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One Thousand-Forty-Two Words on Challenging Assumptions
By David Stairs.

After AIGA Vancouver a friend called my article posted at HOWdesign.com a “voice crying in the wilderness,” adding, “The AIGA does have an agenda to push, …and is probably not interested in having base assumptions challenged.” He was trying to remind me that ours is a conservative profession. He was very right, and not just about the AIGA.

One of the people I met in Vancouver was a nice guy named Rob Peters, past president of ICOGRADA. I subsequently asked him why the bottom of the scale for institutional participation in the ICOGRADA Education Network (IEN) was so high? He said, “The fee for schools in countries with a GNP below $2500 is $100 annually. It costs ICOGRADA more than this to administer the school’s participation.” Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of ICOGRADA’s organization, but this felt overstated.

Frustrated by what I perceived as inflexibility in the face of a supposed effort to recruit new schools to the IEN, I contacted Armin Vit at UnderConsideration. I asked him if he would consider posting a “Challenge to ICOGRADA” (viewable here) in which I proposed that Designers Without Borders would sponsor any three schools in sub-Saharan Africa to the IEN if ICOGRADA would institute a one-time only registration fee for schools in countries with extremely low annual per capita incomes. Armin, himself a native of Mexico, said he tried not to take sides in political matters as it might appear to be an endorsement of one particular point of view.

Unfortunately, I was getting a picture, and it looked like this:

1) Across much of sub-Saharan Africa $100 is a small fortune. In a place where university students can’t afford books, the likelihood of giving a yearly fee to ICOGRADA is nearly nil. (It is not surprising that South Africa has the only IEN member schools in Africa. South Africa is the most industrialized/westernized nation in Africa.)

2) There’s a vast difference between living in the developing world and visiting it for a six-day conference or working vacation.

3) Westerners in general, and designers in particular, apparently could not see the distinction.

In the new Brenda Laurel book, Design Research, there’s an essay by Tracy Moon entitled “Living Proof.” It’s kind of out of place in this anthology since the gist of Moon’s piece is about the power of intuition in the face of information gathering, which is really the central theme of the book. So be it. As I read I found much of what she said acceptable enough until I came to, “At the core of my belief system about how creativity happens is a veritable dearth of beliefs. In fact, I could argue that my only real belief is not to have beliefs.” Apparently, Ms. Moon thinks ideology, as opposed to esthetics, has no place in design, and in fact leads to “narrow mindedness.” This is what I call the objectivist fallacy, the idea that we can stand outside of or beside the world and cooly observe it. Skeptic and traditional unbeliever though I am, I couldn’t disagree more. It doesn’t really work even in science, so why should one consider detachment efficacious in design? Personally, I no longer try to even conceive of design devoid of beliefs. Most human behavior is value-laden. Money-making is political. Eating is ritualistic. It’s na�ve to fain objectivity where human behavior is concerned.

I remember how, in Emigre 49, Rudy VanderLans famously stated, “…this is the final issue of Emigre in which we report and reflect on the state of graphic design. The heated debates of the 80s and 90s seem to have run their course…there are no significant debates happening in graphic design today.” Tired of mediating the fray he said Emigre would return to its roots, concentrating primarily on typography. He did add the hope that a new generation of designers would “fill the void.” Ironically, #49 was the same issue of Emigre that carried the revived First things First Manifesto, a kettle of “significant debates” if ever there was one. So the discussion of values did not really end.

And a new generation has picked up Rudy VanderLans’ gauntlet, especially online. At sites like Speak Up and the AIGA Forum’s Cross Cultural community of interest there is a great deal of talk, especially about design globalization. But is all this hubbub over cross-cultural design anything more than talk? Granted, my definition of cross-cultural design is not the only, or even the best one. But it is grounded in the knowledge that cultural exchanges need to be more than conference panels and cheerleading for design internationalism. What is the reality in developing nations? Can American designers recalibrate their bullshit-meters long enough to sift through the media-speak and catch the real drift? Would they be willing to sacrifice the entry cost of the AIGA 365 annual to help sponsor scholarships for design students overseas? The price of one-month’s cell phone service to assist a foreign design school? Would they donate the cost of a magazine subscription to a design non-profit? The price of a cup of coffee? A subway token? Anything?

