Moon Base, Victor Papanek and the necessity of Socially Engaged Design


In 1970 Victor Papanek (1927-1999), an Austrian designer and educator wrote a book called ‘Design for the Real World’. Originally published in Sweden, so popular was it that it was translated into English only a year later. The idea behind it was what Papanek felt was a mismatch between the power of design in contemporary societies and the lack of moral responsibility felt by the broad product design profession. As he noted himself ‘no 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’. And from this Papanek developed a critique of this form of design and how it dovetailed with capitalism and sought to present a sort of roadmap for those involved in design. He argued that consumerist design was akin to medicine and ‘comparable to what would happen if all medical doctors were to forsake general practice and surgery and concentrate exclusively on dermatology, plastic surgery, and cosmetics’.

Essentially he proposed that there are six areas where designers must positively engage.

Firstly in the area of design for the Third World. Papanek considered that in a world where billions lacked the appropriate and sustainable technologies to improve their lives. He pointed to the lack of development in lighting or in upgrading or making more sustainable simple technologies such as paraffin or oil lamps.

Secondly in the area training and educational devices for those who are disabled. His particular focus was on simple products which improve life, such as hearing aids. The costs of such items were extremely expensive, but through a more rational allocation of resources such costs could be cut. Yet this would demand a political and social will.

Third he looked to design for medicine and health. Topical this, indirectly in an Irish context. He noted that at the time medical instruments were either over designed or extremely crude. He sought a more measured approach.

Fourth he considered design for research was a necessity. Here we see an interesting, almost techno-utopian strand in his thinking. The idea is that much experimental equipment was over designed or badly designed thus inflating the costs of research. Again, he sought social and political change, but also accountability on the part of those who commissioned such products.

Fifth, he saw the design of survival systems in hostile environments as a crucial priority. This included underwater, deserts, polar areas and space environments. With increasing pollution and a global environment under significant pressure he considered that it was necessary to ’sustain human life under marginal conditions’.

Sixth, he looked to design for ‘breakthrough concepts’. This is in some respects the most radical of his ideas. What he sought was rather than continual marginal improvement in products, instead a complete rethink about the purpose and function of items in order to make them more sustainable. So if you design a kettle you create one which allows for more precise control of the amount of water boiled in order to save electricity, and so on and so forth extended outwards to encompass all products.

Needless to say this is a significant rupture with traditional consumerist design techniques, and one which hasn’t been un-influential. ‘Green’ and socially responsible design has begun to permeate product design in particular.

And as for Moon Base, well look to the fifth area. That sort of cutting edge technological advance isn’t without benefits, particularly if this is positioned within an international context. More to the point, while direct applicability may not be absolutely forthcoming, aspects of it certainly are. I don’t want to overstate this. Project Orion, as the crew component of the new Lunar missions is named, is in many respects simply an extension of the old Apollo capsules, with capacity for up to 6 astronauts rather than the previous three. It’s not comfortable, it’s not a 2001 Earth Orbit to Lunar Surface style vehicle. But it is technology that has been proven to work previously and can be further refined. And this is also important in terms of our ability as a species to protect both ourselves and our planetary biosphere. One of the more disturbing aspects of our growing knowledge of how fragile that biosphere is has been the realisation that it is vulnerable both to anthropogenic threats such as climate change and external threats beyond the atmosphere. It’s something of a cliche to suggest that once humans travelled beyond Earth orbit and were able to show us the image of the planet from afar our relationship with the planet changed, but consider the manner in which for example An Inconvenient Truth was advertised. This sort of signification is of value.

Naturally there’s much to disagree with Papanek, if not in his overall argument, then in the detail. For example, it’s difficult to see how consumerist design can be modified very rapidly. In later books his proscriptions, particularly in the area of societal structures become a little arcane (for example he goes someway along the path Rudolf Bahro and other deep Greens went with regard to dismantling current society into much smaller self contained units – ideas I’d not necessarily entirely disagree with but find difficult to believe will be implemented any time soon). But on the other if he provides me with a justification for Moon Base…

Mind you, now I think about it, wouldn’t that be the ultimate small self contained unit…

By the by, for those interested in this area a book by Nigel Whiteley, Design for Society, although dated, provides a good overview of the area.

Ciarán Swan


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