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How does social design change the perspective on design processes? What criteria need to be considered? And what role does the concept of responsibility play in this? Anyone who reads Victor Papanek and Lucius Burckhardt today will get important impulses for a design that is aware of its socio-political task.

By Thomas Wagner

There is no shortage of buzzwords, whether they come across as benevolent or are expressed with critical intent. On the one hand, the “user experience” is improved as a matter of course, sustainability is considered and design is basically praised as an essential factor in “improving the world”. Conversely, titles like Mike Monteiro’s “Ruined by Design. How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It” call for a new ethic of design from an activist perspective. With missionary intent, accompanied by epithets such as “social” or “radical”, complex design processes based on the division of labour are often praised or condemned. This is partly due to the fact that it often remains nebulous what and, above all, how “to get to the roots” and what is supposed to distinguish social design from a design that supposedly continues to ignore its social responsibility. However shimmering the term social design may be, the fact that social and societal aspects, the influences and consequences of design processes have been increasingly discussed in recent years points to a broadening of the perspective on design.

Shaping society

Basically, design is always already “social”. The way things, but also work processes, services, institutions and communication are designed naturally determines how a community presents itself and develops, how resources are used, which materials are used and how the social consequences of production, distribution and consumption are dealt with. However, there is often little evidence of this. In short: despite the diversity of aspects, social design stands for more social responsibility, for a design that considers its own consequences as well as the conditions under which it is created. In the broadest sense, it concerns the design of society and the functioning of its institutions. That is why it is more important than providing a definition of the term to name criteria that distinguish “good” design, i.e. design that does justice to its social responsibility, from “bad” design that ignores it, whether consciously or unconsciously. A simple example: devices that cannot be repaired due to their function, construction or design are neither social nor sustainable from the point of view of resource consumption, longevity and the production of waste.

Victor Papaneks Polemic 

Victor Papanek (1927 to 1998) is considered one of the masterminds and propagandists of a design that consciously brings social and overall societal perspectives to the fore. Papanek originally came from Vienna, from where he had to emigrate to the USA in 1939. When he published “Design for the Real World. Human Ecology and Social Change” (the first edition had appeared in Swedish in 1970), he attacked the designer guild head-on: “There are professions that do more harm than that of the industrial designer, but many are not. There is probably only one profession that is more mendacious: making advertisements, convincing people that they have to buy things they don’t need for money they don’t have so they can impress others who don’t care – that’s probably the worst profession there is today.”

In a polemical furore, he adds: “Industrial design brews up a mixture of the cheap idiocies hawked by advertisers and lands right in second place. It is a sign of our times that grown people sit down and seriously design electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-studded shoehorns and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then work out complicated strategies for producing and selling them to millions of people.” The reaction is not long in coming: Victor Papanek’s provocative theses promptly lead to his expulsion from the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), but make him internationally famous. Celebrated as a key work of the critical design movement of the 1970s, his book, which analyses “how it is” in the first part to describe “how it could be” in the second, is translated into numerous languages and advances to become one of the most widely read design publications of all time.

The more climate change, digitalisation and changes in the world of work literally make it necessary to design a future worth living in, the more Papanek’s theses have rekindled thinking about the social responsibility of design. Some of the things he criticised a good half century ago are now firmly anchored in design discourse, but practice often remains trapped in old patterns. Design is regarded as secondary or limited to cosmetic interventions. The fact that a design that is decidedly committed to the social in all its diversity and complexity is finding greater resonance in the face of ongoing debates about ecology versus economy, sustainability and green design is not least due to the fact that many of the questions raised by Victor Papanek have either been ignored or have remained unanswered.

Design has to identify, address, define and solve problems

Precisely because it remains nebulous what falls under the heading of social design, many take it as their banner – from conceptual author design to critical design, from design thinking to the do-it-yourself movement and a colourful design activism. Victor Papanek himself has clearly positioned himself as far as the task of design is concerned: “The most important skill a designer can bring to his work is the ability to recognise problems, take them up, define them and solve them.” In doing so, he said, design must respond to existing problems, with the “number of problems and their complexity” having increased to such an extent “that new and better solutions are needed”. The world should not be made prettier, but substantially better. What exactly this means and how it is to be done can only be assessed concretely on a case-by-case basis.

Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design
Substantially improving the world: Installation view of the exhibition “Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design”, 2018 © Vitra Design Museum, photo: Norbert Miguletz

We are all handicapped

Beyond the gestures of superiority that are often common today, Papanek does not assume that man is an omnipotent creator. For him, he is not a demigod, but a deficient being. To compensate for his physical, mental and social deficits, man creates a culture and shapes the world in a way that is appropriate to him. “Design for the Real World”, the title of Papanek’s main work, takes this into account. The “real” world is one in which everyone is “handicapped”. In a diagram, Papanek has listed how he means this: “Handicapped” refers less to the problematic “being handicapped” than to the fact that human beings are not perfectly adapted to their environment in many respects, physically and psycho-spiritually. In this sense, physically, psychologically, emotionally, socially, culturally, economically, politically and more restricted or limited in certain ways are babies and small children, soldiers and prison inmates, foreigners, minorities and in general all young and all adult people, regardless of whether they live in more or less developed countries.

Victor Papanek
The original design of the international symbol for accessibility was created by Victor J. Papanek’s former student Susanne Koefoed, 1968

The social of design determines the design of the social

Since the social of design conditions the design of the social, every society produces the design that corresponds to it. The more irreparable the damage caused by a global growth economy and the more threatening the emergencies into which it pushes more and more communities, the louder, but also more urgent, the calls for reversal become: “Designers and planners,” says Papanek, “share responsibility for almost all our products and tools, and thus also for almost all the mistakes we have made to our environment. They are responsible either because of poor design or because of their passivity: because they squandered their responsible creativity, because they did not want to be involved, because they ‘cheated their way through'”.

Design is invisible

While Papanek remains a controversial figure for many as part of a hippie modernism, Lucius Burckhardt (1925 to 2003) also makes it clear in 1980 under the title “Design is invisible” that whoever designs must also include all the social contexts, influences and consequences beyond the form of things. For Burckhardt, it is “the institutional-organisational” component “over which the designer constantly has a say, but which remains hidden through the common way of classifying our environment. For by dividing the world according to objects and the invisible thereby appearing as a boundary condition, the world is also designed. After all, not changing institutions – as the world of technical objects evolves – is also designing: the X-ray machine is equipped to be operated by the X-ray nurse.” While conventional design does not notice (or ignores) its social function, invisible design, according to Burckhardt, could also mean “a design of tomorrow that is consciously able to take into account invisible total systems consisting of objects and interpersonal relationships”. There is also a lot of explosive material in this.

Victor Papanek – stylised as the prophet of a counterculture that had awakened from the dreams of modernity in the consumer paradise and reacted angrily to its ambivalences – aimed his critique first and foremost at American consumer culture and the “one-size-fits-all” mentality of mass production. He blames the design that serves it for the destruction of the environment as well as for the emergence of a global cultural homogeneity. He calls his reality check “instructions for a humane ecology and social change”. Burckhardt, on the other hand, talks more about what designers do not see or what is withdrawn from their design. Since terms like growth and progress have lost their appeal in the face of global warming, climate crisis and species extinction, even among notorious consumer advocates, both approaches suddenly sound self-evident.

In good humanist tradition, Victor Papanek postulates that design should serve people – regardless of origin, skin colour, handicap or social position. He accuses most designers and planners of taking an isolated approach and walking around with blinkers on: “This also prevents them from seeing whether similar problems have already been intelligently solved elsewhere or in the past. If design, as Papanek sums up his analysis, is to be “ecologically responsible and socially acceptable”, it must “create a maximum of diversity with a minimum of inventory”, achieve a maximum with the help of a minimum: “That means consuming less, using things longer and being economical with recyclable materials.” Whether you call such thinking holistic, networked, ecological, systemic, sustainable or social, only if pursued consistently can it solve more problems than it creates. Welcome to the present!

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