Victor Papanek’s Design Criticism for the Real World

Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design, eds. Mateo Kries, Amelie Klein, Alison J. Clarke, Vitra Design Museum


This essay, written for the catalogue of an exhibition devoted to Victor Papanek at the Vitra Design Museum, focuses on the impact of the Viennese-born designer and educator’s best known work, the book Design for the Real World, first published in 1971. It discusses the contemporaneous reception of the book and considers its enduring legacy within the broader context of design criticism and social design. One of my former students from the MFA in Design Criticism at the School of Visual Art in New York, Amelie Klein, went on to become a curator at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil Am Rhein. She has curated some fantastic shows there including “Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design” in 2015 and “Hello Robot” in 2017. Her latest exhibition, curated with Alison J. Clarke, contextualizes the work and thinking of one of the 20th century’s most notable design minds, Victor Papanek. Amelie asked me to contribute an essay to the catalogue that would examine Papanek’s famous text Design and the Real World and its role and relevance as design criticism.




Design for the Real World and its Temporal Slippages

Victor Papanek’s strident critique of how we produce, consume, and discard design, in Design for the Real World, is usually understood as a geographical argument; his attempt to bring the needs of underprivileged populations into closer conceptual range of industrial designers in the so-called developed world. And yet his line of reasoning is also a temporal one.1

The book’s content derived in part from a series of articles Papanek wrote between 1963 and 1970 for publications such as Industrial Design, Journal for Creative Behaviour, American Designer, &sdo, and Sweden Now. In these articles, he lambasted the industrial design profession and its complicity in harming people and the environment. These became chapters in the first part of the book, titled “How it is.” But the book, published in 1971, also constituted an agenda for his vision of design’s true responsibilities, a blueprint set in the future subjunctive tense—“How it Could Be.” As such, Design for the Real World can be credited with the accurate prognostication of, or stimulant for, many of the humanitarian and environmentally conscious variants of design that have emerged in the almost 50 intervening years since it was first published: the universal-design debates of the 1980s; the rise of eco and sustainable design in the 1990s; engagements with urban agriculture, the slow food and slow cities movements of the early 2000s; and the more recent coalescence of maker and hacker cultures, critical design, social design, accessible design, and open source design, to name but a few.

As a historical document, Papanek’s book represents a worldview apprehended from the particular vantage point of the late 1960s and from the context of an oppositional stance towards military-industrial-complex-era America (even though Papanek declined to engage with what he termed “‘trendy’ radical chic”2 and wrote the book in various locations, namely Finland, Indonesia, and Sweden). And yet, this, his best-selling book, translated into at least 23 languages, and still a mainstay on the reading lists of design schools all over the world, contains numerous insights and injunctions that resonate today with just the same potency as they did then. It has become a bible of sorts for those seeking social change through design, and its mantras are rediscovered by each generation of young designers, as if they were timeless. The hands on the book’s clock still point “perpetually to one minute before twelve,”3 as indeed they must do to provide the right conditions, the conceptual framework of urgency, in which Papanek’s polemic makes sense.

Trained as a designer, and with multiple product designs to his name that have long since faded into obscurity—or as architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne put it, “the clogs, the beanbag chairs, the ‘tricycle for adults with battery power-assist’ seem quaintly earnest”4—it is Design for the Real World that is Papanek’s least obsolescent, his most sustainable, product. Written in the spirit of providing a “turn on” for others—designers, manufacturers, and users—the book embodies Papanek’s preferred definition of the designer as a mediator or enabler. This principle is further underlined by his rejection of patents and copyrights, which he saw as unnecessary impediments to the speedy delivery of ad hoc, low-tech design solutions to pressing problems. He preferred instead to distribute mimeographs of “measured drawings”5 of his ideas, accompanied by written descriptions of how to build them simply.

Design for the Real World includes hundreds of suggestions, or sketch-like briefs for what Papanek perceived as the types of products the so-called underprivileged and underserved really needed. The list, dizzying in its scope, ricochets from context to context, and at times is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ alternate taxonomy (taken from a fictitious ancient Chinese encyclopaedia entitled “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”6) which illustrates the arbitrariness and cultural contingency of any attempt to classify the world. Papanek’s list includes recommendations for: fever thermometers for blind people; simplified gas and electric meters; child-safe pillboxes; games for the elderly; interior living cubes for students; high-speed feet-elevating relaxation chairs; automatic face-up life jackets; the adaptation of existing station wagons into ambulances or of ferry boats into mobile clinics; hand-cranked, modular, vermin-proof produce coolers for “Third World countries;” typewriters for left-handed people; reassuring graphic instructions about abortion; and beginners’ flexible ski-bindings. Papanek used the medium of language as a means to write, or to will, these non-existent products into being, often suggesting their size, materials, and price range, but omitting any formal parameters.


