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Book Review: Design for the Real World April 25, 2011

Posted by ischoolevan in Uncategorized.
Book Title: Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (1971)
Author: Victor Papanek (1927 — January 14, 1998)
During his career he taught at Rhode Island School of Design, California College of the Arts and other design schools in both North America and Europe.  He also spent considerable time living within Navajo, Inuit and Balinese communities.
Papanek was a very vocal critic of the consumer culture.  As a designer himself, he was critical of the role his craft played in the consumption cycle.  Many of the ideas expressed in his book are consistent with the societal critique presented in the video Story of Stuff.  However, Papanek’s focus is on the design profession and the role designers serve as well as the role Papanek believes they could serve to achieve social change.Papanek sets the tone for his book with the following opening passage:

There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them…only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress other who don’t care.

He believed the design profession at the time the book was written was overly focused on aesthetics. He wrote and lectured on what he believed was the deeper moral obligation of designers to create ecologically sound design, serve the poor, the disabled, the elderly and other minority segments of society.

Papanek suggests that every designer give 1/10th of their time to the under-served population that is struggling to meet their basic needs. He suggests building the capacity to design by spending the 10% of time training designers in under-developed countries.

Papanek defined “Design is the conscious effort to impose meaningful order” on the world.  In his book, he describes his belief in how design could be incorporated into many areas of life and not just the design of aesthetically appealing forms.  He states that rather than focusing on the underlying needs of humanity, design acts as tool used by marketers resulting in the production of adult toys.  Papanek is critical of designed obsolescence,  where a product is designed, or styled in a way to force the consumer to buy a replacement in unnaturally short period of time.

Papanek continued to press for social change and call designers to refocus their efforts on impactful, eco-conscious design challenges.  In the mid 90s, he released a followup entitled The Green Imperative.



1. Jon Pittman - April 25, 2011

Good synopsis – how timeless do you think Papanek’s message is? He was writing in the 70s yet many of the same issues he was trying to call our attention to are still issues today. Did he have an impact? Is his message compelling? How might you update it for today’s audience.

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