How to design responsibly

Essential lessons from the founder of sustainable design, Victor Papanek.

By Zoe Lester

Victor Papanek was a designer and educator, whose teachings on responsible design have not only stood the test of time – they’ve become more relevant today than ever.

Papanek believed designers have a social responsibility to only create products that are useful and environmentally friendly. By this, he means made from materials that suit the purpose and can be disposed of in a safe, eco-friendly way. The alternative, Papanek points out, are mass-produced, useless products that end up as garbage, cluttering the landscape and potentially polluting the air we breathe. For example, the electric carrot peeler was an unsustainable, short-term fashion item that had a long-term impact on the environment.

Instead of creating next year’s landfill addition, Papanek urges designers to design for real needs. Using lab goggles as an example, Papanek pointed out the flaws in many modern designs. Lab goggles are built from plastic and treated as disposable as they have a weak spot across the bridge of the nose, which breaks under pressure. This provides a clear opportunity to make goggles durable and long lasting. Or, if the intention is for them to remain disposable, they should be made from different, greener materials.

Papanek may have been writing this in the 70s, but it’s a problem that hasn’t been solved. Apple has recently been criticised by Tony Fry for its choice of glass steel for the next iPhone. Fry points out that glass steel is the strongest material ever made and could possibly last for 50,000 years. But it’s being used for a phone with a life expectancy of 3-4 years.

Papanek – and Fry’s – key message is one of sustainability. Designers need to think ahead and apply common sense to avoid the short-sighted decisions that have brought us to the brink of environmental crisis.

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care…Never before in history have grown men sat down and seriously designed electric hair brushes, rhinestone-covered file boxes, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people.”

Victor Papanek

Top 5 ways to design for sustainability

  1. Look at yourself first
    At the risk of sounding like a self-help book; change does in fact start with the yourself. The point is to understand that as a designer, we are both creator and destructor. By acknowledging this, we can understand that we are also part of the problem and solution.
  2. Continually evolve
    At the end of every project, ask yourself what could you have done if circumstances had been different? This is an important question in order to set better goals and create better solutions next time.
  3. Align your goals with the challenges of the day
    The UN Sustainable development goals are a universal call to action for governments, business and people to make a positive change for the planet. Use these as starting point to prioritise which ones are important to your organisation. Then use this as a framework for your goal setting.
  4. Adopt an Agile approach
    In software development, an Agile approach is used to let teams evolve solutions as they move through projects, taking into account user needs, feedback and risks. Imagine if this could be done across every idea that’s put into the world. It would become easier to choose the right things and do more good in the world.
  5. Learn from nature
    In nature, there is no waste. When life ends, it provides food and nourishment to other animals or the earth itself. In a utopian world, we would be able to apply this principle to products as well as society. Making use of everything, reducing our reliance on landfills, and making the planet a better place for everyone.

This article forms part of Zoe Lester’s MA in Design and Environment at Goldsmiths. To learn more about her methodology and what she’s been up to, email her at

Fry, Tony (2012) Steel: UnSettling the Iron Planet, October 29, 2012. Available from:

Papanek, Victor (2011) Design for the real world, Thames & Hudson – London

Find out more about universal design principles:

Part 1 in the series: Seven Crucial lessons for mobile banking
Part 2 in the series: The importance of being accessible 

Find out more:

Learn more about universal design principles

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