Victor Papanek

papanek

Victor Papanek (1923 – 1998) was a designer and educator who became a strong advocate of the socially and ecologically responsible design of products, tools, and community infrastructures. He disapproved of manufactured products that were unsafe, showy, maladapted, or essentially useless. Papanek was a philosopher of design and as such he was an untiring, eloquent promoter of design aims and approaches that would be sensitive to social and ecological considerations.

He wrote that ‘design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself).’ With his interest in all aspects of design and how they affected people and the environment, Papanek felt that much of what was manufactured in the U.S. was inconvenient, often frivolous and even unsafe.

Papanek was born in Vienna, Austria; he attended public school in England and emigrated to the U.S. where he studied design and architecture. Papanek worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in 1949, and earned his Bachelor’s degree at Cooper Union in New York the following year. He received a Master’s degree from MIT in design in 1955. Papanek was interested in humankind as such and pursued an interest in anthropology, living and working for several years with Navajos, Inuit, and Balinese. Indeed, Papanek felt that when design is simply technical or merely style-oriented, it loses touch with what is truly needed by people.

‘One of my first jobs after leaving school was to design a table radio,’ Papanek wrote in ‘Design for the Real World.’ ‘This was shroud design: the design of external covering of the mechanical and electrical guts. It was my first, and I hope my last, encounter with appearance design, styling, or design ‘cosmetics.” And further, he opined: ‘Only a small part of our responsibility lies in the area of aesthetics.’ In the same book, Papanek wrote: ‘Much recent design has satisfied only evanescent wants and desires, while the genuine needs of man have often been neglected by the designer.’

Papanek created product designs for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Volvo of Sweden contracted him to design a taxi for the disabled. He worked with a design team that prototyped an educational television set that could be utilized in the developing countries of Africa and produced in Japan for $9.00 per set (in 1970 dollars). His designed products also included a remarkable transistor radio, made from ordinary metal food cans and powered by a burning candle. His design skills also took him into projects like an innovative method for dispersing seeds and fertilizer for reforestation in difficult-to-access land, as well as working with a design team on a human-powered vehicle capable of conveying a half-ton load, and another team to design a very early three-wheeled, wide-tired all-terrain vehicle.

As Papanek traveled around the world, he gave lectures about his ideas for ecologically sound design and designs to serve the poor, the disabled, the elderly and other minority segments of society. He wrote or co-wrote eight books. ‘How could the designer, who must (like others) make a living actually serve ‘real needs’ of human beings? ‘I have tried to demonstrate that by freely giving 10 percent of his time, talents, and skills the designer can help.’ In other words, a willingness to volunteer.’

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