February 1st, 2015

David Stairs


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.

After all, America has more than its fair share of deniers. Legal history offers us salient examples in both racism and evolution. The Dred Scott case of 1857, which denied African Americans the right of citizenship, is considered by many to be the worst ever Supreme Court ruling. In defending another hopeless cause, during the famous Skopes trial in 1925, William Jennings Bryan argued for the State of Tennessee’s right to prohibit the teaching of evolution in public school classrooms.

Women have been wrestling with wholesale denial of their rights for a very long time. They made a breakthrough with the 19th Amendment, but took a step backward with the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. They won a victory over those who would deny them the right to control their own bodies with Roe v. Wade, but still struggle against glass ceilings that deny advancement in many professions.

Auschwitz courtesy Wikipedia

Then there are the ever present homegrown Holocaust deniers. It seems imbecilic to deny what thousands of British, Russian, and American servicemen witnessed first hand when they entered German-held territory in 1945, let alone the horrific accounts of survivors. In fact, history’s first war crimes trials glaringly featured the facts in daily press releases and cinema newsreels throughout the late ’40s, paving the way for Stanley Kramer’s magisterial 1961 Judgement at Nuremberg.

Perhaps most ludicrous are the moon landing deniers. To this day some people insist NASA staged the event, with Stanley Kubrick’s assistance, in spite of the fact that it’s possible to aim a laser at the mirror Buzz Aldrin deployed at Tranquility Base and receive precise telemetry of the moon’s present distance from Earth in the reflection. Neil Armstrong was a notoriously private person, and only gave one interview toward the end of his life. But it must have irked him no end to think that the hard work and balls-to-the-wall heroism of the Apollo program is chalked up by some deniers to conspiracy theory. Buzz Aldrin famously slugged a moon-landing conspiracy theorist who was harassing him in 2002.

Tranquillity Base experiments courtesy NASA

Although I think heaven is plausibly deniable, climate change is not. And yet, of all denier types everywhere, this is perhaps the most dangerous. Not ironically, some of the most vociferous are those most deeply invested in extraction and energy. Naomi Klein tells a number of distressing stories about the power of huge multinationals that have invested nearly 500 billion dollars into the Athabasca tar sands project. This dirty oil requires not only a great deal of clean water, but also natural gas to heat the water to separate the oil from the sand. It is three to four times more polluting than traditional drilling.

Pollution deniers are a subset of climate change deniers. For years Americans have been deceived by corporations that have tried to convince them hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is safe, and that the resulting fuel is cleaner. Fortunately, a growing swell of academic research has uncovered the lie. Researchers at Cornell have actually suggested that fracked gas is as much as 30% dirtier than traditionally extracted gas because it releases serious amounts of methane into the atmosphere, and methane is an even more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.1

For those who believe it is possible to power our energy needs with renewables, and academics have already worked out a practicable scenario, all carbon should be left in the ground. Activists who have blocked Keystone XL for the last three years, preventing access to right-of-way eminent domain claims, have included a consortium of environmentalists, ranchers, and First Nations groups exerting long dormant treaty rights meant to protect them from the destruction of their land— a thing massive terraforming extraction projects cannot avoid.


What many of the above-mentioned deniers have in common is a tendency to practice magical thinking: black people do not deserve citizenship because they are subhuman; humans did not evolve on the Earth, but were placed in the Garden of Eden; the Jews weren’t mass murdered, but themselves caused World War II; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did not risk life and limb, but performed their moonwalk on a stage in Idaho; the earth is not warming because of human activity and, if it is, we can fix it with a little geo-engineering, or more of what got us in trouble in the first place.

Design’s magical thinking is the profession’s unflagging loyalty, even in the face of environmental devastation, to its Fortune 500 clients. The AIGA has even named its annual design and business conference GAIN. This blindness is borne out not merely in day-to-day practice, but in design education’s complicity in providing a limitless supply of competition-hungry graduates to industry. The citizens of Denial are a little like alcoholics, spreading their addiction to their progeny.

