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readings, installment 1 - Accretions

Fata Morgana
2004-06-15 02:13
readings, installment 1
On the commute to Redwood City today, I started one of the books I'll be reading with a reading group this summer, Design for the Real World, by Victor Papenak. So far, I don't agree with all of it, but I generally like it. The book was first published over 30 years ago (and was most recently published 18 years ago), but many of his rants (ranging from environmental battle-cries to complaints about fast food to derision of stupid consumer products) sound very familiar. So far, the author has a curmudgeonly tone, berating the "current" state of design and redefining it to better fit his view of the world.

To give you a taste of his style, here's an excerpt from the original (1971) preface:

There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don't need, with money they don't have, in order to impress others who don't care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second. ... Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass-production bases. By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly one million people around the world each year, by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed. And the skills needed in these activities are carefully taught to young people.

In this age of mass production when everything must be planned and designed, design has become the most powerful tool with which man [sic] 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. Not a single volume on the responsibility of the designer, no book on design that considers the public in this way, has ever been published anywhere. ...

Included in the enormous amount of literature we have about design are hundreds of "how-to-do-it" books that address themselves exclusively to an audience of other designers or (with the gleam of textbook sales in the author's eye) to students. The social context of design, as well as the public and lay reader, is damned by omission. ... So I decided to write the kind of book that I'd like to read.

This books is also written from the viewpoint that there is something basically wrong with the whole concept of patents and copyrights. If I design a toy that provides therapeutic exercise for handicapped children, then I think it is unjust to delay the release of the design by a year and a half, going through a patent application. I feel that ideas are plentiful and cheap, and it is wrong to make money from the needs of others. ...

In an environment that is screwed up visually, physically, and chemically, the best and simplest thing that architects, industrial designers, planners, etc., could do for humanity would be to _stop working entirely_. In all pollution, designers are implicated at least partially. But in this book I take a more affirmative view: it seems to me that we can go beyond not working at all, and work positively. Design can and must become a way in which young people can participate in changing society.

The author begins chapter 1 by quoting my favorite chapter of the Tao-Te Ching. He then defines design as "the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order" (and clarifies what he means by the words I've italicized), and follows with a description of six "essential" elements of design, along with examples of how well design currently satisfies them (or not). I'll summarize them here, though I won't describe them in detail:
  1. Method - an "honest" (read: sustainable) use of materials, tools, and processes
  2. Use - form follows function; also the recognition that use may change as new technologies or form factors are introduced
  3. Need - does the design actually fill a need, or "only evanescent wants and desires"?
  4. Telesis - design should reflect "the times and conditions that have given rise to it" and should fit a current society's needs and way of life (his negative example of this is the American obsession with "all things Japanese," even when they have no cultural relevance or use)
  5. Association - our gestalt patterns of how some things (like new technologies) seem to belong with (or as) other things; for those of you who have read much by Don Norman, think affordances.
  6. Aesthetics - a tool to shape things in a way that provides pleasure, delight, and/or meaning

I've also been reading the case studies in Diffusion of Innovations, which I've very much enjoyed so far, and I've started Small is Beautiful as well, both also for my reading group. More on those later.
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Kragen Sitaker
2004-06-15 22:30 (UTC)
I mostly don't agree with the parts you quoted. I'll try to find time to explain why soon.
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Fata Morgana
2004-06-16 08:13 (UTC)
Re: hmm
I'd love to hear it. There were parts I disagreed with as well - and there were more extreme parts that I didn't quote here.
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September 2013