top of page
Design for the Real World

design. how it is & how it could be

This book is the first book I read about design. And I am glad I did so. Split into two parts, Victor Papanek explains how things were in the industry of design, pointing that they were wrong, and how they could be, if designers were to take design more seriously. The author draws our attention to the fact that designers often design products to look good or work well, sometimes end up satisfying only one of these two functions. But there are more functions to a design!

Papanek argues that a good design is also a design that is authentic in how and from what it is created (method), reflecting very well the times (telesis) and needs (need) of the people it serves, and being pleasant aesthetically (aesthetics) and psychologically (association). And because designers often forget or do not know about the other aspects of design they engage in perpetuating bad, useless and 'perverted' designs in a throw-away culture. But they must try to change it. "There will always be man like Buckminster Fuller who spend 100 per cent of their time designing for the needs of man. Most of the rest of us can't do that well, but I think that even the most successful designer can afford one tenth of his time for the need of men" (Papanek, 1972, p. 57).

But not all throw-away products are bad, Papanek argues. Some products, especially in hygiene, are designed to be this way and using them the opposite way will be counter-productive. "There is no question that the concept of obsolescence can be a sound one. Disposable hospital syringes, for instance, eliminate some of the need for costly autoclaves and other sterilizing equipment. (...) But when a new category of objects is designed for disposability, two new parameters must enter the design process. For one thing, does the price of the object reflect its ephemeral character? (...) The second consideration deals with what happens to the disposable article after it has been disposed of. (Papanek, 1972, p. 77).

Papanek argues that the designers have a social and moral responsibility. He acknowledges that they are often constrained by the business (and businessmen) they work for and have no power to challenge it if they know that what they are asked to design is wrong, in any of the way that the author describes in the first chapter. But design and designers must change (Papanek, 1972, p. 92). They must work directly for the client (human-centered design). They must do more testing of the products they design. And they must draw insights on problems they are trying to solve from other fields such as social sciences, biology, anthropology, politics, engineering, and technology, the behavioral sciences (Papanek, 1972, p. 134).


Papanek, Victor. (1972). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. Toronto/New York/London. Bentam Books.

bottom of page