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Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and

Social Change (1971) by Victor

Papanek (1923-1998) April 29, 2012
Posted by shangsong0 in Uncategorized.


Victor Papanek was probably one of the most controversial and influential figure in
the history of sustainable design. He was a designer and educator who strongly
advocated designs with social and ecological responsibilities. He disapproved
designs that are showy, unsafe, and unless. He pointed out that design has become
the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by
extension, society and himself). Triggered by social unrest, environmental damage,
high levels of pollution, and potential depletion of the worlds resources in the
1960s, Papanek began to challenge the design establishment, criticize modern and
unsustainable development, and suggest alternatives. He soon became the
unpopular person among designers and corporations, because Kleenex culture was
the dominating trend in Americans consumer market at that time. Four years after
publishing the controversial Design for the Real World, Papanek was described as
being disliked, even loath by his contemporaries in Design magazine. He was often
savagely attacked by his peer designers and forced to resign from professional body,
which threaten to boycott an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris if his work
was included. Yet the first edition of his book had been translated into more than
20 languages and had become the most widely read book on design in the
world. Design for the Real World urges designers to take a more responsible role in a
consumerist society. Even after his death in 1998, Papanek still remains hugely
influential, and he is considered to be the pioneer of sustainable and humanitarian
Design Philosophy

There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.
And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading
people to buy things they dont need, with money they dont have, in order to
impress other who dont careNever before in history have grown men sat down
and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered file boxes, and mink
carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these
gadgets to millions of people. Victor Papanek

This provocative tone permeates Papaneks popular and highly polemical

text, Design for the Real World. Papaneks book accuses contemporary designers of
squandering natural resources to devise trinkets, when their social and moral
responsibilities are required to create designs that serve mankinds basic needs and
solve environmental crisis. In this book, Papanek identifies himself as a world
designer within the social context, influenced by third world groupings and
underpinned with contempt for the modern consumer market. Essentially, he argues
the need for reprogramming of designer rather than re-evaluating the present state
of purchasing- disposing consumer society.

To begin, Papanek defines design as the conscious and intuitive effort to impose
meaning order. The mode of action by which a design fulfills its purpose is function.
Aesthetic value is just an inherent part of function. He explains the six aspects of
the function complex in his view as following:

1. Methods: The interaction of tools, processes, and materials. An honest and optimal
use of materials. Example: Dow Chemicals self-generating Styrofoam dome.
2. Use: Does it work? Example: A vitamin bottle should dispense pills singly.
3. Need: Much design has satisfied only evanescent wants and desires while the
genuine needs of man have often been neglected by the designers. The economic,
psychological, spiritual, technological, and intellectual needs of a human being are
usually more difficult and less profitable to satisfy than the carefully engineered and
manipulated wants inculcated by fad and fashion. Example: To prevent food from
perishing in Third World countries.
4. Thesis: The deliberate, purposeful utilization of the processes of nature and society
to obtain particular goals. The content of a design must reflect the times and
conditions that have given rise to it, and must fit in with the general human socio-
economic order in which it is to operate. Example: Americans who try to couple a
Japanese interior with an American living experience in their search for exotica find
that many elements cannot be ripped out of their context.
5. Association: Our psychological conditioning, often going back to earliest childhood
memories, comes into play and provides us with antipathy against a given value.
Example: what shape is most appropriate to a vitamin bottle: a candy jar, a perfume
bottle or a style salt shaker?
6. Aesthetics: A tool that helps in shaping design. However, there is no yardstick for
the analysis of aesthetics. Thus, it is simply considered to be a personal expression
fraught with mystery and surrounded with nonsense.

To continue, Papanek blames The cancerous growth of the creative individual

expressing himself egocentrically at the expense of spectator and/or consumer
and advocates strongly for better design for the disabled, infirm, developing world
community and others who are not normally benefiting from the work of western
design studios. Papanek sees a straightforward negotiation between customer and
designer to produce rational, socially conscious designs that are relevant to the
needs of people in the world today.

Moreover, he emphasizes the designers social and moral judgment must be brought
into play long before he begins to design, since he has to make a priori judgment, as
to whether his design be on the side of the social good or not. In order to see what
might happen if social and moral obligations were removed from design, he wrote a
satirical piece The Lolita Project with a proposition that, in a society that views
women as objects for sexual gratification, an enterprising manufacturing might well
begin for the production and marketing of artificial women. To his surprise, he
received many responses, including a Ph.D. teaching social psychology at Harvard
contacted him four times regarding a license to begin Flesh-like vinyl body
manufacturing. This leaves him much contempt on the admittedly notional world of

In the design of disposable items, Papanek advocates two rules: that an items price
should reflect its disposability, and that the designer considers what happens to the
item after it has been thrown away. He promotes pricing items based on how often
they are replaced, and leasing often-replaced items. He envisions the development
of ecological design and green technology by commenting on biodegradable
plastics, and new energy such as methane and wind-power. He was expecting to see
the implementation of these new technologies within 10 years from the time his
book was written.

In summary, Design for the Real World tries to awaken designers awareness on their
social and moral responsibilities for the world today. Since Papanek first blamed the
design profession for creating wasteful products and customer dissatisfaction, new
product focused environmental legislation has been introduced. However, the fact
still remains that mainstream product design draws on scarce resources to create
and power products which often have little or no consideration for impact on society
and the environment. Survival will depend upon designers ability to learn how to
redesign. At last, he hopes that the designer should not be a pimp for the excess of
big business interests, rather the designer can bring the insights, the broad,
nonspecialized, interactive overview of a timecombined with a sense of social
responsibility to world problems.
Analysis, Reflections, and Relevance to Todays Life
Without doubt Design for the Real World is a historically important text, with
widespread influence as a catalyst in the practice of design. It offers numerous
examples of sidestepping formalism and self-conscious stylization. However, I feel
Papaneks views upon consumer are too dismissive: A picture emerges of a moral
weakling with an IQ of about 70, ready to accept whatever specious values the
unholy trinity of Motivation Research, Market Analysis and Sales has decided to
inculcate in him. But his sharp-edged text is apocalyptic in many aspects such as
green technology, social and ecological responsibilities, etc. It also attempts to
align design thinking with real needs, which is so crucial in our time as we are still
facing oil crisis, global warming, unsolved poverty and social problems. This requires
a radical change in designers thinking to consider wider implications of their actions
in terms of purpose of design, quality of life, and the future of society.

After Papanek and other designers such as Packard and Bonsiepe first suggested the
concept of design for sustainability in the 1960s, people like Manzini and Ryan
urged to make radical changes in the 1990s. This trend has continued and gained
momentum in our time as design for sustainability became more widespread.
Although designers have been motivated and interested in improving the
environmental and social impact of the products they produce, opportunity is still
limited within the industrial context. Companies such as Apple, HP, Philips, IBM have
already began to promote the work in this area. Large industry commitment to
integrating environmental and social issues into product development has also
continued to rise, but little effort has been observed in the commercial design

Today, therere many forms of active research in the field of design for
sustainability, ranging from implementation of legislation, corporate social
responsibility, to eco-redesign, impacts of user behavior. As designers of our
century, we need to understand the breadth of the problem and be aware of many
issues relating to sustainable development, not just recycling waste materials. Now I
understand why Nathan said that it is depressing to read this book, because what
Papanek wrote 40 years ago is still very applicable to the world today. We need to
redesign in order to solve those wicked problems.