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Design for the Real World

Human Ecology and Social Change

By Victor Papanek
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek

Design for the Real Word takes an uncompromising look at the social and ecological repercussions of industrial design in the United States. In order to combat this destructive trend, author Victor Papanek offers fundamental insights into socially, morally and environmentally responsible design, as well as ideas for achieving those goals.

Key idea 1 of 11

More than beauty: design produces functional tools and objects for human society.

What do you imagine when you hear the word “design?” High fashion and fancy chairs?

Certainly, today’s understanding of “design” is mostly associated with the design of products – e.g., the sleek casing of the iPod – and is often considered to be the art of making things look beautiful.

In fact, there are many examples where product design focuses only on appealing to our senses, i.e., look, touch, smell, sound and taste. One particularly exaggerated example of this is the disc player that produces an aromatic scent whenever the disc plays. Consumers then have the option of choosing between “romantic” or “natural” aromas.

Although this design feature is entirely cosmetic and an unimportant improvement to standard players’ function, it would not be unusual for products like these to be referred to as “good design.”

However, good design encompasses far more than just aesthetics. Good design is about creating functional tools, products and systems.

In addition to aesthetics, functional design considers the methods employed by the designer, the intended use of the product, the human needs the product aims to meet, the associations the design creates with friends and family, and its relationship to nature and society as a whole.

In order for a design to be considered “fully functional,” it must fulfill all these elements.

Consider, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s mural, The Last Supper. The painting is clearly beautiful, and thus satisfies an aesthetic function. But it does much more than this! For example: its immediate use is to cover an otherwise bland or ugly wall; contemplating the painting serves our need for spiritual enlightenment; and it creates clear associations with the Bible, thus helping people to identify with the design.

A successful designer, such as da Vinci, needs to balance these varying demands when designing her product. This is especially important as design can have far-reaching, unintended effects, as we’ll see in the next blink.

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