Design for the Real World

All men 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 inherent value of design as the primary underlying matrix of life. Design is the conscious effort to impose meaningful order.

Mankind is unique among animals in its relationship to the environment. All other animals adapt themselves to a changing environment (by growing thicker fur in the winter, or evolving into a totally new species over a half-million-year cycle); only mankind transforms earth itself to suit its needs and wants. This job of form-giving and reshaping has become the designer’s responsibility. A hundred years ago, if a new chair, carriage, kettle, or pair of shoes was needed, the consumer went to the craftsman, stated his wants, and the article was made for him. Today the myriad objects of daily use are mass-produced to a utilitarian and aesthetic standard often completely unrelated to the consumer’s need. At this point Madison Avenue must be brought in to make these objects desirable or even palatable to the mass consumer.

In an age of mass production when everything must be planned and designed, design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself). This demands high social and moral responsibility from the designer. It also demands greater understanding of the people by those who practice design and more insight into the design process by the public.

Design must become an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the true needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.

“Should I design it to be functional or to be aesthetically pleasing?” This is the most heard, the most understandable, and the most mixed-up question in design today. “Do you want it to look good, or to work?” Barricades erected between what are really just two of the many aspects of function. It is all quite simple: aesthetic value is an inherent part of function.

The response of many designers has been like that so unsuccessfully practiced by Hollywood: the public has been pictured as totally unsophisticated, possessed of neither taste nor discrimination. A picture emerges of a moral weakling with an IQ of about 70, ready to accept whatever specious values the unholy trinity of Motivation Research, Market Analysis, and Sales have decided is good for him.

The cancerous growth of the creative individual expressing himself egocentrically at the expense of spectator and/or consumer has spread from the arts, overrun most of the crafts, and finally reach even 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, auto-therapeutic little comments by the artist to himself. With new processes and an endless list of new materials at his proposal, the artist, craftsman, and designer now suffers from the tyranny of absolute choice. When everything becomes possible, when all the limitations are gone, design and art can easily become a never-ending search for novelty, and the desire for novelty on the part of the artist becomes an equally strong desire for novelty on the part of the spectator and consumer, until newness-for-the-sake-of-newness becomes the only measure.

To “sex-up” objects (designers’ jargon for making things more attractive to mythical consumers) makes no sense in a world in which basic need for design is very real. In an age that seems to be mastering aspects of form, a return to content is long overdue. Designing for the people’s needs rather than for their wants, or artificially created wants, is the only meaningful direction now.

None of the words above are mine, despite the fact that they reflect my thinking and values perfectly. These words were written in 1971 by the designer/teacher Victor Papanek, whose work I only recently discovered. You can read them yourself in Papanek’s important and thoughtful book entitled Design for the Real World (Academy Chicago Publishers). This is a true classic that all designers should read, especially those of us who design information displays.

Our designs affect the world for good or ill. We choose to either take responsibility by presenting information effectively or to do harm by presenting information in ways that lead to impoverished and erroneous thinking. If you choose the former, you owe it to yourself (and others) to read Design for the Real World for inspiration, direction, and an invitation to make a difference.

Take care,

5 Comments on “Design for the Real World”


By Alberto Cairo. March 29th, 2014 at 1:10 am

Glad that you liked it, Steve

By Dan Murray. March 29th, 2014 at 4:53 am

Already ordered….

By Jim Linnehan. March 29th, 2014 at 6:07 am

Steve, thank you for this valuable, inspiring post.

By Meic Goodyear. March 31st, 2014 at 6:40 am

Got to read this.

The Bauhaus dictum “Form follows function” led to buildings people hated to live in. How about “Form follows function. Function fulfilled, fair form.” Make it good, but then do what you can to make it beautiful, in that order of priority,

By Marty Gierke. March 31st, 2014 at 8:50 am

I was a student of industrial design shortly after this book was published. In the pre-internet days it was one of the few books on the topic of design available. I will say it grounded me with a sense that a designer would be forever invited to mediate the debates between marketing, manufacturing and the end user while freely expressing a very personal vision. No design is void of constraints, (in fact, Eames would suggest they are necessary) but the designer is in a unique position to prioritize them, filter them, and balance them in a way that leads to something right - at least for the moment. My own designs for Honeywell, Black & Decker, DeWalt and others were never perfect, but I believe they were “real world” designs in their own way - thanks in part to this book, and the teachers and mentors I had who embraced Mr. Papanek’s thoughtful words.

You might also enjoy “Design This Day - The Technique of Order in the Machine Age” by Walter Dorwin Teague. Original published in 1940, it’s as relevant today as it was then.