The not-so-magic system of Industrial Design : Summary and reflections on ‘Design for the Real World’ by Victor Papenek


Victor Papenek
Victor J. Papenek (1927-1998)

‘Design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments and, by extension, society and himself.’  – Victor Papenek

If we accept this presentiment, we must implicate design in the genesis of ecological destruction, and devise an honest and sustainable blueprint for well-being. Design for the Real World is Papenek’s polemic treatise, which was seminal in the confluence of liberal, social and design thought in awakening the designer’s conscience towards humanity and the environment. Albeit penned in the early 70’s, Papenek’s acute sensitivity to the increasing complexity of change and correspondingly to the contextual obstacles of his generation, allowed him to trace and portent our harmful decisions. Today, these problems have been compounded rather than nullified, rendering his contemplations relevant.

Design for the Real World traces Industrial Design’s gloomy depression-era beginnings, and calls for its ‘phylogenocide’ in favour of responsible design guide-lined on Papenek’s own ‘function complex’ (see bibliography) and an interdisciplinary design education. In the early 20th century new inventions had to be designed and manufactured giving rise to a new breed of Industrial Designers who clarified the idea, form, materials, functions and assembly process of products. The roaring twenties popularised advertising and the ‘mallification’ of America, adding marketing to the designer’s toolkit. At this juncture designers were confronted with a choice to design-for-use or design-for-sales, and Papenek critiques pioneers for concocting ‘tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers’ and then putting ‘murder on a mass-production basis’. The depression exacerbated these issues to unprecedented scales.

Coca-Cola ad from 1921
Coca-Cola ad from 1921
Ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, 1926
Ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, 1926

To simulate demand during the 30’s, competing manufacturing firms needed new sales gimmicks so they hired designers to differentiate their products. Deplorably this ’miscegenative union of technology and artificially accelerated consumer whims gave birth to the dark twins of styling and obsolescence’. It is ironic then, that Henry Dreyfus said Industrial Design began by ‘eliminating excess decoration’, when over the next few decades it was primarily concerned with manipulating visual excitement through aesthetics. Artificial obsolescence, the practice of designing and selling sub-par and predictable life-spanned products which firms adapted into an ulterior economic agenda, was a scheme devised by the economist Bernard London in 1932. It got customers to purchase new products at regular intervals as replacements for old ‘unwanted’ ones. The ‘before-after’ of mimeographs, locomotives, refrigerators and furniture transformed by designers were impressive in sales figures, yet today it is unclear which machine stands victor in the test of time vis-à-vis sustainability. ‘Kleenex culture’, as Papenek illustrates, has been our major commitment ever since, and it leads us into thinking marriage is also replaceable, and on a global scale people, countries and entire sub-continents are throw-away items’.

The second world war forced a new sense of responsibility on Industrial Designers. For the first time they encountered the tangible requirements of performance and proficiency in the function complex, imposed by combat decisions. Limited resources and time sprouted innovation through a keener realisation of materials. A washable, infinitely re-usable, 45 cent, 3-quart casserole capable of sustaining 475 degrees for 7 hours was created for soldiers, but mysteriously disappeared from the market post-1945. In its place arrived the Reynold’s ball-point pen, complete with a New York Times full-page ad. These instruments skipped, blotted, leaked in pockets and did not have replacement cartridges, yet they sold marvellously. This obsolescent absurdity climaxed when a 3-day trucker’s strike couldn’t effect its sale as the union promised to ‘deliver milk, critical food and Reynold’s pens.’

