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

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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)

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

Read the rest of this entry »

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).
Read the rest of this entry »