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Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World

Posted on June 6, 2008 by ari

papanek-design-real-world.jpgWe’ve mentioned Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World a bunch of times but never blogged it properly, so here goes. Read it! It’s amazing. It was written in 1970 but is still all-too-relevant today. The cover of our awesome 1973 Bantam edition (pictured here), reads, “Why the Things You Buy Are Expensive, Unsafe, and Usually Don’t Work! With some startling practical alternatives — like a radio that costs 9ยข, a $6 refrigerator, a television set for $8, and much, much more! Design For The Real World by Victor Papanek: Human Ecology and Social Change With an Introduction by R. Buckminster Fuller; Completely Illustrated”. Papanek adorably refers to his friend and introduction-writer as Bucky throughout the book, and relates stories of visionary design teams doing what the two men refer to as Anticipatory Comprehensive Design.

Basically that means looking at real-world problems and trying to solve them in an ecologically-sound and efficient, forward-thinking way, with the help of the stakeholders, the people who are actually affected by the design problem and its potential solutions. This is opposed to the more common practice of profit-driven design, which uses planned obsolescence and the vagaries of “fashion” to sell the same old crap year after year, dressed up in fancy new skins or even just different marketing. For every cool new low-cost, low-impact tool that’s accessible and useful to folks who really need it, there are a million new expensive, ugly and possibly dangerous items put on the market simply to make a profit, Papanek says, and his message holds true today. The design world, for all of its improvements, does continue to churn out useless junk and endless repetitions of bad ideas.

Here’s part of the flow-chart illustration with which Papanek ended the book – you’ll have to read the book to see the rest of it, including his suggestions for how to get around the problems outlined here. But he doesn’t give us all the answers – the flow-chart only goes so far as suggesting possible solutions to the world’s problems; he puts it on us to fill in the rest of the chart as we move onto creating those solutions.


Since Shira and I are all about creating sustainable solutions in every area of life including the design work we do for clients, we found the book’s message right up our alley, and the suggestions for improvement just as relevant today as they were when they were written nearly 40 years ago. It’s encouraging to see that when Victor wrote this book he and Bucky were really trailblazing a new approach, which today has many adherents, with dozens of books and websites now dedicated to designing for the great majority of people instead of the privileged few who pay big bucks for pretty new designer chairs and the like. But we’ve still got work to do. So, read this book, and act on it!

Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical (going back to the roots) in the truest sense. It must dedicate itself to nature’s “principle of least effort,” in other words, minimum inventory for maximum diversity… or, doing the most with the least. That means consuming less, using things longer, recycling materials, and probably not wasting paper printing books such as this.

Fortunately, Design for the Real World has been in print for many years, and is available used from many freecycling / swapping networks as well as libraries and used bookshops, so no new materials need be used today in learning from this beautiful and clever and useful book.

Click here to see more of what we’re reading!

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