Reynold's Rocket ball-point pen ad
Reynold’s Rocket ball-point pen ad

After the war an abundance of new materials and manufacturing techniques at the designer’s disposal endowed him with the ‘tyranny of choice’. With no restrictions, he set off on a never ending quest for novelty, until ‘newness-for-the-sake-of-newness’ became the sole measure. The avant-garde invariably replaces the avant-garde. Many iterations of novelty sprung up, occupying manifold esoteric consumer cliques resulting in the alienation of the designer from the function complex and society. Paradoxically conformity accelerated at an amazing pace through mass media, mass advertising, mass production and automaton leaving our ability to solve problems in unexpected ways increasingly rare. Meanwhile, the social echelons under which design operates became increasingly polarised. In the West, the poor got poorer as the ‘fat cats got incredibly fatter’ while the middle class expressed itself through ‘campy’ little gadgets that ascribed identity and value. On a more macroscopic scale, this disparity endured but the chasm widened by a population explosion in under-developed and post-colonial economies. Products seemingly benefit the wealthy in the short-term and destroy the lives of the lowest rungs in both short and long-terms.

Concomitant to these events, we witness the ‘cancerous growth of the creative individual expressing himself egocentrically at the expense of the spectator’. This attitude seeps into the designer’s psyche, leaving the consumer inconsequential to his process. In as early as the 20’s, the De Stijl movement inspires Wijnveldt in Holland to cogitate extremely uncomfortable chairs, stools and tables. It turns out that transforming Piet Mondrian’s and Theo van Doesburg’s works into interior furnishing proved a disaster. On the other hand Dali’s sofa lips is a disengaged surrealist act that reverberates in Meret Oppenhiem’s fur-lined cup and saucer. In a capitalistic milieu the interplay of individualism and ownership instigates issues. Papenek states ‘Design is basic to all human activity’, as it weaves the ‘underlying matrix of life’.  It’s omnipotence naturally disregards intellectual ownership. As such, he entertains grave doubt towards the philosophy inherent in patents and copyrights. Ideas are cheap and aplenty, and they’re built on the shoulders of other ideas, making it fundamentally wrong to derive economic gain from the needs of others. He laments that a system becomes warped when the release of life-saving designs such as therapeutic exercises for handicapped kids, get delayed due to year-long patent applications. Dreyfus echoes and furthers his caution: design fails when the point of contact between product and person becomes a point of friction, whereas delivering timely efficiency and satisfaction denotes success.

ClassiCon De Stijl | Eileen Gray
ClassiCon De Stijl | Eileen Gray
Gerrit Rietveld : Zigzag Chair (De Stijl)
Gerrit Rietveld : Zigzag Chair (De Stijl)

In Design for the Real World, Papenek draws our attention to the impact of machine tools and perfection on creativity. ‘The tolerance demands of a case of Zippo cigarette lighter manufactured with automatic handling machinery make it far more precise then Benvenuto Cellini’s works, arguably the greatest metalsmith of the Renaissance’. With advances in space technology, tolerances of 1/10,000 of an inch are a routine production achievement. ‘Mere perfection’ robs the arts of a second goal (the first being autonomy), the ‘search for perfection’. Similarly photography replaced painting as the window to reality in all its social, cultural and biological diversity. It is belabouring to contemplate that ‘man today is as much in the environment of the machine as the machine lives in the environment of man’ and it would be naive to disagree that machines shroud our landscape. As a result the (post-)modern artist has created multiple escape mechanisms. While considering the designers part in this alteration of the environment, the age-old Industrial Design debate: ’should I design to be functional or aesthetically pleasing?’ seems to have limited designers in a vicious tug-of-war. Papenek points out this canon was used as an excuse for ‘sterile, operating-room like furniture and implements…that are bad in terms of human value, instead being a perversion of aesthetics and utility’. Early examples of this include Le Corbusier’s house as ‘la machine a habiter’, as well as Horatio Greenough’s works and some German Bauhaus. Papenek clarifies: ‘aesthetic value is an inherent part of function’.