These days, when the chips are down, I look around the table to see who most enjoys the sound of the words “cultural exchange” as they roll off the tongue, then I walk straight up to them and ask, “What are you doing about it?” If they give me an excuse, whether slick or mealy-mouthed, my bullshit-meter goes bonkers and I automatically relegate them to the cross-cultural cross-dresser category. I know it’s unfair; loses me a lot of potential friends, too. Nobody likes a moralizing, self-righteous boor, especially one from Kampala.

In closing Armin said to me, “Design politics are tough.” Again, I respectfully disagree. It isn’t design politics we’re talking about here, just good old Human Nature. If you are reading this now, it is probably because Armin remembered his site is named Speak Up, not Clam Up, and that what I’m saying could in no large way harm his relations with anyone in the design profession. We’re all in this world together, for better or worse. How much better it will be when we manage to include the disenfranchised is the challenge. Meanwhile, assume nothing!

David Stairs has not accomplished much in his long life, but he hopes to change that one-day. Since 1994 he has anchored the program in communication design at Central Michigan University where he mentors an AIGA student chapter. In 2000 he founded Designers Without Borders in Kampala. He is currently at work on a book about contemporary African vernacular design. Forthcoming articles by and about him are scheduled for the June issue of HOW and the autumn issue of Design Issues. Designers Without Borders is planning expanded field operations in Africa from 2006-2007. For more information go to www.designerswithoutborders.org.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Mar.18.2004 BY Speak Up
Jason’s comment is:

David, I really appreciate getting the change to hear your voice. I've caught snippets of designerswithoutborders here and there, and now have a better understanding of what you're all about.

Issues of globalization and design are just now reaching us. It's sickening. Whether we're talking about outsourcing jobs to small countries or pounding out million year old cultures in underdeveloped regions, something has to be done. Right? Designers of late, are looking to be crusaders. If the 90s was about authorship, the 00s will be all about advocacy.

It seems unmanageable to start off with big visions like visiting Africa or Iraq, so I advocate working in your immediate area first. Learn about at risk youth and develop a design program to keep them busy after school. Develop a campaign that educates African-Americans about AIDS because they're most afflicted by this trauma. Or why not spend time doing a PowerPoint presentation at your local high school that shows students how they can use design to voice their own opinions and issues, cultural or otherwise.

There's plenty designers can do for "cultural exchange." Something's better than nothing. Let's look at our own environment before crossing an ocean.

On Mar.18.2004 at 06:12 PM
graham’s comment is:

david-my computer is being a bit weird with your website. can you e-mail me? i'd like to know more.

On Mar.19.2004 at 10:55 AM
Armin’s comment is:

"Design politics"

Just for the record, I'd like to clear up that Design Politics are as existent or non-existent as Grocery Shopping Politics. Point being that everything in life is politics — based on each and everybody's agenda and personal preferences. Speak Up is all politics, if you will. Also, keep in mind that I am not referring to it in the sense of gubernatorial politics.

That's all.

On Mar.19.2004 at 12:17 PM
Robert L. Peters’s comment is:

Thanks for your piece on �Challenging Assumptions,’ David. A designer from Edmonton pointed me to your essay here on Speak Up, and I feel both obliged and privileged to reply (if the intent of your polemic missives is to elicit response, this should provide you with satisfaction). By the way, thanks for calling me a �nice guy’ (I think).

Assumptions about Icograda

By your own admission you know little about Icograda, though that is easily remedied. Extensive information is readily available online at www.icograda.org Most graphic designers in the U.S. know little about Icograda (the International Council of Graphic Design Associations), in part because the AIGA has in the past few decades not felt it important to formally be a part of the worldwide graphic design community or to promote Icograda’s international initiatives (though a grass-roots �community of interest’ calling itself the AIGA Cross-Cultural Design Group [AIGA:XCD] is now beginning to address issues of cultural diversity and international exchange within the organization). See their Manifesto and individuals to contact if you care to support international exchange amongst designers.

Icograda is the representative world body and constituted NGO for graphic design, an umbrella association of design associations — it’s constituency is therefore the sum total of its’ member associations’ members, though its audience extends to professional graphic designers worldwide.

