Design for the Real World: a look back at Papanek from the 21st Century

Open Access
Conference Proceedings
Authors: Joyce ThomasMegan Strickfaden

Abstract: This paper presents an overview of Victor Papanek’s book Design for the Real World (1971) from the perspective of current 3rd year industrial design students, members of GenZ, combined with the perspectives of the educators/authors who read the original edition of the book in the 70s and 80s. Students read individual chapters the 2019 edition of this book, wrote a critical review, and presented their overviews and findings in two lengthy class discussions that allowed them to ‘read’ the entire book. The perspectives of the students and educators (from very different generations) reveal an interesting story about the Austrian-born American designer and educator’s writings. In this paper we reveal the continued relevance and critically analyze Papanek’s writings by illustrating how his views on socially and environmentally responsible design live on.Taking his early design inspiration from Raymond Loewy, Papanek went on to study architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright. An early follower and ally of Buckminster Fuller, a designer and systems theorist, Papanek applied principles of socially responsible design, both in theory and practice ultimately working on collaborative projects with UNESCO and the World Health Organization. In Design for the Real World, Papanek professed his philosophy that objects or systems work as political tools for change. He became a controversial voice within that time frame as he declared that many consumer products were frivolous, excessive, and lacked basic functionality causing them to be recklessly dangerous to the users. His ideas seemed extreme, echoed by many other environmental philosophers at the time, at that point in history, but perhaps viewed from the 21st century seem prophetic. An advocate for responsible design, Papanek had visionary ideas on design theory. Papanek felt it was important to put the user first when designing. He spent time observing indigenous communities in developing countries, working directly with, and studying people of different cultures and backgrounds. Papanek designed for people with disabilities often in pursuit of a better world for all. He also addressed themes that have continue to be overlooked in design in the 21st century - inclusion, social justice, appropriate technology, and sustainability.Papanek ultimately earned the respect of many talented colleagues. He would go on to design, teach, and write for future generations. Opposing the ideals of planned obsolescence and the mass consumerism that fuels it, his work encompassed what would become the idea of sustainable design and decreasing overproduction for the consumer market. Themes from Design for the Real World remain relevant, and today it has become one of the most widely read books on design; resulting in Papanek’s voice continuing to push designers to uplift their morals and standards in practicing design.This paper highlights Papanek’s values of designing thoughtfully and for all, while revealing the details on the relevance of his writings five decades after the original publication.

Keywords: Design for all, Design teaching and learning, Sustainability

DOI: 10.54941/ahfe1002010

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