Calls for Industrial Design Reform Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Victor J. Papanek’s Design for the Real World decried the waste and ecological disaster flowing from what he perceived as the socially delinquent values of industrial designers. He argued for human-centered design instead of design focused on the whims of tastemakers and the economy.

Summary of Event

Victor J. Papanek began his career as a well-trained product designer but left industry for academia in 1954. During his early years, he had been exposed to the finest design instruction available in the United States, at New York’s Cooper Union as well as at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition, he had studied with genuine masters, including Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the modern world’s seminal architects and designers, and French-born Raymond Fernand Loewy, for years a regnant figure in American product design. Design for the Real World (Papanek) Industrial design Environmentalism [kw]Design for the Real World Calls for Industrial Design Reform (1970) [kw]Industrial Design Reform, Design for the Real World Calls for (1970) Design for the Real World (Papanek) Industrial design Environmentalism [g]Europe;1970: Design for the Real World Calls for Industrial Design Reform[10640] [g]Sweden;1970: Design for the Real World Calls for Industrial Design Reform[10640] [c]Fashion and design;1970: Design for the Real World Calls for Industrial Design Reform[10640] [c]Manufacturing and industry;1970: Design for the Real World Calls for Industrial Design Reform[10640] [c]Environmental issues;1970: Design for the Real World Calls for Industrial Design Reform[10640] Papanek, Victor J. Fuller, R. Buckminster Wright, Frank Lloyd Loewy, Raymond Fernand

As Papanek’s career ripened, he gained considerable experience in countries and cultures in which design societies had originated, among them Sweden, his native Austria, Germany, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Finland. He therefore was sensitive to his profession’s historical foundations, its principles, and its evolved responsibilities.

Papanek’s major popular work, Miljön och Miljonerna (1970; Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, 1971), initially appeared in a Swedish edition while its author was chairman and professor of the environmental and industrial design department of Purdue University. Publication of the book’s first U.S. edition in 1971 coincided with his becoming dean of the school of design at California Institute of the Arts. Papanek’s indictment of the arrogant trivialities, sycophancy, and social irresponsibility of industrial designers, of their educators, of their Western corporate employers, and of their middle-class customers therefore was lent credence by his familiarity with the sources and objects of his revelations.

Provocative and occasionally strident, Papanek’s Design for the Real World, while drawing its examples from the follies and lethal failings of industrial designers, more broadly and impressionistically critiques cultures with distorted capitalist values. It was these values, Papanek believed, that promised the certain extinction of his own profession. Far more tragically, these values had murderous consequences within the Western world and threatened to produce further worldwide genocidal horrors and attendant miseries, which by the 1960’s were already visibly affecting billions of people.

Papanek organized these generic observations more substantively around three major propositions. First, most products of industrial design, in his view, chiefly reflected nothing more than the fantasies and social blindness of bourgeois cultures. Design therefore almost exclusively pandered to the tastes—rather than genuine needs—of relatively affluent, middle-class, middle-aged people whose lives were spent in Western postindustrial societies. Papanek considered this pandering an explanation for the seduction and bamboozlement of large numbers of poorer people into purchasing shoddy or soon-to-be-obsolete products at exorbitant prices.

The cultivation and propitiation of bourgeois consumers, worse yet, led to the neglect of vast areas of human needs even within developed economies. With their energies channeled toward a middle-class clientele, designers(and those who employed them) thus notoriously ignored development of products that might have alleviated the plights of the physically disabled, mentally disabled children and babies, left-handed persons, the obese, the elderly, or the poor. On a larger scale, the vast and swelling populations of developing countries were almost entirely excluded from consideration, the mitigation of their circumstances and needs almost entirely ignored.

Second, Papanek stressed the necessity of bringing multidisciplinary talents and insights to bear on industrial design. Isolated from all but the nearsighted ambitions and objectives of their corporate masters, designers tended to function inthe barren cloisters of their own overspecialization. Accordingly, they were ignorant of the requirements of production and how design choices would affect manufacturing of the products they designed. They were similarly ignorant of the prevailing cultural conditions and the capacities and needs of their designs’ final users. Papanek thought it essential that designers be trained as generalists, that they work as teams in interdisciplinary environments, and that their designs emanate from products’ prospective users.

Papanek’s third theme enlarged on implications in the first two. Basically, it decried the fantasy worlds that enveloped postindustrial nations’ product design to the exclusion of the stark necessities of the grossly underresourced, fearful, and miserable “real” world—that is, the underdeveloped countries known collectively as the Third World. Papanek’s examples of follies, inefficiencies, and waste attributable to Western nations’ addiction to fantasies—and the profits flowing from them—were abundant. He cited hundreds of millions of lives and trillions of dollars worth of scarce resources squandered in the designs dedicated to the twentieth century’s murderous wars and the attrition of raw materials through the planned obsolescence of mass-produced goods.

This “Kleenex culture,” as Papanek dubbed it, was characterized by the prodigalities and ecological disasters hatched by badly designed technology of the ludicrous Ford Edsel or supersonic transport variety. Less obvious were the design of high-priced pens that failed to write and had no refills; of life-sized, inflatable plastic “play girls” for men; of lethal toys for children; of diapers for pet parakeets; of luxury hotels on the ocean floor; of more than twenty thousand types of chairs, few of which were designed for human comfort; of safety helmets that were untested and provided little safety; of indoor “jogging” equipment; and of excessive packaging that grossly inflated product prices and led to pollution. Like his friend, architect and designer R. Buckminster Fuller, Papanek was outraged by the trivialization of life on a planet that he believed confronted imminent ecological destruction. In that regard, he spoke for many others.


