The exhibition Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design, that will be presented on October 31st at the Design Museum of Barcelona, is the first big retrospective of the Austrian designer, author and activist Victor J. Papanek, one of the most influential pioneers of the 20th century for his discourse around social and ecological design. It is a cooperation between the Design Museum of Barcelona and the Vitra Design Museum, in collaboration with the Victor J. Papanek Foundation, University of Applied Arts Vienna.
We talk with one of the curators, Amelie Klein, about what this exhibition will consist of, Papanek’s way of understanding design and some of his ideas, such as social inclusiveness, sustainability and the designer’s responsibility.
Who was Victor J. Papanek?
He was a designer, but mostly a teacher, writer and thinker. He is best known for his book Design for the Real World, a substantial and provocative design critique, where he claims that “there are professions more dangerous and harmful than design, but not many of them”. He starts with a sharp critique of design in the 60s and 70s, of overconsumption, society and design’s role of social and environmental responsibility, as it enhances unsustainable behavior.
What makes him a pioneer?
He wasn’t the only nor the first person to look at the responsibility of design, but he was definitely amongst the first to do so in a very accessible language for the wider public. During his life Papanek put a lot of effort into making people understand that no design is neutral, it always has consequences. You don’t just create something out of nowhere: everything comes from something and goes somewhere.
The exhibition is named "The Politics of Design". Which were his?
For Papanek, design in and by itself is a political activity. It speaks for or against inclusiveness, sustainability… and by doing so, it is inherently political. Most designers still don’t understand that everything they design will have a political impact. For example, big companies like Google can decide whether to design their terms of service in a way that people want to read them or in a typeface that is deliberately very hard to read. This is a political decision, beyond parties or parliaments, because it touches my personal rights as a member of society. Designers should be aware of the political dimension of their activity.
You have curated the exhibition together with Professor Alison J. Clarke. How was the curatorial process?
Alison J. Clarke, director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation, approached Mateo Kries, director of the Vitra Design Museum, who has always been a huge fan of the designer. Then we met many times at the Foundation's archive, located at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, and discussed with her which objects should be in the exhibition, which story we wanted to tell and how to set up the narrative to create not only an intellectual but also a visceral experience for the visitors.
There will be more than 300 pieces, some of which have never been displayed before, such as drawings, manuscripts, films… Which topics will arise from this selection?
The issues that Papanek discussed in the seventies could not be more timely and up-to-date. If he lived today, he would hate Google, Apple and Facebook, because they disrespect so many of the principles he stressed throughout his life. The narrative of this exhibition is that design is so much more than form giving or making something pretty or functional. It is about who you allow to use a specific type of design or who you exclude from using it. He really thinks of design as a system, and that’s what we tried to do too, to establish design as a way of thinking rather than of making something.
What do you want the visitors to question?
I’d like the audience to understand that they have a power of influence, and that starts with questioning their own behavior. How much do I shop? Do I eat everything that is in my fridge? What do I waste? Do I look at how a design is made? All of these questions are in the user’s hand. What is important for the visitors is to understand that designers have a huge responsibility, but ultimately we all have it. This exhibition is a good conversation starter.
Our responsibility as a society comes actually from consuming designed goods.
What’s interesting about the little tools we use all the time, and I’m talking about smartphones, is not their design or functionalities, but how they change our behavior and interactions. People often don't make clear appointments anymore but send messages as they are on their way. They don't read guidebooks in preparation for a holiday but instead use Google as they arrive. This is something we can opt in or out of, but at some point opting out becomes a lot more difficult.
Is design a current catalyst of systemic change?
I think so. Designers can open up possibilities by offering seemingly simple solutions. For example, in German and Austrian cities the sidewalk is lowered at street crossings, so pushing a baby stroller or moving in a wheelchair has become much easier. This seems to be a very simple change but makes a huge difference. Ultimately, if the man-made environment allows people to participate rather than disabling them, then they will not be disabled.
In Design for the Real World, Papanek stated that ‘designers became a dangerous breed’. Are designers living up to this today or have they become too conformist?
