative, walk the gallery space, and returned multiple times with questions for the gallery director.

By February, with April 1st looming frightfully close, we’d decided on seven “stations” for the exhibit, and our various teams— print, digital, research, and install— had set about their respective tasks. We knew we wanted to present our examination critically, but respectfully. We would use all the prison memes, the numbers, fingerprints, stencil lettering, orange jumpers, and barbed wire, but we would not fictionalize.


A timeline of prison construction and prison population growth was presented as a cinder block wall

One student was making a serious attempt to correspond with inmates. The success of her initiative sealed our Prisoner Portrait project. Another proposed a timeline of the history of prison construction using cinder blocks. A third wanted to conduct an online survey of attitudes about prison. And the national prison map was shaping up to be a tour de force that proved worthy of a student research grant.


Prison inmate Cassie Tungate, and the letter she sent

Amid the posters and videos, perhaps the coolest thing we did was to construct a camera surveilled isolation cell. Class members volunteered to take turns occupying this 8’x10′ cell for the two-week duration of the exhibition in public protest of the practice of solitary confinement.


Our stripped-down confinement cell

So what did we learn, other than that prisons are a growth industry even as prison populations slowly decline from a high of 2.2 million? We learned that the Land of the Free imprisons more people than the next five nations combined; that racial imbalance and poverty result in prisons acting as an extension of slavery and Jim Crow; that prisons are a dumping ground for the mentally ill; and that America builds prisons faster than colleges.


The people in solitary were under constant surveillance

And we learned a few things about ourselves, too: that design students can do relevant research; that groups of young people can collaborate to make a difference; that research process matters, and that it’s great to get out from in front of computers.


We documented the role race plays in imprisonment

Our efforts generated a good deal of interest. Gallery attendance was at record high levels. The award-winning student newspaper, CM Life, gave us a cover story and a four-page spread. The on-campus public radio station promoted us, and regional television broadcast our project to all of northern Lower Michigan, which resulted in a conservative backlash on social media.


A 500-person survey sought participants’ responses to the system. Written on blinds, the survey questions opened to their responses with viewer interaction

Commencement is only three weeks away, but I predict that In the System will be the yardstick our program measures academic success by for many years to come.


A two-minute video described historical efforts at prison reform in America

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

February 25th, 2017

David Stairs


Image: David Stairs

I recently started reading Volker Ullrich’s biography HITLER: Ascent 1889-1939 out of a curiosity to better understand the motivations of the man often ranked as history’s most malevolent monster. Along the way I became fascinated by the parallels between Uncle Adolf and a more recent demagogue of the American ilk. These are the similarities I noted:
•Mendacious use of facts
•Scapegoating a religious group
•Extreme nationalism
•Intolerance for criticism
•Bullying as a defense tactic
•Narcissistic
•Authoritarian
•Inciting violence
•Histrionic
•Temperamental
•Censorious
•Contempt for adversaries
•Dislike for administrative work
•Prima donna tendencies

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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.

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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

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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 viagra dosage instructions< professionals they spoke with at a regional design studio told them they'd be foolish to pass up the opportunity. Read the rest of this entry »