Papanek’s Linguistic Flair and Rhetorical Techniques

The enduring relevance of Design for the Real World is due in no small part to its impassioned language, the means by which Papanek harangues us down the decades from his philosophical pulpit, with persuasive rhetoric, vivid imagery, and, at times, clarity and humour. There’s that first line, for starters—surely one of the best-known and attention-grabbing first lines of any book ever written about design—which uses the strategy of good timing and two-clause construction of a Jewish joke or an Oscar Wilde aphorism: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them.”7 Ba-ba-boom! But other zingers abound, he characterizes the Bauhaus as “a non-adaptive mutation in design,” advertising as the “snake-oil brigade from Madison Avenue,” and recent technological innovation as “the development of tawdry junk for the annual Christmas gift market.”8

The Viennese-born designer and author claimed to have learned multiple languages, during periods spent living within Navajo, Inuit, and Balinese communities, among others. He wielded English language with panache; often using vivid neologisms and catchphrases such as “Kleenex culture” to refer to post-war North America’s increasing reliance on disposable products, and “phylogenocide” to suggest the industrial design profession’s inevitable extinction unless it refocused on “optimal human survival needs.”9

A passage at the end of the preface to the first edition of the book encapsulates Papanek’s views and reveals his critical and rhetorical techniques:

In an environment that is screwed up visually, physically and chemically, the best and simplest thing that architects, industrial designers, planners etc. could do for humanity would be to stop working entirely. In all pollution designers are implicated at least partially. But in this book I take a more affirmative view: it seems to me that we can go beyond not working at all, and work positively. Design can and must become a way in which young people can participate in changing society.

As socially and morally involved designers, we must address ourselves to the needs of a world with its back to the wall, while the hands on the clock point perpetually to one minute before twelve.10

First, we should note the author’s deft use of the consonance of the words, such as “visually,” “physically,” and “chemically” to rhythmically reinforce his point that the world is already damaged. He grandly invokes “humanity,” here, and throughout the book, as if he were its spokesman, and then takes his own critique to its ultimate logical conclusion by pronouncing that “the best and simplest” remedy for industrial design’s many crimes would be if designers stopped working entirely. Then, quickly pivoting on the conjunction “But,” Papanek offers himself, and his book, as the guide to a way out of this paralyzing impasse. And the exit strategy is not just a quiet little side door. Within a line or two Papanek is back on his soap box with the bombastic thrust of the modal verbs “can” and “must.” He also deploys a grammatical syntax shift, from third-person neutral in the first part, when designers are characterized as other people being castigated, to first person in the middle section, where Papanek introduces himself and his alternative route, and finally to the first-person plural in the last part, where he positions himself alongside, or as the leader of, “socially and morally involved” designers. He leaves us with some dramatic imagery: he anthropomorphizes the planet that needs saving by giving it a body: “a world with its back to the wall,” and then to underline the urgency of the situation, directs our attention to the clock on the wall, suggesting that, metaphorically, we have only one minute left to fix things.

Papanek deployed many techniques to help convey his critical argument, including drawings, diagrams, images, flowcharts, and mind maps. He also used the satirical strategy of exaggerating a current situation to elicit both laughter and moral indignation. There are his many catalogues of ridiculous sounding products such as “electric hair brushes, rhinestone-covered file boxes and mink carpeting for bathrooms.”11 In 1970, as a way to “show how the combination of irresponsible design, male chauvinism, and sexual exploitation might be highly destructive,” he contributed a satirical proposition to The Futurist, which detailed the parameters required to manufacture a plastic woman—“animated, thermally heated, response-programmed units, retailing at around $400 in a vast choice of hair colours, skin shadings, and racial types.” It also suggested “various improvements on nature, offered by a Special Products Division that would fill orders for say, a 19-foot tall lizard skin-covered woman equipped with twelve breasts, three heads, and programmed to be aggressive.”12

Satire’s potential to destabilize, disrupt social norms, and divert habitual thinking, is dependent on techniques to mentally prepare the reader to be receptive to the proposed socio-political reforms. Once the reader has been shocked into attention by the audacity of the proposal, convinced by the abundance of specific detail, and then seduced by the use of humour, as well as by the satisfying feeling that one is “in on the joke,” she is then in an ideal state of mind to entertain new ideas and even to be ready to help enact change.


