Design for the Real World

I'm always hesitant to pick up a design book that's more than a decade old. Victor Papanek's Design for the Real World was published in the mid-80s, but it still sits comfortably on many must-read lists.


Yes, it's dated. Papanek has a lot of opinions on computers, media, and public transportation that seem quaint today, but looking past the span of years finds that not a lot has changed. We still push the wrong knob on the stove; buildings still collapse; car accidents are still prevalent; government forms are still confusing. For all the attention good design gets, a lot of basic problems haven't been properly addressed.


Papanek's main point can be boiled down to the idea of waste, of resources and energy being expended on frivolous gadgets, marketing ploys, and unsustainable products. And he saw this in the 1980s; imagine his horror now! Just look at Amazon, AliExpress, or any shop and look how much stuff exists (and was designed) that doesn't serve any purpose.


The idea of ethical design isn't a new one, but modern-day discourse usually focuses on the environmental impact, or the dangers of poor architectural planning. Papanek argues that designers should work on projects that do good in the world (why design another piece of plastic when you could solve a major problem?). He admits that in most cases, designers have to choose between meaningful work and paying work; his solution is investing 10% of professional time to social design projects.


I know this sounds like one of those idealistic views that ignores reality, but the book lays out some practical advice. Though the focus is primarily on material design, I'd recommend this book to UX designers and writers for the commentary on design responsibility, ideation, and teamwork.


The book's full of bad design examples, ranging from kitschy toasters to lethal walkways, and Papanek writes in a no-nonsense tone that sometimes smacks of arrogance. Still, he argues his points in a convincing manner and brings in discussions on some design areas that still haven't come to fruition, like bio-design and intercultural collaboration.


And it ends with a bibliography that, I kid you not, takes up about a fifth of the book. I got hold of a physical copy to use as a resource, and even though I finished it a few days ago I'm still thinking about it. If you're into any kind of design (engineering, product, UX, writing, etc.), give it a read.

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