Visionaries of Regenerative Design V: Victor Papanek (1927–1998)

When Victor Papanek published Design for the Real World — Human Ecology and Social Change, in 1971, he was among the very first mainstream professional product/industrial designers and educators to voice questions concerning design’s social and ecological context since it had emerged as a new creative input to the conception, shaping, production, and marketing of consumer products for a mass market. Papanek saw human design as one expression of life’s interconnected patterning and interactions. To him, human culture was a particular expression of what Alfred North Whitehead called ‘life’s creative exploration of novelty.’

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’.]

“All men [read human beings ] are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the fact that design is the primary underlying matrix of life. Design is composing an epic poem, executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto. But design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple, choosing sides for a backlot baseball game, and educating a child” (Papanek, 1985, p.3).

In 1971 this was a radical definition of design, since the concept was only beginning to expand from a superficial beautyfication of form and print. Papanek’s definition of design is compatible with the definition used in this thesis: intentionality expressed through interaction and relationship (see the beginning of chapter one).

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Papanek called design “the conscious and intuitive effort to impose [adapt to] meaningful order” (Papanek, 1985, p.4). He emphasized: “Design must be meaningful” (Papanek, 1985, p.6); and tried to place the functionality of any given design within the wider social, ecological, and cultural context by representing the underlying complexity of interactions and relationships in a “function complex” (see Figure 3.1).

Fig. 3.1: Victor Papanek’s ‘Function Complex’

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(Reproduced from Papanek, 1985, p.7)

Papanek explains: “The Yin-Yang monad appears at each of the six aspects, indicating the soft- hard, feeling-thinking, intuitive-intellectual mix, which determines each of these six evaluative criteria” (Papanek, 1985, p.7). Papanek also addressed the important distinction between a design brief aiming to satisfy a true human need and a design brief that is mainly intent on increasing material consumption and economic growth — human greed or want:

“Much recent design has satisfied only evanescent wants and desires, while the genuine needs of man have often been neglected. The economic, psychological, spiritual, social, technological, and intellectual needs of a human being are usually more difficult and less profitable to satisfy than the carefully engineered and manipulated “wants” inculcated by fad and fashion” (Papanek, 1985, p.15).

Design for the Real World was also the first book to openly criticize the negative impact of some multi-national corporations and their design and marketing strategies on community cohesion and both human and environmental health. “The self-assertive greed of corporations has given us strips of quick-food restaurants in every town or sizable village in the United States.” Papanek suggested: “The societal and social consequences are clear: a destabilization of the family, new eating patterns that frequently result in obesity and dietary deficiencies, a debasement of the human palate forced to find the lowest common denominator, and finally a ready acceptance for horrendous garishness and visual pollution” (Papanek, 1985, p.25).

Papanek’s analysis identified, in 1971, how this kind of decontextualised design approach of modern fast-food corporations would significantly contribute to the serious public health endemic that bad diets and obesity have now become in many developed countries. He also described the ecological effects of the practices of the fast-food industry, calling it among “the worst chemical polluters in the world,” and highlighting that the waste streams produced by such inefficient design were profoundly “ecologically damaging” (Papanek, 1985, p.25).

Victor Papanek was also an early advocate for a new role for the industrial designer, as a transdisciplinary integrator and facilitator. He lamented: “the various sciences and technologies have become woefully compartmentalized and specialized;” and suggested: “often, more complex problems can be attacked only by teams of specialists, speaking their own professional jargon.” Papanek believed: “Industrial designers, who are frequently members of such teams, find that, besides fulfilling their normal design function, they must act as communication bridge between other team members” (Papanek, 1985, pp.28–29). He argued:

“Many times the designer may be the only one able to speak the various technical jargons; because of his educational background, the role of team interpreter is forced upon him. So we find the industrial designer becoming the team synthesist, a position to which he has been elevated by the default of people from other disciplines” (Papanek, 1985, p.29).

Papanek realized that design is not only at the nexus between different academic and professional disciplines, it is also — more importantly — at the nexus between values, needs and ethical choices. “The designer is in a position where difficult moral and ethical choices have to be made. And there are many different ways of dealing with this ethical dilemma” (Papanek, 1985, p.38). The introduction or at least the open addressing of ethical considerations in design theory is a very important contribution Papanek made to the emerging natural design movement.

“The cancerous growth of the creative individual expressing himself egocentrically at the expense of spectators and/or consumer has spread from the arts, overrun most of the crafts, and finally reached into design. No longer does the artist, craftsman, or in some cases the designer operate with the good of the consumer in mind; rather, many creative statements have become highly individualistic, autotherapeutic little comments by the artist to himself” (Papanek, 1985, p.40).

