What I'm Reading: Design for the Real World

What I'm Reading: Design for the Real World

There are a lot of books in the world, but there are few that utterly change the way you think about a topic. In my case, the topic is design and the book was Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek. I think that most people totally misunderstand the breadth, impact and noble purpose of design. Design for the Real World was one designer’s attempt to change our perceptions on all three issues. 

I first encountered Design for the Real World while at university. During my first year, I switched from my physics and chemistry degree I had intended to do, and instead to pick up every psychology paper that I could find. I had been bitten by the social science bug. One of the unassuming psychology papers that I started in my third year was rather opaquely titled ‘Applied Experimental Psychology.’ The course was to be the lever that changed my life, as it was a gateway into the world of applying psychology to the design of technology. 

The next three years changed everything about how I understood the collision between human behaviour and technology. In various courses, we explored this collision across a wide range of systems, including: computer interfaces, organisations, aircraft, cars and nuclear power stations. The course existed before terms like ’experience design’ and ‘design thinking’ became popular. We were part of the foundation of the fields of design as we know them today. 

This would be somewhere around 2001. The internet had taken flight, the ‘dot.com’ boom had subsided. Email was everywhere, but Facebook, Google, Apple and others had not yet made their mark. There was a feeling that technological utopia was just around the corner. Then, somewhere in the middle of this revolution, I encountered Design for the Real World. 

I’ve gone back through it many times, but it remains a difficult book for me to review as it comes at the question of design for a noble purpose from so many angles. I could talk about how the book slices through some of the hyperbole around design with a (harsh) reminder of the impacts of poor design. How it talks of the people and societies that pay a price when design is used to create shallow and wasteful things. 

I could talk about how the book links the impacts of disposable design to the garbage that litters the landscape. From my perspective in 2019, when we have a Pacific gyre of plastic garbage larger than the state of Deleware, the clear impact of design choices on physical pollution feels obvious. Our (wilful?) ignorance of the issue seems like a farce that has gone on far too long. 

Perhaps I need to review the book from the perspective of the man who wrote it. Victor Papanek was born in Vienna in 1923, just on the cusp of the rise of facism in Europe. He fled to the United States in 1939, after the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria to the new power of Nazi Germany. He associated with Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminister Fuller; design legends of the era. He should have attracted some fame at least, yet the publication of Victor’s Design for the Real World in 1971 encouraged a vitriolic and divided response from the wider design community. I think this damaged the spread of his ideas. 

There is no doubt that Victor’s commentary is spirited. His temperment starts from the very first line of the book,

“There are professions more harmful then industrial design, but only a very few of them… Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis. 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 that clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and process that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed” 

I can’t point at any other book that was so responsible for making me thinking differently about the social responsibility of design on the things we make and how we use them. Design is worth more then just making it ‘easy to use,’ or a ‘good experience.’ Design has a greater responsibility to inspire change in every aspect of how we make, use and eventually recycle the products and services we create.

If Victor’s work had a flaw, it’s that he was probably a more effective teacher than designer. His work is full of passion and vision, but light on integrated methods, strategies and ideas for change. Also, to a modern reader, his examples (such as hand-held radios and ovens made of scrap metals) will appear very dated. This dating probably also applies to some of the ways the work describes the world. Phrases like ‘Lifecraft Earth’ and other ideas are very in keeping with the Sixties and Seventies. 

It would be easy to ignore the work for its lack of specific methods, dated examples and Sixties phrasing. It would definitely be to easy to ignore his work for its focus on industrial design, in this modern world of digital services. However we are only starting to realise the impact of the digital products and services have had on our declining attention, our conflicted emotions and our divided societies. In light of these misdeeds, can we say with honesty that we’ve learned our lesson around the value of designing for greatness over a quick profit?

I think the book is worth more than its examples. It is the foundation of an end-to-end socially responsible design philosophy, years before the concept became popular. It explores how design should be in service to the consumer, and that the consumer has rights that should guide how things are made. 

Its strongly worded warnings almost seem out of place in this much more polished world of various conferences, talks and organisations, many of which appear dedicated to using design for good. Yet, when you strip back the polish, our own world of design is built on deeply conflicted incentives, where “design for good” is often restricted by cultures of profitability. I’ve spent my whole career to this point wrestling with these issues and I can attest, they are not easy or always obvious. 

I’m left with the book’s final words,

“In many ways designers must learn how to redesign. In this way we may yet have survival through design.” 

We can only hope. 




Papnek, V. (1985) Design for the Real World, 2nd Edition. Academy Chicago. 

Photo of Design for the Real World (c) 2019 Christopher Roosen.

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