Opportunism Corrupts

Not everyone is hypnotized by capitalism though. A few years ago Maria Popova posted a nice piece at Design Observer criticizing design competitions entitled Death to Design Awards. She minces few words in accusing them of being a block to innovation and “a flawed and incomplete system of evaluation (that) becomes the currency designers flash at prospective clients and use to bargain their billing rates. It makes clients lazy and designers complacent.”

Communication designers aren’t the only ones called out. In a 2010 piece at Core 77 entitled Why Design Contests Are Bad, no less a person than Donald Norman weighs in on industrial design competitions. While he is not as draconian as Popova in his evaluation, he still complains that such contests only reward superficiality and need to change.

John Thackara has gone further than most in proposing a solution. His Ten Ways to Redesign Design Competitions takes the environment into consideration in ways most others ignore. Unfortunately, even Thackara does not entirely rid himself of the capitalist fantasy that drugs the profession.

Is there a way to do this? Would de-coupling from the system that is destroying the earth mean an end to design? Unlikely. The profession would suffer declines perhaps, but humans will always design. Are designers even capable of overcoming their level of denial? Does anybody care? These are questions that should not be left to the fervent murmurings of individual conscience, but must be addressed now, seriously, by all of us. The status quo is unsustainable.

Meanwhile, back out in Denial Oregon I’m planning to erect a king-size convention center and resort hotel. That’s right, I’m going over to the dark side. I intend to cash in on the conspiracy theorists with a marvelous public relations campaign designed to lure all deniers to the same place where I can make ’em an offer they can’t refuse. What more fitting way to memorialize a town than to get a bunch of people to deny imminent death by drinking the Flavor Aid?


1) Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea, “Methane and the Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations,” Climatic Change 106 (2011): 679-90.

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

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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July 22nd, 2014

The following is excerpted from Jesse McClain’s 2014 Master’s thesis—Ed.

Jesse McClain

Figure 1: Images from top to bottom: Top two images – Anawalt strip mining site in Southern West Virginia. Bottom image: Town of Keystone, West Virginia, near the city of Welch, WV. Photos: Jesse McClain.


Southern West Virginia and Western North Dakota were both visited as part of the research process. These sites were chosen due to their similar connections with the energy industry and also their polar opposites in terms of economic prosperity. Welch, West Virginia is a small town which used to be called “Little New York” in the early 1900s. It was the city at the hub of the world’s first “billion dollar coalfield” and provided many of the area’s residents with a healthy and even prosperous income. Now it is deteriorating as the powerful strip-mining companies replace humans with machines and blow the tops off nearby mountains. Long-time Welch resident, Hilda Mitros, details accounts of personal and environmental violence experienced under the influence of the coal companies. She talks about gas and water explosions in and near her home as the earth becomes unstable with directional drilling and diverted water flow. Floods and sinkholes are commonplace in an area which is sacrificed for it’s fossil fuels. Hilda also reports that the decline in the economic and environmental health of the region has been accompanied by an influx of drugs and political buy-offs. She offers stories of attempts by community members to stand against the development of a major dumping site for disposal of out of state waste. The community was initially able to rally and protest this intervention but eventually, leaders were swayed through high pressure negotiation and shadowy bribery tactics. Hilda used to run a kitchen and bar and she remembers when the times were good and people prospered in a healthy community. I asked her if anything good was occuring in Welch and she said, “no, there is nothing good happening here.” A place that was once full of vitality and optimism is struggling to see a future that holds a promise of anything other than more destruction and abuse.

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June 30th, 2014

David Stairs

There is a concept in science, known as publication bias, that suggests editors of scientific journals prefer to publish positive test results over the results of failed, or negative tests. It’s human nature, one supposes, to prefer good news to no news, and it certainly is better for circulation. The only problem is, it makes for bad science. When a profession, take medicine for instance, is denied the knowledge that certain drugs did not perform the way their manufacturers claimed they would, doctors are less able to act in the best interests of their patients.