This is Papanek’s scathing critique of the cult of the creative individual and individualistic expression in art and design. Since then the cancer has spread further. It currently paralyses the so urgently needed unfolding of design’s enormous potential as humanity’s co-creative expression of life’s continued exploration of novelty. Co-creation celebrates and preserves life’s own vitality — its diversity of individual expression, interaction and relationships. It does so through integration, reciprocity, and community, not through segregation, exploitation, and individualism.

“The designer bears a responsibility for the way the products he designs are received at the marketplace,” but more than that “his social and moral judgment must be brought into play before he begins to design, since he has to make a judgment, and a priori judgment at that, as to whether the products he is asked to design or redesign merit his attention at all. In other words, will his design be on the side of the social good or not” (Papanek, 1985, p.55). To Papanek the social and ecological ‘good’ were not separate but co-dependent. He admitted:

“While the reasons for our poisoned air and polluted streams and lakes are fairly complex, industrial designers and industry in general are certainly coresponsible with others for this appalling state of affairs. … The designer-planner shares responsibility for nearly all of our products and tools and hence nearly all our environmental mistakes. He is responsible either through bad design or by default: by having thrown away his responsible creative abilities, by “not getting involved,” or by “muddling through”” (Papanek, 1985, 56).

Papanek repeatedly emphasized that “the designer must be conscious of his social and moral responsibility.” He argued: “design is the most powerful tool yet given man with which to shape his products, his environments, and, by extension, himself.” Papanek warned: “The designer must analyse the past as well as the foreseeable future consequences of his acts” (Papanek, 1985,p.102).

With regard to the task of awareness raising within industry and among consumers, Papanek believed: “All design is education of sorts” (Papanek, 1985, p.103. He also highlighted the need for socially inclusive design that considered real needs — not of abstracted and standardized model consumers, but of the elderly, the handicapped, and real communities.

Furthermore, he stressed that design had the potential of playing a crucial role in closing the gaping inequality between developed and many developing nations. Papanek’s approach to design recognized the importance of social cohesion, social inclusiveness, and social, as well as, international equality as a prerequisite for a more sustainable world. The natural design movement operates on the same basic convictions. Papanek also expressed the other central theme of the natural design movement through his belief that in order to learn how to participate appropriately in natural process, we best look toward the natural world for inspiration and appropriate design analogues:

“One source that never seems to go out of style is the handbook of nature. Here, through biological and biochemical systems, many of the same problems mankind faces have been met and solved. Through analogues to nature, man’s problems can be solved optimally. … Bionics means the use of biological prototypes for the design of man-made systems. To put it more simply: to study basic principles in nature and then apply these principles and processes to the needs of mankind” (Papanek, 1985, p.186).

Much of the remainder of this chapter and a good part of this thesis will explore the concept of nature as a teacher, or natural diversity and processes as a source for inspiration in the creation of ecologically adapted, salutogenic, natural design. The natural design movement — the emergent nature-inspired, nature-adapted, and socially and ecologically salutogenic design approach of the 21st century explored in this thesis — is united by the intention to participate appropriately and therefore sustainably in natural process. In order to do so effectively in the long term, we have to teach designers how to learn from nature and integrate design solutions harmlessly into natural process.

“A more durable kind of design thinking entails seeing the product (or tool, or transportation device, or building, or city) as a meaningful link between man [read humans] and environment. We must see man, his tools, environment, and ways of thinking and planning, as a nonlinear, simultaneous, integrated, comprehensive whole. This approach is integrated design. It deals with specialized extensions of man that make it possible for him to remain a generalist. All man’s functions — breathing, balancing, walking, perceiving, consuming, symbol-making, society-generating — are interrelated and interdependent. If we wish to relate the human environment to the psychophysical wholeness of human beings, our goal will be to replan and redesign both function and structure of all the tools, products, shelters, and settlements of man into an integrated living environment, an environment capable of growth, change, mutation, adaptation, regeneration …” (Papanek, 1985, pp.293–294).

Papanek emphasized: “If we speak of integrated design, of design-as-a-whole, of unity, we need designers able to deal with the design process comprehensively. Lamentably, designers so equipped are not yet turned out by any school.” He adds: “Their education would need to be less specialized and include many disciplines now considered to be only distantly related to design, if related at all.” Papanek stresses: “Integrated design (a general unified design system) demands that we establish at what level of complexity the problem belongs” (Papanek, 1985, p.295). According to him, such an integrated approach had to consider the historical, social, cultural, human, societal and ecological context of the design in question.

“Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical in the truest sense. It must dedicate itself to nature’s principle of least effort, in other words, maximum diversity with minimum inventory … or doing the most with the least. This means consuming less, using things longer, and being frugal about recycling materials. The insights, the broad, nonspecialized, interactive overview of a team … that designers can bring to the world must now be combined with a sense of social responsibility. In many areas designers must learn how to redesign. In this way we may yet have survival through design” (Papanek, 1985, pp.346–347)

The notion of ‘survival through design’ may sound crass, but at a time in the Earth’s history where the human impact on the planet is undeniably beginning to up-set the dynamics of climate patterns, species extinctions, ecosystem’s health, atmospheric composition, genetic recombination, and soil fertility, it is reasonable to consider design aimed at appropriate participation in natural process as design for survival. The inappropriate and unsustainable design practices which have proliferated since the Industrial Revolution are now threatening the health of the planetary life-support system.

In The Green Imperative — Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture, Victor Papanek described a designer as “a human being attempting to walk the narrow bridge between order and chaos, freedom and nihilism, between past achievements and future possibilities” (Papanek, 1995, p.7). As a meaning making and consciously co-creative species, Homo sapiens designans — humans as wise designators and interpreters of meaning — we will have to cross this narrow bridge collectively in the 21st century.
Papanek’s last book, The Green Imperative, picks up many of the themes introduced in

Design for the Real World. It highlights the ethical responsibility of designers to act as educators who “help to guide the intervention of design with nature and mankind”(Papanek, 1995, p.11). At the same time, he proposes a more humble attitude for designers, one that acknowledges the limits of what is humanly knowable in a fundamentally interconnected and unpredictable universe. He suggests this new humility “may be the cardinal point where design practice meets spirituality”(Papanek, 1995, p.12).

In recognition of the ecological limits of our planetary home and our dependence on its life-support systems such humility would naturally lead towards a more respectful engagement with Nature as the sacred ground of our being. A more frugal and careful use of resources and a general intent of appropriate participation in natural process would be characteristic of a more humble attitude to design. Papanek suggested:

“Perhaps there should be no special category called ‘sustainable design’. It might be simpler to assume that all designers will try to reshape their values and their work, so that all design is based on humility, combines objective aspects of climate and the ecological use of materials with subjective intuitive processes, and relies on cultural and bioregional factors for its forms” (Papanek, 1995, p.12).

“Ecology and the environmental equilibrium are the basic underpinnings of all human life on earth; there can be neither life nor human culture without it. Design is concerned with the development of products, tools, machines, artefacts and other devices, and this activity has profound and direct influence on ecology. The design response must be positive and unifying. Design must be the bridge between human needs, culture and ecology” (Papanek, 1995, p.29).

“…mindfulness, springing from deep roots of aesthetic experience and spiritual awareness, will enrich the work of design, and — by recognizing the proper place of what we do in terms of the ever-present now as well as the lasting — [mindfulness will] help to ensure a future of fleeting episodes that will form a rich web of permanence through continuity” (Papanek, 1995, p.246).

Victor Papanek was clearly an influential contributor to the emerging natural design movement. In The Green Imparative he discussed many important aspects of a more holistically integrated, and ecologically and socially responsible approach to design. He reopens the discussion on ethical responsibility and heralds the emergence of a new aesthetics grounded in ecological, ethical, cultural, social, and spiritual considerations. Many of the practical details and strategies he addresses will be explored in the following chapters of this thesis.

Before his death in 1998, Papanek predicted what design may, or should be like in the 21st century. The [Table] below summarizes Papanek’s predictions of how the adoption of a more ecological worldview and consciousness will transform design.

[Table]: Victor Papanek’s Vision of Ecologically Conscious Design in the 21st Century (Reproduced from Papanek, 1995, p.48)

  1. There will be a greater emphasis on quality, permanence and craftsmanship in design products, as people and designers come to understand that obsolescence or bad workmanship waste natural resources that can’t be replaced, and contribute to shortages on a global scale. the style of the future will be based on products that age gracefully, and will be more timeless than the quickly changing fads, trends and fashions of the late 20th century.

He proposed that while there will be some need for “designers who are specialists in ecological design”, yet more importantly: “all design education must be based on ecological methods and ideas.” Papanek predicted that designers will need a basic understanding of the scientific methodologies of a diverse range of biological, physical, and social sciences. “Social and human ecology and philosophy and ethics will form an integral part of this training (Papanek, 1995, p.48).” According to Papanek such a trans-disciplinary education is necessary in order to equip the designers of the future to create a more sustainable human civilisation.

“The future of design is bound up with the key role of synthesis between the various disciplines that make up the socio-economic-political matrix within which design operates. … an ecological worldview could change design” (Papanek, 1995, p.48).

[To continue reading other parts of this doctoral thesis, take a look at the chapter on ‘The Natural Design Movement’, from ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’ by Daniel Christian Wahl 2006. … For my more recent writing see Designing Regenerative Cultures, 2016]

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

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