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.

Things changed slowly. A few books appeared: Cameron Sinclair’s Design Like You Give a Damn, for instance, or David Berman’s Do Good Design, but for the most part we had business as usual, like AIGA’s Gain design/business conferences.

Admissions of the potential of cultural change were in the air. ICSID ran a series of “Interdesigns,” some of which wrestled with the limits of corporatism, allowing designers to put aside their day jobs for a couple of weeks and dream up solutions to social problems.

Conferences came and went, some with interesting titles like Changing the Change or Blunt. Attendees at these events wrestled with the differences between shareholders and stakeholders, proposing soft solutions to the Millennium Development Goals, destined to miss all their scheduled deadlines in our collective race to the bottom.

Problems with the environment got worse and worse, despite Rio, Kyoto, and a number of memos and concordats. People were willing to talk, but less willing to put their money down, counting on the environment’s ability to absorb more and more damage without complaining.

Thirty years after Our Common Future sustainability finally became a catch phrase, spoken by all but practiced by few. David Orr published his notions about “slow knowledge” while Europeans practiced a form of reaction to corporate franchised food with a “slow food” movement. But the world’s largest economy opted out of the environmental discussion altogether, unwilling to cooperate if it could not call the shots.

The design practice IDEO, self-styled pioneer of “human centered design,” created toolkits and .org divisions to promote their business, ostensibly through assistance to vulnerable communities. It remains to be seen if this enlightened self-interest really benefits have-nots, or only helps to expand corporate overseas markets.

Design Observer created Change Observer and, for a time, ran social enterprise retreats for “change leaders” using Rockefeller money, but since the death of Bill Drenttel DO has morphed into an appendage of the AIGA.

Design school programs around the world have promoted courses, projects, and “interventions” meant to expand their students’ social awareness and the school’s market base. Enough people were finally talking about social design to make it lucrative, at least for some educators.

A quick search of “social design” at Amazon reveals a growing number of soc-design titles— many actually anthologies of case studies run out of design school studios, while the Bloomsbury house, successor to British design publisher Berg, has been ramping up its social design book line.

Over the course of the last twenty years, design itself has expanded so dramatically, absorbing most everything in its path so to speak, that it’s beginning to be hard to differentiate it from social science or planning, anthropology, ethnography, theater, narrative storytelling— By the end of the first decade of the 21st century the great melting pot called design seemed poised to handle the thorniest social issues in a manner that could only have been dreamed about in the 1980s.

But “osmosis” is not the same as collaboration. Despite the periodicals and conferences, social initiatives and new curricula, all of the books touting social design’s growing accomplishments, and in spite of going on 30 years of the most recent iteration of the discussion (Victor Papanek, after all, is no longer current), it’s not possible to claim that design for the commonweal is yet a major force in the world.

More common, but not major.

Perhaps this has something to do with the deep-seated bias that, as many of my students like to put it, “a person still has to earn a living.” The accompanying implication that the best way to accomplish this is by being a corporate shill is easy to refute. Locked as it is in the perfidy of convention, it belies all the amazing possibilities of human imagination. And yet, like the common cold, it persists.

Who then owns social design? The simple answer is, “Everyone, and no one.” There is not yet an estimable figurehead, charismatic leader, or bespoke poster child for social design. There are numerous well-intentioned practitioners and academics riding a fairly safe small fashion wave of incremental advances, and a few commercial entities trying to use it as a means of boosting their overall market share. As educator and industrial designer Emily Pilloton laments in the recent social design documentary Digging the Suez Canal With a Teaspoon, “I think that the organizations that have commodified it (social design) so blatantly to their own benefit— it’s sort of the nature of the industry— we haven’t been able to shake that model, and I wish there was another way.”

But maybe there is another way. In the same film Oakland architect and design consultant Liz Ogbu talks about the importance of her design influences from outside the profession, and a number of designers, myself included, love to quote Ivan Illich, that deep well of social right-thinking and political skepticism toward the capitalist West.

An instance of outside-the-profession social influence in an institution might be Imagining America, “a thriving consortium of colleges, universities, and cultural organizations” founded at a 1999 White House Conference with the expressed intention “to claim engagement at the core of their professional identities.” For IA, public issues can be addressed through “participatory design.”

Not all members are necessarily designers, nor are all member institutions design schools, but this seems to be to the good. At the annual gathering in Chicago in October 2018, a meeting dedicated to Decarceration and Liberatory Futures, ex-convicts presented creative solutions to the prison industrial complex, alongside state legislative representatives, artists, designers, academics, and PhDs, lending substance to the argument that there’s strength in diversity when tackling intractable social problems. Many of the IA presenters in Chicago were members of minorities, perhaps a sign of the times in the Era of Trump and prison-for-profit schemes, but it was an instance of conference diversity one would like to see repeated at design confabs.

Perhaps exo-design organizations like Imagining America, and others dedicated to finding the way forward by addressing the future through a collective approach to knowledge, can help design rediscover that “other way.” It would not be surprising to find that design, the profession its practitioners have come to consider culture’s “master discipline,” depends upon what EO Wilson has termed “consilience” or the interdependence of knowledge, to crack the social design dilemma.

Then again, maybe it’s not so much a dilemma as a simple change of perspective. I’ve already referred to design’s rapacity when it comes to absorbing social science research techniques. Maybe all that’s needed is a little more humility. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time cooperation has trumped competition in the pursuit of social welfare!

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

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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June 23rd, 2017

This essay continues our investigation of America’s prison system, and extends D-A-P’s collaboration with Ball State architecture students into the fifth year. —Ed.

Julia Voigt

Despite jails being one of the most recognizable typologies of the built environment, the criminal justice system itself is far removed from the realm of the architectural profession. This lack of attention given to the penal system within the profession highlights a larger, societal issue at hand: that, as noted by author Michelle Alexander, “… criminals are the one social group in America that nearly everyone–across political, racial and class boundaries–feels free to hate” (Alexander 228).
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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.
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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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