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Design became the medium and subject of reflection, protest, and criticism. As a result, sociopolitical issues increasingly moved into the designer’s focus. The dark side of capitalist production modes—global social dislocations and environmental consequences, for example—became increasingly visible.

In 1971, Austrian-American designer Victor Papanek published the book Design for the Real World, in which he pleads for a design that feels beholden not only to economic interests and strategic market considerations, but is also conscious of its role as global actor. In Papanek’s view, consumer society led to a neglect of design’s ethical aspects. His provocative assertion was that only few “professions are more harmful than industrial design,” which is why design must “become an innovative, creative, and interdisciplinary instrument true to the needs of the people.”3

In the 1970s, designers again became aware of their social and environmental responsibility. Today’s eco-design, debates about sustainability, and attempts to recycle existing materials in the development of new products trace their origins to the protests of the 1960s.

A new self-conception and self-awareness also emerged at this time for designers. They no longer wanted to be agents or optimizers, but to become reflexive, critical entities reflecting on the conditions of design’s creation, questioning the economic and cultural framework in which they operated, and proposing alternatives. The tentative high point of this new self-conception is Critical Design, founded around 2000 by English designers Anthony Dunne (born in 1964) and Fiona Raby (born in 1963). It doesn’t manufacture any practically useful objects, but rather seeks to show “that the everyday could also be different—that things can change.”

In Italy, Radical Design offered another answer to the crisis of classical, industry-related product design. Starting in the late 1960s, it questioned modernism’s strict prevailing functionalism. In the 1980s, this rejection culminated in the programmatic “anything goes” approach of Italy’s Memphis Group and the market noncompliance of “Neues Deutsches Design,” which was oriented to the artistic process. Indeed, much of the design of the 1980s that took a critical stance toward industry sought a proximity to art; it wanted to elevate the designer from industrial production’s anonymity. So emerged the artist-like “auteur designer” who, similar to the designers of the early 20th-century reform movements, developed high-quality and usually expensive products.

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