jump to navigation

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 world’s 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 American’s 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.

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 don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress other who don’t care……Never 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 Papanek’s popular and highly polemical text, Design for the Real World. Papanek’s book accuses contemporary designers of squandering natural resources to devise trinkets, when their social and moral responsibilities are required to create designs that serve mankind’s 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 Chemical’s ‘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 designer’s 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 consumerism.

In the design of disposable items, Papanek advocates two rules: that an item’s 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 designer’s 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 time……combined with a sense of social responsibility’ to world problems.  

Analysis, Reflections, and Relevance to Today’s 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 Papanek’s 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 industry.

Today, there’re 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”.



No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: