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.

At the House impeachment hearings in November 2019 Ambassador Kurt Volker said, “Criticism should remain private. Praise can be public.” I could not disagree more. It is through criticism that we best understand both success and failure.

During the House hearings, it became painfully obvious that people like Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill, if not whistleblowers, were at least willing to risk their careers for truth.

In Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud Tom Mueller brilliantly documents numerous instances of whistleblowing in government and industry. How come one never hears about whistleblowing in design? Is it because designers are without sin, or do we train them to believe that the profession can do no wrong?

A young Canadian friend of mine has expressed dismay with the way design criticism is managed in her country. She does not consider herself a trained critic, but feels she must wear that hat when she sees others cheer-leading for questionable initiatives that have huge potential to do harm, like Google’s Smart Cities initiative in Toronto. Fortunately, that project was finally killed, with partial thanks to my friend and her fellow critics.

Years ago, when the establishment still trusted me, I was contacted by one of the partners at Pentagram who was hoping to get some referrals from me to assist that studio with its move into African markets. No way on earth anyone I could refer would ever be of any use to Pentagram, even though one of my former students was working at the Kampala branch of Ogilvy at the time.

Another time a friend and I took a tour of IDEO when I was visiting him in San Francisco. We were whisked through the office and sequestered in a conference room and fed platitudes, as if we were conducting industrial espionage. A few short years later at a European conference I squirmed through a David Kelley presentation in which he mostly talked about himself. The founder of the firm that had pioneered a “human-centered toolkit” being self-centered? Who’da thought?

I have long considered these examples evidence of the sheerest forms of professional cupidity. This was brought forcefully home to me one day as I was querying the same San Francisco friend about a former colleague of his who runs a social enterprise project, and who I mistakenly thought still interacted with the students at his art school. “My students do not know who he is,” my friend wrote, “even though he has parachuted onto campus once or twice over the past several years to “think stupid” with students. He, like some other famous design offices (cough, IDEO, cough), has copyrighted a relatively meaningless ‘design process’ that is easily understood by, and therefore sold to corporate/institutional/political executives. Yawn.”

I hasten to second my friend’s tedium on this matter. Yet, the behavior he so justly derides is completely commonplace, an almost universal truism of contemporary design practice masquerading as social consciousness for the sake of profit.

This is where where righteousness resides and truthfulness becomes problematic because, well, who am I to act holier than thou? I mean seriously? As we used to say when teenagers, “Give me a fuckin’ break.”

But a larger problem than my hubris, as I see it, is the tendency for the design press to whitewash the industry. Most writers, critics, and design podcasters are so busy praising design and its “limitless” potential, that there is precious space leftover to state the facts.

I wrote something critical about Design Observer’s 15th anniversary publication, but, after a couple retweets, it was drowned out by the accolades for that weblog. I later criticized design podcasts altogether because, the medium’s potential notwithstanding, I saw the same things happening there.

I could direct you to the Wikipedia entry for a famous design non-profit, an entity that collapsed under its own weight and resulted in an embarrassing lawsuit. You would not find any mention of the real way the organization ended its days. It’s almost uncanny how the truth has been replaced by a more palatable narrative.

Years ago when I wrote criticizing its Design for the Other 90% exhibit I was lambasted by a famous design person affiliated with the Cooper-Hewitt for being a “smug expert.” At one time or another I have also been called a cynic, a narcissist, and a malcontent. Any of those would be more appropriate than “expert.” It was a bad description then, and although I have not become more expert with the passage of time— more smug perhaps— my evaluation of the Cooper-Hewitt was then and still is accurate, despite what that famous design person thought.

While becoming more smug I have also grown less sanguine, less enthusiastic, and yes, less hopeful as the years have rolled by. My friend Wes Janz once quipped that Designers Without Borders ought to be renamed Designers With Some Borders, a suggestion I supported then and wrote about later. What he could not have foreseen is that an even better designation might be Lose the Designers/Keep the Borders.

This weblog was started fourteen years ago in response to the dearth of serious writing about design for the commonweal. Over the years, more designers and academic programs have gotten serious about so-called “social design.” At the moment I am perhaps feeling Wes’s influence on me once again, because I’m wondering whether I should transform this weblog from Design-Altruism-Project to Design-Relevance-Project. Probably it’s long overdue. Perhaps I’m just feeling the weight of years.

Then again, maybe I’ll sleep on it. After all, death guarantees ultimate irrelevance for all of us eventually. Better to not spurn relevance while one is still breathing.

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

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