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A Reconsideration of V. Papanek's Design for the Real World (1971)

Akiko Shimbo
Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

A lesson can be called a product with the name of "training in the middle of being created and something that is in the middle of being constantly updated," rather than a finished stage. Classes are made by the people who participate in it and the meaning and content of this then becomes even deeper. For example, under the influence of Ms. M (third year student) who attended a different class of mine for one year, I myself developed an interest in Africa and then incorporated a lesson on fair trade products that are made by hand in local communities of the region. In the same way, the insight into fashion and modern times of Mr. S (fourth year student) have led me to include thinking more deeply about the relationship between design and history. In this way, in the "History and Thought of Design", which is one of the lessons I am in teaching this semester in the School of Social Sciences, through examples in various countries from the end of the 19th century to the present day, while holding discussions, everyone in the class has thought about what is "design" and how it should be.

The Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change by the Austrian-born American designer and educator Victor Papanek (1923 - 1998) also makes reference to this problem by tackling it head on. Papanek severely criticized those people involved in design at that time who were participating in mass production and mass consumption. Together with this, he also raised a perspective toward design for the environment, welfare and developing countries based on his own ideas and the putting into practice of these. Although several publishing companies declined to publish this book in the United States, it reached the publication stage in 1971 and then later was translated into many languages around the world. The book continues to be read to this day. The Japanese edition that was published in 1974 has also been reissued 21 times as of the end of 2011 according to its publisher Shobunsha. Moreover, in recent years, taking the occasion of the establishment of the Victor Papanek Foundation, there has also been a lively re-evaluation of this book by Vienna design historians. In particular, the proactive approach to environmental problems raised by this book have been widely applauded as the starting point that leads to the present day.

On the other hand, design invented by Papanek himself for the purposes of developing countries and welfare was based on the question of what is design that is truly essential for people. In the underlying claim of Papanek, which he wrote in this book at the end of the 1960s, there was a doubt of people that instead of considering true need, there was simply a devotion toward an interest in a small part near the summit and there was also a doubt that even though it is not the case that everybody truly requires these things, products are created such as that fill the ground floor of all large shops. The assertion of Papanek that people who are the so-called minority in fact account for the majority is summarized in the following words. "Is this designing for minorities? The fact of the matter is that all of us are children at one point of our lives and ... almost all of us become adolescent, middle-aged, and old . if we combine all these 'special' needs, we find that we have designed for the majority after all."

However, although the responsibilities and roles of the designer are emphasized, there is little explanation about specific methods and practical examples of participation in the design of users, clients and consumers. This is the only point which is disappointing about this book. This is because design aimed at by Papanek is something that is especially realized through the process in which there is comprehensive participation by those who truly require this. Consumers, readers, audiences, viewers - In history, in all areas, the people that create all works and products together with the producer (author/performer/artist) are collaborators like this.

Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek (Japanese translation by Kimimasa Abe; Shobunsha, 1974)

Akiko Shimbo
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Akiko Shimbo acquired a Ph.D. in history at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2007. She has been in her present post since April 2010. She specializes in 18-19th century British cultural, social and design history. Furniture-Makers and Consumers in England 1754-1851: Design as Interaction is a special book based on her doctoral dissertation at the University of London. This book is scheduled to be published by Ashgate Publishing (UK). Her papers include "The Role of Dialogue between Producers and Consumers: The Design Process of Custom-Made Furniture in Late Eighteen-Century England" (Design History: Journal of the Design History Workshop Japan, No. 9, 2011), among others.