If that year-old electric can opener no longer completely opens cans, or that super-duper shower nozzle with the three spray attachments balks at spewing out more than a standard drizzle, then you've discovered what industrial designer, Victor Papanek, has known for years.

Many things don't work - because they're not designed to work efficiently, or properly, or for very long.

Papnek had his epiphany about the unworkability of most things in the 1950s. He was working for a New York industrial firm and one evening, while out with his boss, he was asked what concerned him most about his job.

"I explained that my mother was a very short lady and that nothing was convenient for her in her kitchen," he recalls. "She had to reach up and lean over things. I wanted to work on those kinds of design problems. My boss just roared and asked me if I thought we were designing for 50,000 little old ladies."

The response bothered Papanek, who thought about the industrial executive's reaction. He solved his mother's problem by raising the level of the floor with a layer of bricks covered with wood slats. He also decided that if there were 50,000 little old ladies who were short, there must be at least 50,000 little old men.

"Then I started thinking about the fact that between 6 and 14 most people are short," he says. "Then I realized that while Americans are tall - this was before all the nutritional improvements in diet in Europe - most Europeans were not. Then there were Africans, Asians and South Americans. The rest of the world in fact . . . that the American design establish-most was ignoring."

Papanek began his battle against the design establishment, many of whom he describes as "cosmetic stylists," people who change the outside of gadgets, machinery and instruments, but ignore simple changes that will make them work more efficiently for people. But to do it, he took his interests overseas, only recently returning to this country to become chairman of design for the Kansas City Air Institute.

Before returning, Papanek lived and worked in 11 countries in Europe and Africa. He designs for UNESCO/UNIDO in design management for developing countries and was a senior design consultant for the Volvo automobile firm in Sweden. In addition, Papanek works as a design consultant for the World Health Organization in Switzerland and has written a new book titled "How Thing's Don't Work." His first book, "Design for the Real World," has been translated into 23 languages, making it the most widely read book on design.

Papanek, who lives in Kansas City with his wife and young daughter, went to Cooper Union, MIT, and trained as an architect with Frank Lloyd Wright. He's rarely practiced the profession and even though he is interested in do-it-yourself homes, says he'd rather "do comic books that show people how they can do things themselves. I really feel there are too many products in the world."

What Papanek has written in his latest book, co-authored by his former student, Jim Hennessey, a faculty member of Rochester Institute of Technology, is, he says, "less a how-to-do-it book, than an encourage-your-self-do-it book."

"Over the last 10 or 15 years, people have been more and more willing to accept services," he explains about the reluctance of most of us to tackle things like making a bathtub, buying a second-hand refrigerator or making anything by hand. "It's a privilege and it saves a lot of personal work, but in doing so you get a lot of shoddy work."

Papanek recalls inventing a protective bumper for cars in seven minutes.

"I was in Washington and the big-three car manufactures were in town and being asked if they could use the technology that had put a man on the moon to help absorb the impact to car and passenger in a car that ran into something at 5 miles an hour. The manufactures said it would take seven to 10 yars and would result in an additional cost to the consumer of $300-$500.

Papanek decided that in seven to 10 minutes he could come up with an invention that would cost $3-$5.

What he came up with is what he calls "a hostage," a reference to a huge sandwich popular in Philadelphia, and also called a "Dagwood" or "Hero sandwich." Papanek's "hoagie" was two lengths of wood long enough to be tied to a car's bumper that had 40 to 60 empty beer cans sandwiched in between. With this gadget attached to his car, Papanek drove his car into the side of the Senate office building at 10 miles an hour.

"It worked fine," he recalls with a chuckle. "It works better than the Volvo's new bumper."

Though he doesn't recommend his bumper, Papanek does want Americans to think of "similar sorts of answers to problems.

"Most things are simple once you start to investigate them," Papanek maintains, which is one of the reasons he wrote his current book.

The idea was born when a friend sent several books on how things work to Papanek three years ago as Christmas presents. The topics, nuclear submarines, the steering operations for computer presses, didn't interest him. What Papanek wanted to know was how ordinary things worked or didn't work.

"I wanted a book that would put some decision back into the hands of people," he says. Thus, his book tells how bathrooms are inefficient and provides energy and water conserving alternatives to the conventional arrangement. It argues that rather than buying a hot shaving cream dispenser, a person can merely run the can of shaving cream under a hot water tap. It says that the most efficient electric can openers are no longer on the market, and that a manual one is better. It recommends sharing seasonal or infrequently used items like lawn mowers.

Papanek is a man who only sees a problem in terms of trying to find a solution. In his vest pocket he carries a tiny computer about the width and length of a six-inch ruler. It does currency conversions - needed for his frequent trips to Europe and Australia, where he is a consultant to the Papua-New Guinea government, and mathematical calculations.

"I was a consultant on its design," says Papanek. "The company that makes it wanted something this size but no one had figured out where to put all the numbers to punch since you need the space of a finger for each digit.

I suggested we put two series of numbers on the sides and there you have it.It's nice to break through a square," he beams.

Papanek, who is refining a diagnostic kit for primary health care in Third World countries, has already started a new project. It's a chair for the elderly. The project took him on a three-week sojourn in a senior citizen's home and led to the discovery that many of the old men used to be skilled carpenters and cabinet makers.

"Now they'll be consultants and make up the design so that other elderly people can made a comfortable chair," he says. "In another hundred years, I'll be old and I want all the problems taken care of by then."