Eliciting widespread, if mixed, media reviews, Design for the Real World served to swell the substantial chorus of discontent in postindustrial nations that marked much of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Papanek, both by his tenor and by his specifics, furnished to reformers additional evidence of failures of the establishment, whether the reformers’ focus was on “alternative” lifestyles of all kinds, saving the earth, outreach to the poor and other neglected populations, disassembling corporate capitalism, mitigating racial conflict, erasing vestiges of colonialism, bringing equal status to women, or ending the Vietnam War.

Although some of his examples had not been previously exploited, Papanek’s general perspectives, by 1970, had already entered into the public domain. Ralph Nader’s revelations about the automotive industry, contained in Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (1965), Unsafe at Any Speed (Nader) were more calmly reasoned and accurate than Papanek’s material. His book doubtless helped inform Papanek’s efforts. Similarly, Fuller, who wrote a rambling introduction to Design for the Real World, had long sounded the tocsin against ecological damage ensuing from the wastes and inefficiencies identified with American economic life. His campaign culminated with the compilation of the Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends, and Needs: The Design Initiative (1966), Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends, and Needs (Fuller) the first in a multivolume set. The title only lightly masked the book’s varied ecological warnings for what Fuller described elsewhere as “Spaceship Earth.”

Many other critical authors likewise had preceded Papanek in voicing their skepticism, concerns, or outrage concerning the deleterious effects of design on consumers, humanity, and the environment. Among them were Lewis Mumford (beginning in 1934); Vance Packard, who exposed the nation’s “hidden persuaders,” “status seekers,” and “wastemakers” in the 1950’s; Paul Ehrlich, who made dire predictions in Eco-Catastrophe (1969); and Russell Lynes, who denounced America’s “tastemakers” in 1954 and whose views were subsequently matched by those of James Alexander Campbell Brown’s Techniques of Persuasion: From Propaganda to Brainwashing (1963). Paul Goodman Goodman, Paul wrote on “growing up absurd” and “compulsory miseducation,” and Robert Lindner Lindner, Robert assaulted conformity and gave his prescription for rebellion during the early 1950’s.

If such works constituted some of the immediate context for the reception of Papanek’s book, Papanek nevertheless reached beyond them to embrace the themes of one of the most learned and trenchant of America’s critics, Thorstein Veblen Veblen, Thorstein . A masterful satirizer of nineteenth century capitalism’s institutional barbarities—and later the inspiring force behind development of an American (engineering) technocracy—Veblen had published his scathing indictment of capitalist mores and manners in The Theory of the Leisure Class Theory of the Leisure Class, The (Veblen) in 1899. In the process, he had coined phrases that had become part of American speech, such as “conspicuous consumption,” “conspicuous leisure,” “conspicuous waste,” “acquisitive instinct,” and “pecuniary emulation.” By the 1960’s, Veblen’s classic work—as well as a spate of studies on Veblen himself—enjoyed unprecedented popularity, providing an intellectual framework and pertinent caricatures for reindictment of American values. This, in turn, prepared the ground for readier acceptance of Papanek’s views as well as those of kindred reformers.

Papanek’s book certainly gained currency within his profession and was in vogue on campuses during the early 1970’s. Like Nader’s spectacularly successful exposé of the U.S. automotive industry, which was aimed at a general public audience, Papanek’s book also avoided narrow address solely to his profession and related industries. Design for the Real World (Papanek) Industrial design Environmentalism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frascara, Jorge, ed. Design and the Social Sciences: Making Connections. New York: Taylor & Francis/Contemporary Trends Institute, 2002. Explores the social and human aspects of the design world. Scholarly essays include “From User-centered to Participatory Design Approaches” and “People-centered Design: Complexities and Uncertainties.” Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuller, R. Buckminster, ed. Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends, and Needs: The Design Initiative. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966. Fuller, a friend of Papanek, raises in this first of a multivolume series many of the issues that concerned Papanek, but both more broadly and more substantively.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nader, Ralph. Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. 1965. Expanded ed. New York: Grossman, 1972. This classic exposé of the automotive industry and its relationships with government, carefully researched and reasoned, places Papanek’s work in proper perspective as a reformist piece. Nader not only produced better reformist research but also became the most persistent, articulate, visible, and successful consumer advocate in the United States. Illustrations, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. 1988. Paperback ed. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Considered a classic in its field, this study, written for general readers, examines the psychology of everyday, common objects and things. Argues for the critical importance of a human- and user-centered industrial design process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Like his earlier work, Norman’s Emotional Design discusses why things, and how they are designed, are not merely things but are central to human experience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Papanek, Victor. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. 1971. Rev. ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984. Worth reading if only as a “tract for its times.” Many photos and illustrations, several of interesting designs by Papanek and his students.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Design for Human Scale. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983. Meeting with better professional reception than his earlier work, this book deals less with what design had become and why than with how to design efficiently and humanely. Stress remains on user participation, ecological realities, cultural differences, and the scarcity of resources. Many illustrations and photos. Good index but a poor bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slade, Giles. Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. Argues that the capitalist economy by definition relies on the obsolescence of the things it manufactures (out with the old, in with the new), that consumers have come to rely on perpetual newness as a mark of reliability and convenience, and that the waste economy defines modern life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Macmillan, 1899. Still widely available, this classic continues to provide a major frame of reference for critics (such as Papanek) of the consequences of the inefficiencies and distorted values at work in American society. There are many recent paperback editions with impressive introductions. No notes, illustrations, or bibliography.

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Categories: History