Contemporaneous Responses to Design for the Real World

Design for the Real World’s core readership of designers in the early 1970s may have appreciated its satire, but they didn’t much like its message, and Papanek was often scorned as a fanatic and idealist. A Design magazine review summarized his suggestions as “idiosyncratic pipedreams,” while a review of 1972 in the New York Times characterized Papanek’s condemnation of his colleagues as “Loyola-like” and “as unjust as his remedies are naive.” The review pointed to the fact that although he claimed the cultural position of a “new generalist,” he continued to act and write as a specialized professional designer, and to posit well-intentioned design and architecture as a solution to social problems, invoking the expression “the doctrine of salvation by bricks” (which urban critic Jane Jacobs had borrowed from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr).13

The Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) reacted particularly severely, perhaps in response to his scathing dismissal of their book Design in America, as a “collection of elitist trivia for the home and anti-human devices for the working environment.”14 They asked Papanek to resign his membership of the association and also promised to boycott a planned exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, were his work to be included to represent American industrial design (although in 1999, the IDSA posthumously honoured Papanek with its Personal Recognition Award for his 35-year contribution to the design profession). In the 1960s, there was precious little criticism of design, due in part to the fact that the IDSA prohibited its member designers from commenting on one another’s work. In his talk at the 1964 International Design Conference in Aspen, Dexter Masters, the founding editor of Consumer Reports, voiced his disappointment in the lack of designers willing to write critically in his magazine, due to pressures from the IDSA.15 A meeting was convened at the same conference

to discuss the lack of critical scrutiny of the industrial design profession; and its participants, including the British design critic and historian Reyner Banham and the American journalist Ralph Caplan (a former editor of Industrial Design, 1958–63), prepared a special document concerning the “failures of criticism.” The document, published in the August issue of Industrial Design, outlined four resolutions intended to improve the situation. They called on design organizations, designers, manufacturers, and the media to take more responsibility for the encouragement of design criticism and to relax their “restrictive rules which subject the public good to a narrow concept of loyalty to the profession by prohibiting designers from commenting on one another’s work.”16

Defensive responses from within the design community took issue with Design for the Real World, perhaps because Papanek was himself a designer and therefore his comments were perceived as traitorous. His critiques which were aimed at the profession’s basic tenets, practices, and remunerations, such as income-securing patents, “corporate expense accounts, company-paid country club membership, deferred annuities, retirement benefits,dread-disease coverage, and a yearly revitalising visit to one of the stamping grounds of the corporation gauleiters in New England or Aspen, Colorado.”17

It is also likely that they found it hard to see past the downright ugliness of many of Papanek’s solutions. His and George Seeger’s paraffin-wax-and cow-dung-powered radio receiver, for example, housed in an old tin can, with its unruly halo of hand-woven copper radial antenna, its trailing ear-plug speaker and earth wire, terminating in a used nail, became symbolic of his ad hoc, open-source, student-designed, repairable, low-cost, cottage-industry approach to design. Aesthetic worlds away from the sleek casing and hidden mechanisms of a Braun or Westinghouse appliance; for example, the radio, which earned Papanek the epithet “garbage can designer,” flew in the face of sacrosanct notions of good design and good taste, and stripped away the pretences of the value system that industrial designers had spent several decades nurturing in order to confer specialist status on their profession.

But his book was also part of a growing number of similarly reform-minded titles from beyond the professional pale, the public statuses of which were harder to dismiss. These voices included: biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring, published in 1962 and serialized in The New Yorker, focused public attention on the polluting effects of synthetic pesticides, and led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides; journalist and politician Ralph Nader, whose investigations of deficiencies in American automobile design included the 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile; journalist Vance Packard, who levelled critiques at the advertising industry in The Hidden Persuaders, 1957, and at American manufacturers for their adoption of planned obsolescence as a business model, and at consumers for their excessive consumption in The Waste Makers: A Startling Revelation of Planned Wastefulness in Industry Today, 1960; the architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, whose writings about the wasteful practice of industrial design were collected in No More Secondhand God and Other Writings, published in 1963. Such titles, which exposed the social, psychological, and physical dangers of planned obsolescence and a post-war disposable product design culture, can be seen as the coalescence of what Banham termed “a stern, serious, and humane tradition of product criticism.”18 In the preface to the 1985 edition of Design for the Real World, Papanek pointed in particular to what he perceived to be “an important communality” between his book and the futurist Alvin Toffler’s discussion of the condition of continuous change in Future Shock, 1970, and the economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s advocacy of the principle of “enoughness,” which grew out of his study of village-based economics in the 1973 book Small is Beautiful.19