The Saliera , by Benvenuto Cellini. Made in 1543
The Saliera , by Benvenuto Cellini. Made in 1543
A 1941 Zippo Lighter replica
A 1941 Zippo Lighter replica

‘Change has always been with us but its dimensions not well-understood’. Perhaps the most poignant idea posited by Papenek is that in today’s world ‘change is so accelerated, that trying to make sense of change will become our basic industry’. This is grounded in futures-thinking. He postulates that ‘moral, aesthetic and ethical values will evolve along with the choices to which they will be applied’, and ‘religion, sex, morality, family structure are no longer remote to design’. I opine that these changes, if referenced to the function complex, can create an responsive, adaptive and wholesome environment. Education must become an ecstatic experience for the designer and its system must switch to a more durable prototype that ‘sees products as a liner link between man and his environment’. We must think of ‘man, his means, his environment and his ways of thinking about planning for manipulating himself as a non-linear, simultaneous, integrated and comprehensive whole’. We therefore ‘switch from a mechanical process to a series of biological functions occurring simultaneously rather than in a linear sequence’ that uses a closed-feed-back loop and considers all factors and modulations necessary to the decision making process. Papenek’s proposed ‘integrated design’ would birth an anticipatory and multi-disciplinary designer who ‘extrapolates from established data on trends and interpolates from scenarios of the futures it constructs’. The hiatus and dichotomy between design and the real world would thus dissipate.

All in all Design for the Real World leads us away from ‘fetish objects for a wasteful society’ towards a new age of morally and environmentally responsive design. We must re-think everything by testing all our assumptions and artificial constructs in order to achieve this state. Albeit change implies newness, newness implies experiment and experiment implies failure, which is detrimental in a success-oriented culture, the designer must be instilled with a willingness to experiment coupled with responsibility. The perceptual, cultural and associational blocks to creativity must be eradicated and designers should act as facilitators and advocates for well-being rather than marketing tools for big-business. The one area where Papenek displays out-dated thinking (to be fair, it’s due to a lack of awareness) is in glorifying certain new technologies such as aerosol cans which were introduced in the 50’s. He glorifies aerosols as having ‘revolutionised merchandising for drugs, food, home remedies and cosmetics’ without realising CFC’s ozone-layer impact. He barely considers the potential environmental impacts of emerging disruptions. New technologies, materials and processes must be considered and assessed dynamically and wholesomely before implementation.

A low-fi design for a Tin-can Radio by Victor Papenek and George Seeger
A low-fi design for a Tin-can Radio by Victor Papenek and George Seeger
Another low-fi design by Papenek
Another low-fi design by Papenek

To conclude, one turns to Papenek’s most eloquent thought: ‘The end to which man studies himself cannot be other than to realise the full potentiality of his being, and to conquer the triad of limitations imposed on him’. These are the medium in which we live (the earth), our collective morality, and the equipment man can fashion from the sciences and the arts (by process of extension, as tools are extensions of limbs, and by devices that have the sensibilities of specialised organs). The purpose of life is to break through these limitations, compelling humanity into a new order of existence where these limitations don’t exist. This is the end to which individuals and species strive towards, and progress in this sense can be a yardstick against which the sole distance of an individual, the aims and activities of a group, even the achievements of a culture can be estimated and assigned value. Papenek is influenced by the recent moon landing as he contemplates that we have ‘fought against and conquered the medium of our habitat until we now stand poised on a springboard to the stars’.

Retrospective poster for Le Corbusier's 'La Machine a Habiter'
Retrospective poster for Le Corbusier’s ‘La Machine a Habiter’
Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier
Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, built between 1928-31


– Design for the Real World, Victor Papenek – Function Complex: A set of 6 canons for good design. These include Method (medium-specificity and honesty), Use (does it work?), Need (does it satisfy economic, psychological, spiritual, technological and intellectual needs?), Telesis (does it reflect the conditions giving rise to it, or fit in the general socio-economic order?), Association (consider the user/consumer during the design process), and Aesthetics (no ready yardstick, but is it compelling?). Aesthetics will always play a pivotal role as form can be infinitely different. Euclid implicitly proved this with his ‘infinite prime numbers’ proof which is an aesthetically and intellectually pleasing enchantment with the near perfect.

– A History of the Future, Chapter 3: Machine Age in America, Donna Goodman

– Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence, Bernard London, 1932 (

– Article on Obsolescence –

– Avant-garde and Kitsch, Clement Greenberg, 1949. …(But Freud’s teachings show it is ironic that photography is psychoanalytically ‘absent’ whereas painting is psychoanalytically ‘present’.)