One of Icograda’s core aims is to �further understanding among human beings everywhere’ — it was this that drew me to become involved many years ago. It seems clear to me that �furthering understanding’ cannot be achieved by polarizing and dividing (e.g. �them vs. us, right vs. wrong’), but rather by nurturing respect for differences, fostering harmony, and using our analytical/creative abilities to envision sustainable ways to improve the lot of all humankind. Design is powerful. It seems to me that in this age of information and ideas graphic designers are in a position of immense influence and responsibility — we can choose to be champions of the unique things that dignify human beings and that make our civilizations meaningful — or we can choose to simply be servile minions of wealth-driven agendas.

About the IEN

The Icograda Education Network (IEN), see www.education.icograda.net was launched in mid-2003 in response to the expressed desire of design schools and educators wishing to collaborate with their peers worldwide (to date, 41 schools from 21 countries are already active in the IEN — but it’s �early days’ for this initiative and it’s hoped that schools around the world will sign on) — it brings together the international community of graphic design educational institutions — for collaborating, exchanging information, and advancing teaching methods and research opportunities. Participation is on an institutional basis (and as you referred to in your essay and your posted �Challenge to Icograda,’ fees for schools wishing to participate in the IEN are adjusted to GNP of the applicant’s country — while USD $100 is still a lot of money in many parts of the world, this three-tiered system of fees does reflect a significant consideration for global economic differences. David, I really like your suggestion of finding sponsors in the rich world for design schools in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. It’s important to note that IEN participation only becomes meaningful if there is a commitment by individuals within the educational institution to be active players in the network, however. Also, your comment about why only South Africa is represented in the IEN on that continent may be misinformed, I’m afraid, as the IEN has only just launched and it’s existence is as yet hardly known in most parts of the world — can you provide me with contact information for the schools you have in mind? If so, I’d be happy to initiate contact on behalf of Icograda and to work with you on getting them involved in the network).

IEN participation is a great way for design educators in particular to connect with colleagues, and successful student exchanges and cross-cultural projects are already underway. It’s also worth noting that 10 percent of all IEN participant fees are funneled directly to the Icograda Foundation (a charitable org formed in 1991 for the enhancement of worldwide understanding and education through the effective use of graphic design) to support student scholarships and further seeding initiatives. (Thanks for the chance to post this blatant advert for the IEN, David. By the way, it would be great for the design program that you’re involved in at Central Michigan University to become a part of the IEN as well).

About Bullshit Meters

(What a great metaphor!) As I sit in my office and write this, hundreds of protestors are gathering a few blocks away in the chilly Winnipeg wind to march together in protest of the war in Iraq. A year ago today, the Icograda board was in Ahmedabad (northern India) on the campus of the National Institute of Design, participating in a series of meetings and events focused on the power of design — we watched in horror and disbelief as the most powerful nation on earth, along with a coerced coalition of �the willing,’ unleashed pre-emptive strikes (justified with self-serving rationales, and media-amplified by consensual lies) and deployed a formidably designed arsenal on a weak and tattered nation. (Bullshit meters were truly going bonkers, David, if I may use the term you coined).

I’m expressing my views as an individual here (and I agree that designers should be passionate and 'political' in what they do, even if organizations by their very nature tend to be non-political or apolitical). Icograda is constituted as a non-governmental and non-political body, yet within the constituency that Icograda represents there is a tremendous range of empowered opinion and expression. I’m certainly not advocating that all designers should think alike — quite the opposite really, though I do believe it is critical for designers to care about what they do and to actually Think! Kofi Annan of the U.N. states this notion very well when he says (quote): “We can love what we are without hating what we are not. We can thrive in our own tradition, even as we learn from others and come to respect their teachings.”

Today also happens to be the vernal equinox, that moment in time when the sun crosses the equator and provides equal parts of light and dark all over the earth. My sincere hope is that this generation of designers (us, we) would use our powerful talents and propaganda tools to defuse violence, to oppose hegemonies, and to repudiate fanaticism and fundamentalism of every kind. (We are problem-solvers, aren’t we?) Can we not begin to use our collective voice, our communication skills, our creativity — to make a real positive difference? Can we not address root causes of rage and visualize long-term solutions to resolve conflict in more civilized ways than amassing and leveraging might? Imagine if we (the estimated 1.1 million professional graphic designers in the world today) combined our analytical/creative abilities to help envision and shape a sustainable and humane future — an equiformal future for all (like today’s equinox with its equal provision of light) that can enable wealth, health, education, liberty, freedom and opportunity to be shared equitably all over the earth. Imagine...