There’s this saying that "The road to hell is paved with good intentions". Good intentions are often the beginning of a bad ending. We see a lot of design motivated by good intentions, which is good but not good enough. A lot of activities are about making the world a better place. Better for who? Who decides what’s better? Good intentions, but not good results. The social design movement struggles a lot with this very naive claim.
Papanek believes design is a political tool for transformation, and a designer is both a political and social actor. Would you say designers have embraced this responsibility?
Some have and some haven’t. We see a lot of products of recycled plastic, which I find problematic, because what it tells me ultimately is “Go and buy more stuff!”. We have to be very clear about disrupting the system. This just enhances it. We cannot pretend to be saving the world while buying more stuff, it’s not going to happen. It will never be sustainable, and design is very complicit in this. We have to change our behavior.
Social injustice, climate change and flagrant consumerism are problems that Papanek introduced in his understanding of design and that not only remain largely unresolved, but have even intensified. What would Papanek say we are doing wrong?
There are many fields that he’d probably be ranting about. He’d be very critical about the power mechanisms and structures that are deeply embedded in our system. I doubt he’d be happy about the current president of the United States, and I’m not sure he’d like to see thousands and thousands of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.
How is design addressing all these problems, if at all?
We were very much aware of how social design can go wrong and therefore we have included around 20 contemporary objects that create a conversation in very fascinating and interesting ways rather than necessarily offering a solution. We see projects that make the move but it still goes wrong in some aspects. What the exhibition aims to do is to reappropriate the process of making things and to make people aware of consumer behavior.
Are designers problem solvers or creators?
In the best case, they are problem solvers. In many others they just extend a problem and make it last for longer. Often making it worse comes with good intentions. There is a tendency to offer simple solutions for complex problems. But often design faces contradictory needs. What is beneficial for one group might be someone else's disadvantage. While sidewalks have become much easier to navigate for people in wheelchairs, people with visual impairment have a problem when they do not feel the edge and all of a sudden find themselves in the middle of the street. Often when you include one group, you exclude another. But at least, design can start a conversation and a negotiation process.
Problems are so complex that we can’t even describe them without doing injustice to their complexity, let alone solve them. This is also something we try to express in the exhibition. Victor Papanek says, design is much too difficult to be done by one person alone, multidisciplinary teams are needed to tackle complex problems and come up with solutions. The most important member of your team, according to Papanek, is a representative of the group that will use your product. What designers can do very well is linking different people and translating one language into the other. If you asked for my definition of ‘design’, I’d argue that it is something that brings concepts, ideas, people and things together that do not seem to belong together at first glance.
Is design inclusive?
Design has become more inclusive, because people with wheelchairs or visual impairment can now navigate cities better than in the 70s. Are our cities inclusive overall? No, they’re not. Are we 100% inclusive as a society? No. Often design reflects society. Could design be more inclusive than the current society? Ideally it should encourage inclusiveness. Design will always be better if it’s more inclusive. If design addresses needs it has previously ignored, it's usually better design for everybody.
Papanek fostered a design committed to what he called the ‘social minorities of design’. What is the current social agenda of design, if any?
The design agenda is very much in tune with what we see in society. We see the same social movements now that we saw in the sixties and seventies. We see young people protesting on the streets for more environmental responsibility, more social justice… But it's tricky. Protests come and go. I mean, it’s not only a matter of urgency to protest against climate change, but it’s also kind of trendy, isn’t it? Is there anything design can do to keep it trendy, keep people thinking about it? Can we design in a way that enhances sustainable behavior rather than promoting the latest hot products to buy? Can design make uncomfortable behavior sexy and trendy? And can it do so sustainably?
We often think that tomorrow will be better. Is design working to change things and make this possible or is it just a cliché?
If more designers were really aware of their responsibility, they could potentially change things. Obviously, that’s a lot of responsibility for one single designer. We need a bigger movement and more responsibility in politics and industry. As long as a plane ticket from Vienna to London costs less money than a train ticket from Gatwick to Victoria, people will fly. All of this is not exclusively the responsibility of designers, but they do have the power to make change possible.