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June 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

If you are a white-collar worker making a decent salary, chances are that your paycheck will go directly to your bank so you can access it with a check or a withdrawal slip or draw on it with a credit card or mobile phone payment. There are banks that charge for such accounts, but only usually if the customer’s balance drops below a given amount. In many banks you will get the checking account free, while in some you will even earn a modicum of interest on it.

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May 10th, 2014

Daniel Drennan

“Believe in stone and survive.”


From the Declaration of the Palestinian People during the first intifada in 1987:

We will no longer be a subject people. If you order us to our camps, we will roam the countryside. Dig up our soil and bury us alive in it if you will. If you direct us to work in your factories, we will confine ourselves to our homes. Herd us into concentration camps if you will. If you instruct us to buy your produce and your products, we will grow and make our own.

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April 19th, 2014

David Stairs

At 10:02am on Saturday, February 23, 2014 I officially became old.

X-ray of surgical plate to correct a comminuted fracture of my right distal radius

As I left my house to take my dog Asali for a walk I noted that the front steps were blocked by snow. I’d been working hard throughout an unusually harsh winter to keep them clear, but a recent thaw— it had been 48°F the previous day— had caused snow to slide off the porch roof and pile on the steps.

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March 28th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I once thought that the greatest obstacle to reflective thought was the endless haptic texting that occupies the mental space of so many people but now I have a new culprit, data. Devices that have dissected our bodily functions into tiny shards flood the market, enabling us to either confirm the smooth functioning of our multiple organs, energy flows, and synapse synergies or else to detect glitches that merit our attention. Never have people had such an opportunity to be so aware of their bodies and take control of even the most minute irregularities in their physical performance.

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March 7th, 2014

David Stairs

Looking for love? It doesn’t matter if you have specialized tastes. Not only the “fetish-friendly” or the “transgerdered” are searching, but single moms, cancer sufferers, BBWs, middle-age widowers, cheating wives, and sugar daddies, too. The internet caters for all races, ages, and economic levels, no sexual preference too kinky or niche group too small.

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February 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

Everyone knows that university sports have become a big business and increased access to their aura and actual content is a great way to raise money. Besides luxury stadium seats, there are the intimate dinners with star athletes, free DVDs of great games, gifts of jerseys with the numbers and names of outstanding players on them, and even an opportunity to meet with coaches pre-game to put in one’s two million dollars worth of strategy advice. These ideas are good but they miss the mark.

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January 17th, 2014

Vassiliki Giannopoulos
National Design Awards
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128

Dear Ms. Giannopoulos,

Regarding your December 23rd email notifying us that Designers Without Borders has been nominated for the 2014 National Design Awards, we have this response.

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January 1st, 2014

David Stairs

An admission of personal weakness is not always a bad way to start a new year. I’m willing to stick my neck out and tell you a secret: I’m an inveterate maker of lists.

I can’t shop for food without using a list. At night I lie in bed evaluating the past with a list of events. In the morning I often compose an informal list of the days’ forthcoming activities. So, at a time of year when many people are generating lists of resolutions, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the idea for this post presented itself in list form.

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December 8th, 2013

Victor Margolin

In recent weeks, I have been involved in three chaotic attempts to introduce changes in services that I have come to rely on. These include banking, public transit, and healthcare. The website of Obamacare is not the only evidence of innovative change that is malfunctioning. I would venture to say that a good many if not most of the new services that are being rolled out at a dizzying pace have glitches that range from minor to catastrophic.

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November 15th, 2013

David Stairs

Ask my Indian friend: Americans are in a coma.

What would evoke such an evaluation? Last year, while I was living in Bangalore, an American friend visited and my son and I met her for lunch. While crossing a busy boulevard she grabbed my arm and said, “I’ll trust you to get me across safely. Yesterday I spent 30 minutes trying to cross MG Road.” At that point I almost became a hazard myself, I was laughing so hard.

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