Revered as an early advocate for socially and environmentally responsible design, Victor Papanek is lauded as a pioneer of the sustainable design movement. He warned against the frivolities and excesses of design, and promoted community co-design centered on environmental accountability, social inclusion and political transparency.
His seminal work, Design for the Real World, was a clarion call for an emerging generation of designers to seriously contemplate their role in facilitating social change in the face of accelerated consumer culture, political strife and environmental depletion. Looking to learn more about how Papanek’s work and words continue to ring true even some 50 years later, WDO connected with the team at the Papanek Foundation, an organization working to honour and further Papanek’s design legacy.
Established in 2010 by the University of Applied Arts Vienna, The Papanek Foundation is directed by design historian and social anthropologist Professor Alison J. Clarke. The foundation’s archive, run by design historian and design archives specialist, Michelle Jackson-Beckett, includes Papanek’s extensive personal library and was bequeathed to the foundation by the Papanek family estate. As part of its mandate, the foundation oversees and supports many diverse outputs, including a biannual Victor Papanek Lecture, a Papanek Symposium, as well as a travelling exhibition, all of which strive to bring Papanek’s ideas and archival objects to a larger audience of students, designers, scientists, academics and the general public.
As a designer, teacher and author, Papanek spent much of his life advocating for socially responsive and inclusive design, specifically for marginalized and under-represented communities. If design is only as good as the social and political systems in which it operates, Papanek saw the discipline as a way to imagine and build more equitable social futures. His focus on the emerging divide between the Global North and Global South, demonstrated that design alone cannot solve these issues; but is an agent of mediation and perspective.
Papanek may not have made explicit reference to sustainability throughout his often-romanticized work, but he did successfully demonstrate the importance of designing in a way that honours the planet and its diverse peoples. Indeed, much of what Papanek captured so successfully in his writings from the 1960s and 1970s extended far beyond the world of design. From the civil rights movement, to the rise of anti-corporatism to gender politics, many of the issues he reflected upon then are issues that continue to weigh heavily on the minds and hearts of designers today. Understanding its vast cultural, environmental, social and economic implications, sustainability in design can and needs to be about something more than product turnover and profit margins. Taking cues from Papanek himself, designers can leverage sustainable practices to build community and bridge gaps, to promote regeneration and restoration, and to foster inclusivity and equity.
As noted by Alison and Michelle, there is no doubt that Papanek would indeed be “heartened by the fact that there is now much more attention paid to his vision of trans-disciplinary design, but his worst-case scenario is also at play. The complicity of design in accelerating social inequity and climate destruction is far more extensive today than forty or fifty years ago.”
In many ways, design is only as good as the social and political systems within which it operates. While the industry now is much more “dispersed, complex and open-ended”, with an increased focus on process, research and critical thinking rather than finished product, there remain pockets of elitism and exclusion that have not heeded to the need for transparent, sustainable practices. And while the Papanek Foundation itself does not adhere to a particular definition of sustainability, it does recognize that designers must continue to confront mass consumerism and exploitative modes of distribution. Only then can we engage with meaningful and effective forms of sustainable design.