About Talk and Action

Speaking up is a good start (kudos to Armin et al for forums such as this). Temoignage is also effective because it speaks truth to justice and provides testimonial witness. Awareness is the first step of change, and (throughout human history) significant social change has always begun as a conversation amongst a few concerned individuals. All that said, however, it is putting word into action that can make a real difference (as David notes in his polemic challenge and in the article he wrote for HOW). To that end, I’d like to reiterate the call that I made at the AIGA conference in Vancouver for graphic designers to invest a minimum of 10 percent of their time, talent and resources (tithing is not a new concept, to be sure) in bringing about equitable change in the world. If you’re a professional designer and if you believe in the power of design, then please act on your beliefs. Ten percent of your time/talent means a half-day per week (4 hours out of 40) dedicated to a globe-healing cause (let me know if you need a beneficiary to work with — there are hundreds of under-fueled non-profit organizations working to make a positive difference). Ten percent of your income is easy for you to calculate (this is tax season, just reference the amount you claim to earn on the forms you submit to your government) and David has already raised examples of urgent need (Icograda would gladly direct your donation to help a designated beneficiary — the Icograda Foundation is also a worthy cause that puts donations into direct action). I encourage all designers reading this to use your voice, yes, but also to match your words with actions. Please join those struggling to make a positive difference… a better future thanks you!

Robert L. Peters, FGDC

Past President, Icograda

On Mar.22.2004 at 12:42 PM
David Stairs’s comment is:

Thanks Rob,

I couldn't have said it better.

Now, about that Challenge.......

On Mar.22.2004 at 02:49 PM
graham’s comment is:

jason: if you were in a car crash, and the worst injury you suffered was a fractured skull which was threatening you with brain damage, and the least injury you suffered was a bruised shin, which would you want treated first?

we live on a planet.

although designers in the u.s. could be doing us all a favour by coming up with ingenious ways to get people to vote.

On Mar.22.2004 at 04:19 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

well said, graham.

Thank you so much Robert(and David), I'll be sending this link along to all my colleagues back home and in the 'peg!

On Mar.22.2004 at 07:42 PM
Jason’s comment is:

graham: Which would I want treated first? Well, frankly I wouldn't be able to make that decision because chances are I'd be in a coma or some other lifeless state. So I can't answer your poignant question since either my soul or my loving wife would be praying to God that it all turns out okay no matter where the doctor starts working. Seriously, graham, making comparisons between my body and the planet is too funny. Too funny!!! I mean, I've got a big head, but come on.

My point in the first post, graham, is that we shouldn't let the perfect get in the way of the good. David's ambitions are noble. Having somebody like him go after the "damaged brain" before the "bruised shin" on our planet is heroic. I can't compare to that, so instead I propose that those who still want to contribute do so in a manageable way that helps their immediate planet: city block, community service, municipal county, shire, etc.

What's so wrong with that, graham? Although we "live on a planet", as you say, it takes people to make differences. And whatever people can contribute--small or large or gigantic--should be valued. No matter what. If you can't reach the mountain top in one day, focus on making small steps towards the summit.

Jason with a capital 'J'

On Mar.24.2004 at 10:44 AM
D Stairs’s comment is:


You, and most designers in America, can do both. Everyone should be

voluntarily involved in their community in some way; this is just good citizenship.

But we can also help those with much less than us, without traveling around the world, by assisting a non-profit of choice. It's the least we can do for our capital-blasted world.

On Mar.30.2004 at 09:28 AM
Toni O'Bryan’s comment is:

I'd like to add one small note to the discussion, that comes from our manifesto at the crossculturaldesign.org forum:

"No one person can know all there is to know about any culture. Cross-cultural design is about building a network and learning from others."

I hope this dialog continues!

