Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change by Victor Papanek (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971. 394 pp)

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1923, Victor Papanek immigrated to the United States to study design and architecture. He earned his B.A. at Cooper Union and his M.A. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Papanek taught design at many institutions worldwide and functioned as a strong advocate for socially and ecologically responsible design.

The Many Hues of Charity 

It’s very easy to become caught in the notion of charity equaling money. We see disasters on television and nothing seems easier than a monetary contribution from the friendly confines of our couch. Some, however, choose to dive deeper. They see a need in the community and they volunteer outside of work hours. Could we go farther? Is there a way to use your time on the clock to help those in need?

A divergent thinker, Papanek’s Design for the Real World peregrinates through a myriad of topics over the course of its 300+ pages. But in particular, I found his thoughts on work as charity intriguing.

The Meaning of Design 

Photo by Vector Hugo

For starters, let’s get on the same page regarding the meaning of design. Living in the midst of the Internet era, one might confuse design with web development—the act of creating a website. Yes, design can take the form of building a website. But it’s much bigger.

Others might consider design through the lens of logos and typography. While design plays a part in producing these items, it’s more holistic.

For Papenak,

“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 pie, choosing sides for a back-lot baseball game, and educating a child” (3).

In short, design is the act of creativity behind solving a problem.

The Problems of the Design Industry 

Design can be a lucrative industry. The world is rife with problem solving opportunities. As designers continue to use their skills to create new products and solve increasingly complex issues, Papenak’s Design for the Real World represents a careful caution about reckless design-for-profits.

Instead of designing products that last, designers create goods with designed obsolescence—one makes more money when customers continually repurchase the same items. Even more, most of the design industry caters to the highest classes. While 80% of the world struggles around the poverty line, designers work on the next product for the affluent.

Papanek mourns this development:

“Isn’t it too bad that so little design, so few products are really relevant to the needs of mankind” (51)?


Working Charitably


Papenak argues for a charitable principle in the design world. Much like the Old Testament tenet of “gleanings”, Papenak suggests designers devote a portion of their time lending creativity and problem solving abilities to social and ecological issues.

“Being designers, we don’t have to pay money in the form of kymmenykset or a tithe. Being designers, we can pay by giving 10 per cent of our crop of ideas and talents to the 75 per cent of mankind in need” (57).

Photo by Anna

The entire world needs to experience the gift of design. Imagine the result if business in general and design in particular devoted 10 percent of its time to helping those in need. Whether by developing free systems to help lift people out of poverty or designing products cheaply and efficiently to assist those in need so they can spend time more wisely, the donation of time and intellectual capital can realistically change the world.

Design for the Real World dives into many issues. But for me, the charitable giving of our time resonates. Our work is a gift. While some positions lend themselves better to financial charity or volunteer work, other jobs directly influence the way we live. It is well worth considering how we can be charitable with our work. Check out Design for the Real World.

Verdict:3.5 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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