Design for the real world – Papanek

‘Increasingly, many of us (especially the young) have come to reject the mere accumulation of material possessions. That this emotion is endangered largely by the fact that we live in a postindustrial society bursting with gadgets, knickknacks, and manufactured trivia is abundantly clear.’ (Papanek, page 40, 1984)

History will repeats itself is what’s been said often. The quote above could be applicable for the millennials. From what I see happening in design courses, emerging industries and movements I could say we are making some progress today. Between the ‘80s and today we have had a huge hang for possession, now we go into a world where sharing and experience are more important than owning. The difference is that we share so much of our personal lives on social media and we learn from each others’ stories. Could that mean that sharing what we own will become easier in the future as well?

Papenek describes situations where design lacks the vision for a sustainable future. We use too much of our planet and we design still for reasons that no one really understands. The production of products that people don’t need but only want because of the idea that the new thing is better. Or even worse, we design for people who needed something else than what we propose, and it doesn’t even fit their environment.

The cultural blocks and the descriptions of cultures being invaded with unfitting designs puts a smile on my face. I have seen this often while traveling in Nepal, Swaziland, South Africa and Vietnam. The words Papanek uses are spot on:

The design of any product unrelated to its sociological, psychological, or ecological surroundings is no longer possible or acceptable.”  (Papanek, page 188, 1984)

Next to imposing the idea of different cultures means different designs Papanek shows how different cultures also means different solutions. Problem solving works in a different way in every culture eskimos and the 9 dots, or drawing maps in Alaska. We should learn! I would like to explore and work with this knowledge one day.

The version I read is rewritten in 1984, it is 32 years later and the material is still relevant today. Papanek could be called the founder of Uber taxi’s on page 270: ‘The user should summon a mini taxi to his particular location with his radio (thus eliminating the biggest argument against public transport: a long walk in the rain and then a wait at the bus stop). The mini taxi could then take him to his specific location, again eliminating approximate destinations. Payment would be via credit card and billed monthly.’  If you ask me, Papanek is an idealist who understands how to read development.

This book shows that we are either not there yet or maybe that there are still many opportunities left for the new generation of designers to grab. We as designers have the responsibility to think about our actions in multiple layers before we make new stuff. We from the west could be blamed for the rubbish that is made in the past years. I don’t like to think in terms of blame and shame, I would like to propose that the way we have behaved shows us neatly how we can mold our world in different ways. Now it is time for a new way.