Designer Profile 1 – Victor Papanek

By Lorrin Windahl.

So I thought I’d include in this blog some profiles of people who have had a significant impact on socially responsible design. Who better to start with than the godfather of SRD, Victor Papanek.

Papanek (1923-1998) was a revolutionary of his time. In my opinion he was really the first designer to realise that the design community was heading down a path of wants and desires and not addressing basic human needs. Furthermore he valued the environment as a precious resource and noted that designers were specifying materials and processes that were destroying it. It sounds like a story from today doesn’t it? But surprisingly, and maybe somewhat depressingly, this was in the 1970s.

After releasing his first book Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, (an essential read for anyone interested in SRD) he was at first loathed by many of his peers and banished from the design community. Why such a response from other designers you might ask. Well, Papanek’s book was a harsh critique of designers and the contemporary design community of that time. He famously wrote at the start of the book:

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.”

And then went on to write:

“… by creating whole species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed.”design-for-real-world-human-ecology-social-change-victor-papanek-paperback-cover-art

Notably, even with the backlash, the book was a roaring success. It was translated into 23 languages and remains on the recommended reading lists of many design schools around the world.

Papanek believed that designers were only addressing wants and desires and as a result had overlooked the genuine needs of humanity.  But he was not just a man of talk; he followed up his critiques with action.

He became widely recognised and valued as a socially responsible designer and worked with organisations such as UNESCO and WHO. He became the voice of the impoverished, disabled, elderly and many other underserved groups. In his career he taught at a wide range of universities predominately in the US but also in Europe. He also travelled the world speaking about and creating awareness for socially responsible design. He went on to publish several more books and articles on the topic.

Papanek was a man before his time. He was a visionary, designer, teacher and promoter for socially responsible design.  His work is still very relevant today as we continue to grapple with the line between want & need and sustainability & mass consumption. Hopefully Papanek is not turning in his grave…


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