Victor Papanek on the Green Imperative

Victor Papanek, what a legend. Born in Vienna in 1927 (Red Vienna!), he studied at Taliesin West. This was written between 1991 and 1995 and three places, Tanah Lot Temple in Bali, Schumacher College, Dartington and Fundacion Valparaiso Mojacar, Spain. I can’t help but be just a little jealous about that.

Truth be told though, it is Arturo Escobar brought me to Papanek, with his recent work on design as a way of thinking/ theorising/ getting to the pluriverse. So I am newly intrigued by design understood in its broader sense, and this is of course where Papanek has so much to contribute (though to be sure he also excels at the actual design and the making and the details). He likes lists as much as I do, and we start there. He writes that the repertoire of a designer’s skills and talents include:

1. The ability to research, organize and innovate.

2. The capacity to develop appropriate answers to new or newly emerging problems.

3. The skill to test these answers through experimentation, computer modelling, working prototypes or real-world test runs.

4. The training to communicate such developments through drawings, models, mock-ups and feasibility studies, video or film, as well as through verbal, computer-generated or written reports.

5. The talent to combine form-giving with rigorous technical considerations and with a sense of humane and social factors and aesthetic enchantment.

6. The wisdom to anticipate the environmental, ecological, economic, and political consequences of design intervention.

7. The ability to work with people from many different cultures and different disciplines. (8)

Aesthetic enchantment! Yes! This is a good list for living really, and for approaching many kinds of problems. Above all this, Papanek argued that we need a new kind of view, a new approach. He writes that a

world view based on recognizing how little we know might not only protect us from devastating mistakes in the future, but might also require letting go of the arrogance that seems such a strong element in the personality of designers and architects. We could even try to find some sorely needed humility. This may be the cardinal point where design practice meets the spiritual. Buddhism teaches humility and the vanity of material possessions…

He argues that it is this humility more than anything that will lead design in the directions it needs to go to save this world of ours.

Perhaps there should be no special category called ‘sustainable design’. It might be simpler to assume that all designers will try to reshape their values and their work, so that all design is based on humility, combines objective aspects of climate and the ecological use of materials with subjective intuitive processes, and relies on cultural and bio-regional factors for its forms. (12)

Could that not take us a good log way? A few more of my favourites by chapter.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

All thinking worthy of the name must now be ecological. (Lewis Mumford)

From Lewis Mumford to a nice little hommage to Schumacher’s small is beautiful:

the problem of human scale, the threat of bigness. My primary conviction as a human being, a designer and an ecologist is: Nothing Big Works – Ever! One only has to look at General Motors, General Dynamics, General Electric, or General Westmoreland and all his armies for that matter, to see the truth of this proposition. It is equally true of those large countries made impotent by their own ungovernable size, such as the former Soviet Union, the United States, China, India and – to a lesser degree – Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria. This curse of bigness holds true of large corporations, huge school systems, mushrooming bureaucracies and other megastructures. (24)

Designing for a Safer Future

We come here to some of the nitty gritty. I love this broad conception of the life cycle of products and how designers need to understand the impacts of every stage. Decades after Papanek wrote this, conceptions of the circular economy and its importance to zero waste have finally begun coming into their own. The worst thing reading the full test supporting this list is that I feel we know more now, and it is worse than we thought:

The creation and manufacture of any product–both during its period of active use and its existence afterwards–fall into at least six separate cycles, each of which has the potential for ecological harm.


1. The choice of materials

2. The manufacturing processes

3. Packaging the product

4. The finished product

5. Transporting the product

6. Waste

These need to be examined and ecologically sound decisions made about each stage at the very beginning of design in what Papanek calls a Product Life Cycle Assessment.

But again, it is about being able to step back, re-evaluate and ensure ecological values and balance can be centered along the multiple uses and meanings of all that is designed. An image:

Toward the Spritual in Design

A long list of what this would look like. This is not just about preventing damage as the chapter before it, but gives us some principles of good design to help us tread lightly lightly on this earth.

The Designers Intent

He writes:

I firmly believe that it is the intent of the designer as well as the intended use of the designed object that can yield spiritual value. The European word ‘form giving’ may express best what industrial designers do always being careful to include the workings of the device in the form-giving and making sure that a degree of inventiveness is part of the design process. As we practise our art and skill, what we do moulds who we are and what we are becoming.

When we become the hired guns of greed-driven corporations, we are driven to conform.

If we generate status kitsch for a jaded élite, and allow ourselves to become media celebrities, we perform.

When we twist products to reflect the navel-gazing of market research, we deform.

If our products divorce appearance and the other functions – a telephone that looks like a duck and quacks instead of ringing, a clock-radio that looks like a female leg – we misinform.

When our designs are succinct statements of purpose, easy to understand, use, maintain and repair, long-lasting, recyclable and benign to the environment, we inform.

If we design with harmony and balance in mind, working for the good of the weaker members of our society, we reform.