The Role Design Education Played in Papanek’s Criticism

One of the commonalities between Schumacher, Toffler, and Papanek’s books was a focus on the role of education as a resource and the potential locus for social change. Papanek, a passionate design-educator, dedicated Design for the Real World to his students—“for what they have taught me”—and their work provides much of the book’s content.20 He worked at numerous institutions and gave lectures and workshops at many more both in the United States and in Europe. He earned no formal degrees, preferring instead to carve out an idiosyncratically self-curated educational trajectory, in which he studied Design at Cooper Union School of Art in New York, spent time with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin, and took courses at adult education colleges in topics ranging from experimental psychology and anthropometry to cultural morphology. His unorthodox approach to his own education continued in his teaching, where he radically redesigned programmes to avoid the use of grading, to enable him to welcome students from all backgrounds to take part in graduate design studies, and to override the restraints of semester structures. During the period in which he was preparing Design for the Real World he was a professor at Purdue University in Indiana, a college better known for its focus on engineering and agricultural sciences, but where

between 1964 and 1970 he ran a department of Industrial and Environmental Design offering a graduate seminar in Bionics. It was here that he developed his philosophy of “design for the needs of man,” establishing seven main areas “for creative attack” in which one can recognize the content, ambition, scope, and even the structure of Design for the Real World:

Design for Backward and Underdeveloped Areas of the World; Design for Poverty Areas such as Northern Big City Ghettoes and Slums, White Southern Appalachia, Indian Reservations in the Southwest and Migratory Farm Workers; Design for Medicine, Surgery, Dentistry,Psychiatry, and Hospitals; Design for Scientific Research and Biological Work; Design of Teaching, Training and Exercising Devices for the Disabled, Retarded, the Handicapped and the Subnormal, the Disadvantaged; Design for Non-Terrain and Deep Space Environments, Design for Sub-Oceanic Environments; Design for ‘Breakthrough’ through new concepts.21

A 1966 article in the magazine Product Engineering, about his teaching, discussed how he forced the mostly Midwest small-town raised students to “think like citizens of the world” starting out with an assignment to design an escargot set.22

In 1970, he began to teach at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and became dean of design there in 1972. Papanek perceived the missteps of the profession to be both reflected and engendered by design education. In Design for the Real World, he notes, “By studying the curricula of fifty-eight schools that teach design, I find that courses in psychology and the social sciences are nearly always absent. When they do exist, they operate under the nomenclature of Consumer Preferences 207, The Psychology of the Market Place, and Buying Behaviour of Consumer Groups.”23

Writing in the CalArts publication Arts & Society, he opined that,

Design education today blends a study of forced obsolescence with a study of aesthetics, labels the idiot progeny of the miscegenation “Good Taste” and leaves it at that. […] The main trouble with design schools seems to be that they teach too much design and not enough about the social and political environment in which design takes place.24

A valuable function of Design for the Real World, and part of Papanek’s effort to transform design education from its specialist focus to an appreciation of synthesis, was to provide a multidisciplinary reading list for those students he would not be teaching personally. The first edition of the book contained nearly 500 titles in its “startlingly long” bibliography, addressing topics that ranged from ecology, ethology to anthropology, literature and politics.25 He would go on to co-author several books with one of his CalArts graduate students, James Hennessey.

