Source: Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World. Academy Chicago Publishers, 2nd edition. p. 225

This crude radio is one of my favorite “things to think with.” It is the antithesis of the slick, glitzy designs you see in design magazines — because the design process started from a human need. As Papanek tells it, there were parts of the world where “entire village populations were illiterate and unaware that they lived in, and were part of, a nation-state. Unable to read, and without enough power for radios or money for batteries, they were effectively cut off from all news and communication.” It is interesting to note that Papanek started on this project after being approached by the US Army. He began work on the device in 1962.

Papanek describes the components: “earplug speaker, hand-woven copper radial antenna, an “earth” wire terminating in a (used) nail, tunnel-diode, and thermocouple…”

Some things I think about:

  • This project started from a need expressed by the US Army. Why were they interested?
  • When Papanek demonstrated the radio to the Army they were very concerned. “What if a Communist” starts to broadcast? They were thinking ahead to the consequences of dissemination. How far ahead should we think about consequences? Where does the responsibility of the designer begin, and where does it end?
  • Papanek focused on function, not aesthetics. Turns out that in some cases the users decorated the outside of their cans in a local style. What is the lesson from this?
  • Was it ethical for outsiders to decide that villagers should get information from the world at large? If we bring radio broadcasts, television, etc, into the lives of people, are there responsibilities that come along with this, for example to teach critical thinking about media? And is that cultural imperialism?
  • I want students to build these radios for themselves. What do you think students would learn by building their own tin can radio, that they don’t learn just by listening to me talk about it?