XXI.4 July + August 2014
Page: 20
Digital Citation

Let’s resist the temptation to solve problems

Nynke Tromp

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In his 1971 book, Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek spelled out specific concerns he foresaw surrounding mass production and mass consumption. He described the increasing influence it would give designers, potentially exerted negatively, and he warned against the piles of junk and depletion of resources that these production facilities could lead to. Papanek was clearly ahead of his time. Yet only once the environment topped our list of global concerns did designers and design scholars alike begin to acknowledge his work and incorporate it into their practice.

Despite the high quality of his thinking, I consider the current praise of Papanek's work—and especially the design practices this reverence has led to—just as worrying as the neglect from which his ideas suffered at the time. Granted, he accurately anticipated the environmental situation we currently face: Mass production and consumption have indeed led to resource depletion and environmental pollution. So, yes, we should have listened more carefully to him. Interestingly, though, both the passiveness at the time and the eagerness with which his ideas have been adopted by current designers and scholars can be explained by the same principle: People (including designers) naturally find it easier to address immediately pressing concerns and tend to dismiss concerns that emerge out of what may seem like remote theory or speculation. For instance, without doubt we all want to live in peace. Yet those who have actually experienced the horrors of war are likely to feel a burning desire for peace, and thus are likely to have a clearer, more immediate instinct to act on it.

We must remember that when Papanek published his book, the issues at the forefront of people's minds were independence, gender and social equality, and freedom of expression. The goods that utilized mass-production processes addressed these concerns quite effectively. For example, affordable automobiles enabled the pursuit of greater individual freedom and newfound possibilities. Consumer appliances (like washing machines) took over household chores, facilitating women's entry into the workforce, and thereby contributed not only to women's individual financial independence, but also to gender equality as a whole. Such designs have contributed vastly toward upholding values we still consider important today. Yet the implications of promoting those values were not taken into consideration when the designs were produced and sold.

Unfortunately, the drawbacks of implementing poorly considered design practices have in turn become increasingly evident. We currently face a number of major global and social problems, many of which have been encouraged by designers: resource depletion, the obesity epidemic, economic crisis, intercultural tension, and climate change, to name a few. For example, one of the reasons obesity has become a global issue and one of the reasons it is so hard to counteract is that our environment continuously seduces us to be inactive and eat whatever we like. Our sophisticated network of time, money-, and labor-saving designs (from moving sidewalks to drive-thrus to all-you-can-eat fast food chains) strongly promotes convenience, choice, and comfort. It requires quite a bit of willpower to stay active and eat properly in such an environment. Similarly, designers have a shared responsibility for the rise of intercultural tensions in particular neighborhoods. The well-designed network of communication tools, devices, and platforms that has become our go-to source of advice, information, and (social) support has eliminated any mundane reason for a chat over the garden fence. We simply do not need our neighbors as much as we used to anymore for our personal well-being. At the same time, as a result of globalization and wide-scale immigration, many people currently live alongside others who have different cultural backgrounds, norms, and values. It is easy to imagine that under these circumstances tensions may arise when people no longer invest in creating and maintaining supportive relationships with their neighbors. Both of these examples show that the products and services that solved yesterday's inconveniences, inefficiencies, and dependencies have in fact contributed to certain health and social issues we now face. In other words, by solving the problems of today, designers often create the problems of tomorrow.

The fact that many present-day designers and design scholars wish to use their skills and thinking to resolve social issues is praiseworthy. Many who share Papanek's resistance to mass consumption are now seeking alternatives. In their view, designers should be encouraged to move away from market-driven practices and become facilitators of co-design processes in order to drive societal change. They argue that designers can never be responsible for the impact of their designs, but rather can at best be responsive to societal context. Many public institutions have stressed the value of this approach: Involving people can greatly improve public services and designs! However, in bringing Papanek's principles to bear on the present or even extending them, they are actually making the same mistake as was made in the 1970s: ignoring the possibly conflicting and less-pressing (yet important!) concerns we have. While co-design practices may offer substantial benefits when compared with others, they fail to acknowledge the core issue standing in the way of a truly sustainable future: As a design practice, co-design (and the fruits of its implementation) satisfies concerns that we are feeling and experiencing now but often conflict with others that are equally important.


Ignoring concerns that are important to all human beings may lead to design solutions that can cause serious problems over time. Solutions that foster solidarity may create problems for people's independence, and design interventions that aim for sustainability may conflict with our need for individual status. Designers need to be taught to understand just how easily important concerns can conflict, and new concerns can arise, in order to be one step ahead. The fact that we are now preoccupied with safety in our neighborhoods, environmental sustainability, and our health illustrates that these concerns were ignored by the design solutions that enabled them—the very same solutions that attempted to address our needs for independence, status, and convenience. The truth is that in solely responding to current prevailing societal concerns, designers are forgetting that we all have a hard time expressing or emphasizing concerns that are not being experienced or vividly felt. It has become imperative for designers to take such concerns into account to prevent the realization of solutions that foster future problems, considering the impact that design practices exert on the world around us. In other words, we designers need to assume the responsibility (indeed: responsibility) for considering how and why new concerns arise, in order to prevent ourselves from creating the problems of tomorrow.

This wouldn't be a confession if I had nothing to confess. Admittedly, I am reflecting on this design practice from an academic perspective. I see very clearly how designers and design scholars often fail to notice this pattern: Focusing on solving today's problems by addressing vividly felt concerns will create the next generation of problems. I see how independence and individualism were worthwhile pursuits at one time, and I see how acquiring them has led to our desire for solidarity and collectivism. Only designs that do justice to both individual and collective concerns will lead to a balanced way of living. Only a context- and time-independent perspective can help us understand how concerns conflict. This means that when we develop community-based services, we should force ourselves to imagine what negative consequences for independence they imply. It means that although we see the drawbacks of current services, systems, and designs, we should force ourselves to see the benefits, too. And it means that when a design appears to offer a clear benefit to people's lives, we should question it carefully. When we acknowledge that our individual concerns for comfort, convenience, efficiency, status, and independence are as valid as our collective concerns for peace, health, sustainability, safety, and solidarity, we will be able to consistently build a future that does justice to what makes us human.

Of course, I am also aware of how immensely difficult this is in practice. Alongside my work in academia, I also work in the field. I know how tempting it is to address overtly expressed concerns, and I know how satisfying it is to develop a design that makes people smile and truly contributes to their lives now. But it is the responsibility of designers to move beyond the frame of reference created by users, clients, and other stakeholders without ignoring them. It is the responsibility of designers to acknowledge felt concerns as well as known concerns. And it is the responsibility of designers to take the time to consider, and give equal measure to, concerns that nobody else expresses.

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Nynke Tromp is an assistant professor in the Department of Industrial Design, Delft University of Technology, and a social designer at Reframing Studio in Amsterdam. In both positions, she works on the social implications of design caused by the implicit influence design inevitably has on people's behavior.

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