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The designer’s role, 4: Papanek and the turning point

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Among the people that were busy on design development, Victor Papanek is for sure one of the most influential: back in 1971, he published the book “Design for the real world: Human ecology and social change”, defining the designer’s job as one of the most dangerous, false and poisonous role of the century. To his opinion, designers produced a new kind of trash that polluted water, soil and air with no respect for the environment, all the responsibility of which belongs to their choices in fact of materials and production processes.

This critic may sound pretty exagerated to someone, and believe us: it does not represent the whole content of the book. Others may think that the responsibility was not of the designer at all, as it was shared between all the people that work in a factory. However, Papanek himself was an industrial designer, so the claim it’s highly self-critical.

The most important thing in the book it the link between design, ecology and social change that’s underlined since the book title. The focus moves from the product to the process for the first time. The question are: how products are made, what do we use as input, what’s coming out as output and how this influences ecology, environment, society and thus the whole humankind?

The true shift is considering the single product in connection with its production, in other words caring about the process from “raw material” to “shaped components”. The product is no more a replica that just enters our houses from the shops, but it’s intended as part of a production process that produces millions and millios of clones: if this was incredible in the 60’s, now the number are much higher.

We could describe this shift as a focus on quality over quantity. Its dimension is correctly described by Luigi Bistagnino in his book Man at the Centre of the Project: Design for a new humanism, where the author invites to design keeping in mind the community, intended as the humanking, as a central reference value-based system, in opposition to the product-centered workflow that is usually implemented in any factory.

Product-centered production will inevitably develop linear industrial processes, because there is no way to see the relation system around it. Then, if we consider that industry just seeks for profit on short-terms, we get damaged twice. Low quality material, economic processes and externalization: all these elements contribute to lower the price of the product, at the expenses of the communities that lives nearby the facility and, on long-terms, even of those that live farer.

On the countrary, keeping the humankind at the centre gives importance to life, intended as a harmoy of biological, social and ethical values. This puts the product and the production processes in strong relation with the territory where they take place, and thus with the specific culture of the community living around.

So, what’s the role of the designer today? We cannot answer yet to this question, so we’ll quote Papanek again:

“Design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments and, by extention, society and himself”

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