Rereading Victor Papanek’s “Design for the Real World”

Why does Victor Papanek’s scathing, 41-year-old critique of the profession still read as if it were written today?

The Vienna-born designer Victor Papanek was in his early 40s and bouncing from one U.S. teaching job to the next when, in the mid-1960s, he began writing Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. The book would not only become the best-known product of his long career, but also help lay the foundation for the green architecture and humanitarian design movements that emerged over the course of the next generation. When it was finally published in 1971—with an introduction by Papanek’s friend and fellow iconoclast R. Buckminster Fuller—the book joined a groundswell of important critiques of modernism and postwar excess in architecture, design, industry, and corporate America. Indeed, the period between the early 1960s and the early 1970s produced a now-canonical group of reform-minded titles, including Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Richard G. Lillard’s Eden in Jeopardy, Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects, and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed.

Like most of those books, Design for the Real World was an impatient, jargon-free, and often passionate cri de coeur. Its main targets were examples of product design, architecture, and city planning that Papanek considered wasteful, dangerous, bad for the environment, or detached from the needs and lives of ordinary people. Early in the book, he savages the “Kleenex culture” of Western societies. (“That which we throw away, we fail to value.”) And he tears into the lemming-like qualities of designers who accept their roles as mere stylists, harshly calling them “the good Germans of the profession.” Superficiality, in people and design, is his consistent enemy, and he reserves special scorn for approaches that are both lacking in depth and form the basis of design school curricula.

“By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly one million people around the world each year, by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed,” he writes. “And the skills needed in these activities are taught carefully to young people.” (Emphasis added.)

And at that point he’s just getting going. Still to come are attacks on “the lacy mantles and Gothic minarets” of the architects Edward Durell Stone and Minoru Yamasaki (not surprisingly, Papanek prefers the work of Paolo Soleri and the young Moshe Safdie); on the cozy alliance between designers and Madison Avenue; on the American “preoccupation with making things pretty”; and, in an especially memorable phrase, on “the glib, slicked-up Kitsch that characterizes most of the design work coming out of schools and offices.”

“So far the action of the profession,” he writes of designers, “has been comparable to what would happen if all medical doctors were to forsake general practice and surgery, and concentrate exclusively on dermatology and cosmetics.”


Beyond the pummelingly entertaining rhetoric, Design for the Real World was remarkably prescient. Sure, there are a few stretches that seem dated today, and some of the design solutions Papanek holds up as models of a new approach—the clogs, the beanbag chairs, the “tricycle for adults with battery power-assist”—seem quaintly earnest. But much of the book could be published today and not seem at all out of place. The links between Papanek’s philosophy and the rising humanitarian-design movement are particularly strong, and in fact designers including Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H, and William McDonough have called the book an inspiration.

Papanek’s focus on ecological and social responsibility as the twin pillars of design practice seems particularly timely four decades later. So does his advice to designers about both the importance and the ethical pitfalls of working in poor parts of America or in the developing world.

“Ideally,” he writes, the designer would not only “move to the country” in question but also “train designers to train designers. In other words he would become a ‘seed project’ helping to form a corps of able designers out of the indigenous population of a country. Thus within one generation at most, five years at the least, he would be able to create a group of designers firmly committed to their own cultural heritage…and their own needs.”

Elsewhere, Papanek anticipates the universal-design debates of the 1980s as well as the contemporary interest in urban agriculture, the slow food and slow cities movements, and so-called maker culture. And his critique of design and architecture education seems especially relevant today. “The main trouble with design schools,” he writes, “seems to be that they teach too much design and not enough about the social and political environment in which design takes place.”

Given how unflinching many of the book’s critiques were, it’s not surprising that Papanek became persona non grata in certain design circles—though it seems clear in retrospect that to a certain extent he enjoyed his status as an outsider. When Papanek reported that thanks to the book he’d been “derided” and “savagely attacked,” he said it with some of the same pride that undergirded his generally accurate claim, in the 1985 edition of the book, that Design for the Real World had become “the most widely read book on design in the world.”

More interesting—and more pressing—is the question of what the continuing freshness of Papanek’s ideas says about the rising humanitarian design movement. It means, first of all, that the fissure in the profession that Papanek identifies between real engagement and salesmanship—between design with a conscience and design that has been, in his words, “sexed up” for the marketplace—is never going to go away. In both design and architecture this gap, this split personality, is fundamental. There will always be money and prestige to be found in the kind of design practice that answers primarily to the marketplace. And there will always be figures like Papanek to appeal to designers’ morality and the deeper, broader needs of human beings and the planet.

But there is also a good deal for younger readers to learn from the book, provided they use it more as a mirror than a primer. The book’s lessons for a new generation of socially engaged designers have less to do with the particulars of design practice—though there is plenty of strong practical advice in these pages—and more to do with the importance of careful, even ruthless, self-assessment. What does it mean, younger designers ought to ask, that the strategies of humanitarian design are so similar to the ideas Papanek laid out in 1971? Why, in other words, doesn’t the book seem more dated?

Certainly the answer in part is that the movement is concerned with timeless questions about access, morality and equity. Those ideals don’t—or shouldn’t—change over time, and in fact Papanek fills plenty of pages in the book railing against the idea of the merely fashionable. For him, trends and the distasteful notion of “planned obsolescence” were intertwined; objects go in and out of fashion, he argued, mostly as a pretext for getting the public to buy more stuff—usually stuff they and the environment don’t need.

But you could also make a case that there are certain elements of any movement that must evolve and mature. And in that sense there is some cause for concern among the emerging humanitarians. At the very least, the movement’s political tactics seem significantly underdeveloped. In post-Katrina New Orleans, in shrinking Detroit, in post-tsunami Japan, even in the declining standards of social housing and public architecture in relatively wealthy cities like Los Angeles—in each of these cases what has kept meaningful design from taking root at substantial scale isn’t a limited supply of ideas or projects but quite simply a lack of political savvy. In those locations and countless others, thoughtful, idealistic designers and architects have been outflanked by bureaucrats, engineers, or grandstanding politicians. And the same thing seems likely to happen wherever the next disaster strikes.

Then there is the question of technology. Design for the Real World is a message from a predigital age, from a world without smartphones, iPads, Skype, Twitter, Tumblr, and open-source design software. Again, in this sense the book sends a strong message about the importance of first principles, about the power of mud bricks, simple transistors, and face-to-face human contact. But the truth is that in more than a few ways leaders in humanitarian design have set up themselves up in clear opposition to both the bleeding-edge technology of Silicon Valley and architecture’s parametric camp, with its sleek digital fantasies. And while I can understand much of this impulse—and would kill to read a Papanek review of Patrik Schumacher’s Parametricist Manifesto—the fact remains that for us, in 2012, discovering too much kinship with Design for the Real World, particularly when it comes to its analog worldview, ought to be seen as a pretty big red flag. In technological terms, after all, 1971 was the Stone Age. Nostalgia for the simplicity of that period in the culture—and in the design world—is not so much unwarranted as simply irrelevant.

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