Being willing to face the consequences of our design interventions, and accepting our social and moral responsibilities, we give form.

All this can be done only if we learn to recognize the ethical dilemmas of our profession. (53)

Damn. I quite love that.

What follows are a list of questions that can guide designers in creating things that he argues actually yield spiritual value:

Will the design significantly aid the sustainability of the environment?

Can it make life easier for some group that has been marginalized by society?

Will it save energy or better still help to gain renewable energies?

Can it ease pain?

Will it help those who are poor, disenfranchised or suffering?

Can it save irreplaceable resources? (54)

Imagine if we focused all of our efforts on this list, imagine it. Imagine more of all these other things.

Design for Disassembly

Around 1990 a new direction in industrial design was introduced called ‘Design for Disassembly (DFD) or take-apart technology. It takes the environment into account by designing the whole object in such a way that it can easily be disassembled and recycled once its useful life is over. (58)

Exploiting every scrap

Concern for the ecology points to yet another possible new direction in design, that is, the exploitation of off-cuts from manufacturing, which are normally wasted. This can best be illustrated through small-scale and modest examples.

People Participation

The job of the designer is to provide choices for people. These choices should be real and meaningful, allowing people to participate more fully in their own life decisions, and enabling them to communicate with designers and architects in finding solutions to their own problems. (59-60)

Designer as entrepreneur

Many of the tools and devices illustrated in this and other chapters exist as prototypes only. High risk and low return discourage many firms from producing them. My proposed solution to this societal neglect of valuable ideas is a combination of small, highly decentralized factories (to give autonomy to owners and workers, as well as to conserve the energy wasted in long-range transport of goods). There is a need for both design enterpreneurship and governmental incentives that would protect such new enterprises. (64)

Evaluating new techologies

And applying them in a meaningful manner.

Design Ethics

A quick way to judge just how ethical your ethics are:

1. Is the code of ethics simply self-serving?

2. Does the code of conduct’ really protect the public?

3. Is this code truly regulative, that is, do the members comply with it, and can the public make its own judgments about the compliance of the members?

4. Are these rules clear and specific about the possible pitfalls inherent in the particular profession or work performed by its members?

5. Can non-members observe and judge compliance with the rules by members, and is it enforceable?

6. Is this code of ethics, as well as the group or association, so constructed as to anticipate future changes, and therefore willing to teach, learn and inform its membership as well as the public?

7. Can the professional leadership of such professional organizations be made aware that, due to the modern media, we are living in an increasingly transparent society, in which secret deals, whitewashing and stone walling will no longer work?

With these ‘cover your own backside, boys!’ ethics out of the way, we can think about the interaction between design and moral values.

Properly speaking, ethics are the philosophical basis for making choices about morals and values. Moral decisions are made through recognizing that a dilemma exists and consciously weighing the alternatives. Values provide direction when decisions about alternative courses of action must be made. (70)

I do love how this disembowels ethics as currently practiced — essentially risk mitigation exercises.

Transforming the assignment

Is it just a bad assignment? The wrong product? Then negotiate with clients or present a counter-proposal…though he acknowledges this is labour intensive and not always possible.

I think this chapter is rather beautiful and the core of Papanek’s contribution.

The New Aesthetics: Making the Future Work

The final chapter, the summation of all the lists and a good summary list.

1. The sustainability of life on this planet – not only for humankind but for all our fellow species is paramount.

2. Sustainability can be helped or hindered by design. The impact of petrol powered automobiles on the environment, wars, foreign policy, economics, morals and jobs is profound enough to serve as a chilling example.

3. Ethical design must also be environmentally sound and ecologically benign. It needs to be human in scale, humane and embedded in social responsibility.

4. Such design requires the help of governments, industry, entrepreneurs and laws, and the support of ordinary people through local user groups and individual decisions to shop intelligently and invest ethically.

5. Designers and architects all seem to be waiting for some fresh style or direction that will provide new meaning and new forms for the objects we create, based more on real requirements than on an arbitrarily invented style.

6. All objects, tools, graphics and dwellings must work towards the needs of the end-user on a more basic level than mere appearance, flamboyant gesture’, or semiotic ‘statements’. Nevertheless, the lack of any spiritual basis for design will make ethical and environmental considerations mere well-intentioned afterthoughts.

7. Design, when nourished by a deep spiritual concern for planet, environment, and people, results in a moral and ethical viewpoint. Starting from this point of departure will provide the new forms and expressions – the new aesthetic – we are all desperately trying to find. (235)

More concretely (pun sort of intended), this means

Ecology and concern for the environment, which includes recycling, Design Diversification or adaptive re-use, Design-for Disassembly, the use of non-compound materials, and most importantly using less, are the most profound and powerful forces, and may indeed develop the new directions that are so desperately needed in both design and architecture. (236)

There is so much here to chew over and think about, and a second post on the stuff specific to architecture. I am looking forward to reading Design for the Real World, though the stacks of books before it…well.

Papanek, Victor (1995) The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson.

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