Papanek built his critical stance, then, through a combination of writing and teaching, but also through consulting for corporations and agencies such as UNESCO, which enabled him to travel extensively, continue his interactions with different cultures, and realize many of the prototypes he had developed with students. “All design is education,” he wrote in Design

for the Real World, “the designer attempts to educate his manufacturer-client and the people at the marketplace.”26

He posited that the choice available to an emerging designer was not just between corporate charcoal grey, buttoned-down security, on one hand, and a giggling freak-out, high on LSD in a Haight-Ashbury gutter, on the other. There is a third way. The Office of Economic Opportunity, the Southern Appalachian Project, the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, UNESCO, UNICEF, as well as many other organizations (of various political colours) in hundreds of areas concerned with optimal human survival needs: these are just a few directions in which designers should and must move.27


Design for the Real World and its Legacy

Globalization, the rise of information technologies, and the alarmingly widespread and imminent effects of climate change have only intensified the challenges that Papanek outlined in 1971. French social scientist Bruno Latour’s succinctly summarizes the quandary facing the design profession with the provocation “Between modernizing and ecologizing, we have to choose.”28

Today, many designers and design schools are sensitive to the limited power of products alone to address complex humanitarian crises, and have begun to shift their attention to designing systems, tools, and methods that support social change. Papanek’s belief in a more generalist education for designers and the need for engagement with community organizations, NGOs, foundations, corporations, and governments, specialists in many other disciplines, and participant designers, finds even greater relevance in the context of the twenty-first century’s increasingly wicked problems. And so, Papanek’s legacy lives on to this day in the transdisciplinary approaches to systemic change.

But what of today’s critics? What have we learned from Papanek’s preaching? It’s hard to name a critic operating today with the breadth of knowledge, vision, energy, and the brand of chutzpah, conviction, and self-reliance necessary to take on employers, colleagues, teachers, friends, and all the sacred cows of the design profession in anything close to the way that Papanek did when he wrote Design for the Real World. But one thing we can do is to reread his book and heed the advice he gives when introducing the bibliography: “Out of all the battles you have with the author, the enlightenments and insights his book gives you, the mistakes and confusions you will discover in his work, there will grow a new entity …”29

We have spent a great deal of time in the past two decades focused on the form of our critical apparatus—decrying the calamity of the collapse of the publishing industry and debating the dubious legitimacy of online and social media as a means for dissemination of our critical viewpoints. If Papanek were able to offer us his advice today, it is likely he would remind us that it doesn’t really matter what format our criticism is in; it can be as ungainly and distributed as an old tin can with wires sticking out of it. What matters is what the radio inside is actually saying.

1 Victor J. Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, with an introduction by R. Buckminster Fuller. New York Pantheon Books, 1971. 2 Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. St Albans: Paladin, 1974, p. 100. 3 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1971, p. 13. 4 Christopher Hawthorne, “Rereading Victor Papanek’s ‘Design for the Real World,’” Metropolis, 1 November 2012,, accessed 30 April 2018. 5 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1974, p. 11. 6 Jorge Luis Borges, “John Wilkins’ Analytical Language,” trans. Eliot Weinberger, in Weinberger (ed.), Selected Nonfictions of John Wilkins. London: Penguin Books, 1999. 7 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1971, p. 9. 8 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1974, p. 35; Ibid., p. 93; Ibid., p. 105. 9 Ibid., p. 77; Ibid., p. 32; Ibid., p. 40. 10 Ibid., p. 13. 11 Papanek, “Preface,” Design for the Real World, 1971, p. 9. 12 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1974, p. 89. 13 Clive Entwistle, “A 9-Cent Radio and Guerrilla Architecture,” New York Times, 6 February 1972,, accessed, May 1, 2018. 14 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1974, p. 92. 15 Dexter Masters, “Quick and Cheesy, Cheap and Dirty,” in Reyner Banham (ed.), The Aspen Papers. New York: Praeger, 1964, p. 141. 16 Reyner Banham and Ralph Caplan, “The Aspen Papers,” Industrial Design, August 1964, pp. 58–61. 17 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1974, p. 39. 18 Reyner Banham (ed.), The Aspen Papers. New York: Praeger, 1964, p. 137. 19 Victor Papanek, “Preface,” Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, third edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 1985, p. Xvi. 20 Dedication in all editions of Design for the Real World. 21 Victor Papanek, “Biographical Data,” p. 3, CalArts Design School Archives,, accessed 1 May 2018. 22 Lou Gomolak, “Controversial Design Teacher Seeks to Stir the Imagination”, Product Engineering, June 20, 1966. 23 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1974, p. 100. 24 Victor Papanek, Arts in Society: California Institute of the Arts: Prologue to a Community, vol. 7, no. 3, Fall–Winter, 1970. 25 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1971, p. 311–339. 26 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1974, p. 88. 27 Ibid., p. 39. 28 Bruno Latour, An Enquiry into Modes of Existence. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013, p. 8. 29 Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1974, p. 292.  

Tin Can Radio prototype, designed by Victor Papanek and George Seeger, 1962.