I believe the cross cultural design community would be very interested in discussions like this one as well as knowledge of the Speak Up forum. The community has around 700 members right now. As Rob mentioned, there isn't a formal way to be involved in Icograda's worldwide graphic design community, but we are taking small steps to open those doors and create friendships nonetheless.

On Apr.01.2004 at 03:25 AM
Robert L. Peters’s comment is:

Toni, I fully agree with your comment regarding cross-cultural knowledge and how this develops. The AIGA:XCD Manifesto is an excellent start (the English/Arabic copies of the Manifesto that were recently handed out during the Icograda Design Week in Istanbul, Turkey were very well received — it's great to see an outreach such as this coming from designers in the U.S., especially as so many seem to be shrinking away from international contact, travel and collaboration).

The AIGA:XCD Manifesto also states the following: "Design is not defined by national borders or cultural differences. Learning about other cultures requires interaction with other cultures." Obvious, but well worth reiterating.

Keep up the cross-cultural exchange. The better we can get to know and understand our colleagues in foreign corners of the globe, the less inclined we will be to blow them up or bomb them. And, this works reciprocally.

On Apr.02.2004 at 02:32 PM
David Stairs’s comment is:

I hate to rain on everyone's mutual admiration society, but my bullshit meter's buzzing again.

Toni's reference to a "700 member" cross-cultural community of interest is misleading. Although there may be 700 names on her e-mailing list, I was at the cross-cultural meeting in Vancouver, and there were fourteen people in that room. People can be forgiven for wanting to attend more interesting presentations, and there were hundreds drinking in the tavern that evening at the cross-cultural event I am told, but this is precisely my point. I'd be hard-pressed to claim all of the earnest inquiries I field at DWB (about 700 a week) as "members" for purposes of the grants I write. Give me a body count.

So I went back to that serried document, the AXD Manifesto located at aiga.org/forum, and it turns out there are quite a few delusions I wish to puncture.

1) The world doesn't treat people everywhere as the same; cross-cultural branding, that thing designers are so good at, does this.

2) Design most assuredly IS culture specific. Any person who has traveled outside their homeland knows this intuitively. To deny it is, as I've said elsewhere, to fall victim to the objectivist fallacy.

3) Design is NOT experienced on a global scale by most of the people in the world. This is not bad. In fact, one of the things those who try to promote design worldwide must be sensitive to are accusations of cultural homogeneity.

4) Helping people is ALWAYS preferable to helping companies, despite all the capitalist platitudes we are constantly fed. People and companies are NOT the same.

Diplomacy requires alot of talk before action. Some diplomats, like Mr. Peters, spend a good deal of time and personal effort traveling in the name of design diplomacy. But my personal heroes are the men and women I hear from who are in the international volunteer trenches. These designers have never heard of AIGA XCD, much less these discussions, and probably don't have time to participate in them. They are too busy helping others.

On Apr.06.2004 at 03:53 PM
Avi Solomon’s comment is:

The way forward is shown by projects like this one:

Bringing Design to Mumbai's Slums

See Also Prof. Patrick Whitney’s lecture:

Prof. Whitney Delhi Video

On Apr.09.2004 at 09:34 PM
mazzei’s comment is:

Can American designers recalibrate their bullshit-meters long enough to sift through the media-speak and catch the real drift? Yes, but I only know of about 3, very rare. Check out the obesity thread the bullshit meter needs some repair after that one. as for the “politics” comment, I assumed it was comedy or tragic cant decide.

Would they be willing to sacrifice the entry cost of the AIGA 365 annual to help sponsor scholarships for design students overseas? yes, some would again, rare as acclaim is more important then “doing good.”

The price of one-month’s cell phone service to assist a foreign design school?

yes, I would.

Would they donate the cost of a magazine subscription to a design non-profit?


The price of a cup of coffee? how about a weeks worth? make it starbucks people spend money on that crap thus, they will really “feel like” they are doing something.

A subway token? how about a weeks worth? I’ll walk.

Anything? Everything.

On May.06.2004 at 03:25 PM
graham’s comment is:

jason-have you read 'one world' by peter singer? if not, you might find it interesting, particularly in reference to your 'what's so wrong with that' comment-his 'the president of good and evil' is worth a read, too, as is all of his other work.

On May.07.2004 at 09:59 AM