– Louis Sullivan first stated ‘form follows function’, then Frank Lloyd Wright adjusted it to ‘form and function are one’. Papenek states thats ‘aesthetic value is a inherent part of function’, because the ‘streamlining of a trout is aesthetically pleasing but it is a by-product of swimming efficiently.’  Similarly the spiral growth in sunflowers (or pineapples and pine cones) is satisfying as it corresponds to the Fibonacci sequence, yet all the flower is aiming to do is improve photosynthesis by exposing maximum surface area.

– Design and Consume to Utopia : Where Industrial Design went wrong, Tara Andrews, 2009


3 thoughts on “The not-so-magic system of Industrial Design : Summary and reflections on ‘Design for the Real World’ by Victor Papenek

  1. Hey Prithvi,
    Very thorough examination and explanation of the article, though I wish you had spent more time reacting and giving your own opinion. In your 1500 words there is only one sentence where you give your own opinion: “I opine that these changes, if referenced to the function complex, can create an responsive, adaptive and wholesome environment,” and this is really just passive agreement of Papenek’s writing.

    And so, I’m wondering, do you agree with what he says? I myself think that, yes, what he says is compelling, but it can be oblique to the point where I can’t visualize at all what he’s talking about. Do you think what he says is effective? We still live within an ultra-consumerist society. Sustainable design still remains very much a fad. I think this is very important to point out. Papenek’s book was landmark, and yet it still couldn’t push the industry in the direction he desire.

    How do you imagine consumerist practices to change? Are there any trends currently that correlate with what Papenek says? Do you think what he says is feasible? Would really love to know what your thoughts are on this.


  2. I agree with Tate in regards to your examination of the article. Personally, I believe Papanek has the right sentiment but getting society to react and actively become involved in sustainability would require us as a whole to acknowledge the larger problem of over consumption and the need to “keep up with the Jones’.” As Tate mentioned, we live in an ultra-consumerist society which lends itself to very little consideration sustainability. Despite aggressive campaigning to create “sustainable products”, much of our society buys things that they WANT as opposed to sticking to what they NEED.

    I think sustainability can be achieved when we completely change how we approach problems and how we go about our daily lives, but with the way society acts, usually, we only take serious action once the situation becomes dire. Fundamentally changing how we function from how we start our day in the morning to reconsidering every decision we make to ensure that we are conscious of how the result will affect our surroundings seems outrageous presently. I know it’s a cynical look on life but there is always a sector of people who needs foolproof evidence of something in order to be convinced something bad will happen (e.g. global warming). Obviously we can’t force everyone to conduct their lives in a sustainable fashion, but unless there is some sort of instant or semi-instant gratification involved, I think it will be difficult to have a mass conversion. I whole-heartedly believe in the concept of sustainability but the term sustainability seems to be rooted in more of a business sense as a opposed to an environmentally aware sense. So as of now, sustainability seems like it is more of a fad and a marketing tool than a goal that will be met in the near future.


  3. An excellent post which gives a fine grained reading of Papenek’s Design for the Real World and provides some plausible compelling commentary. I’m surprised though that there was was not a fuller examination of development and first third/North-South relations emerging in your assessment of Papenek. One way or another, his work does flow into the humanitarian design movement in the developing world and this project becomes increasingly skeptical of “western” development in general, focusing more on “tools for conviviality”, (Illich) small is beautiful (Schumacher) and so on with related focus in India on the virtues of village democracy and so on. So there is an element to Papenek’s critique which has some ressoance with Ghandian themes. At the same time, this vision now seems to have retreated substantially from the general vision of how the global South should rise. It is presently hyper-industrialization, China-style that is seen as the path to salvation. In this context then I think it would be interesting to ask – what is living and what is dead in Papenek’s own vision? It would seem that his humanism and his interest in justice and ecology still have considerable traction but whether this is viably expressed in a localist alternative development path, would seem increasingly open to question.


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