New technology arrives in waves. Over the last 35 years, the computer world has gone through several waves of change—personal computers, the Internet, smartphones, and now machine intelligence. Each of these has disrupted the way design was done and what designers do. Hugh Dubberly has ridden each of these waves, not only through his work in the computer industry but also as someone who helped the design profession understand and adapt to change.
Chuck BryneJust a few years after graduate school you joined Apple computer as Creative Director for Macintosh communications. That was 1986 and we met at Apple in 1987. I was there researching PRINT magazine’s first big article on graphic designers using the Macintosh computer.
We’ve talked about many things over the years, but I’ve never asked how you became interested in graphic design.
Hugh DubberlyI grew up in Colorado and first encountered graphic design in high school—in a “commercial art” class taught by Peter Bryant, a former art director from Los Angeles. Peter introduced me to Armin Hofmann’s Graphic Design Manual and Milton Glaser’s first monograph, Graphic Design, with his illustration of Bob Dylan on the cover. In high school, I also took drafting courses and began to scour Architectural Record and its fascinating diagrams.
CBI know you went to RISD and Yale.
HDMy college education actually began in the School of Environmental Design at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The program was dominated by architects from UC Berkeley. They were influenced by the “design methods” movement (a direct precursor to “design thinking”), which had been centered at HfG Ulm and the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. The concept was and is methods for designing anything. My first design class taught “The Scientific Problem-Solving Design Process.”
CBYou then went on to Rhode Island School of Design?
HDYes. After two years at Boulder, I transferred to RISD. Tom Ockerse chaired the graphic design department and taught semiotics. Doug Scott introduced design history. Malcolm Grear, Preston McClanahan, Michael McPherson, Bill Newkirk, Gerard Unger, and Benno Wissing taught type, form, and systems. Chuck Bigelow introduced letterpress and his dialog with Jack Stauffacher, A Search for the Typographic Form of Plato’s Phaedrus, as well as Don Knuth’s TeX and Metafont. Sy Sillman introduced Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color.
CBThen you went to Yale. Who was teaching there?
HDMany of the classic faculty: Alvin Eisenman, Brad Thompson, Paul Rand, Herbert Matter, Shigeo Fukuda, Armin Hofmann, Philip Burton, Inge Druckrey, Chris Pullman, and Matthew Carter.
I also got to study with some great people outside of graphic design—Vincent Scully, Ed Tufte, and Umberto Eco. Later, I attended Lou Danziger’s “History of Graphic Design” course at Harvard.
CBI remember you telling great stories from Yale.
HDYes. I got in trouble for arguing with Mr. Hofmann. Inge Druckrey told me, “Don’t argue with Armin. JA!”
CBYou seem never to avoid a good argument?
HDDuring one class I asked Mr. Rand about an instruction he had given me, “Why move that line there?” He really had no interest in explaining his instructions. He pointed to another student in the class and said, “Why is she a pretty girl? She just is. Look kid—JUST do it!”
Brad Thompson was a sweetheart. He brought milk and cookies to class. Both Mr. Thompson and Mr. Rand had very simple, very polished, and very rich assignments, like their visual work.
CBWhat instructor influenced you the most?
HDDean Hughes. He taught writing at my high school and was the first to expose me to “rigor.” Writing has become more and more important in design practice, especially in interaction design.
The design process taught at Boulder had a huge impact on me—particularly its framing of design as a response to human needs. We were required to read Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World, which is still relevant. Jim Cross was on the faculty at Boulder. He introduced me to Karl Gerstner’s Designing Programmes, a foundation for visual systems.
CBWhat did you learn and not learn in design school?
HDMany things: the value of iteration, a human-centered approach, the design process, design methods, basic computer programming, the ability to talk about the work and the process. I think one of the most important things I learned was a certain work ethic.
What I did not learn in design school could fill volumes. How to mix sound and image. How to make images move. How businesses work. How to manage. How to construct an argument.
CBBut, your basic design education did teach you how to find the answers to these.
HDYes. I learned how to learn, which in a way is what design is all about.
CBYou have done quite a bit of teaching in a variety of schools.
HDI’ve taught at The Center for Creative Imaging, San Jose State, Art Center, Stanford, Institute of Design (IIT/ID), Carnegie-Mellon (CMU), Northeastern (NEU), and California College of the Arts (CCA). At Art Center, I founded and chaired a program in “Computer Graphics” and brought computer courses into most of the school’s majors.
CBWhat is your work history?
HDMy last summer during high school, I worked in a litho print shop making negatives, “stripping flats,” and preparing plates. The summer after high school, I worked in a small graphic design firm doing “paste-up” and cutting photo masks out of rubylith.
The summer after I graduated from RISD, I worked for Benno Wissing (one of the founders of the Dutch firm Total Design). While in graduate school at Yale, I worked for Xerox and designed the font specimen sheets for its first commercial laser-printer—and published them on the printer.
After grad school, I became Design Director for Wang Laboratories, then a Fortune-100 computer company. Three years later, I moved to Apple to become creative director for Macintosh communications. At Apple, I made Knowledge Navigator, the first corporate vision or technology forecast film. I also started an interaction design team inside Apple’s communications group, and later became manager of the communications group, one of three design groups at Apple.
After ten years at Apple, I went to Netscape, then the world’s leading browser and largest Internet company. (The Mozilla Foundation and its Firefox browser grew out of Netscape.) A couple of years later, I became Vice President of Design.
CBI remember seeing Knowledge Navigator at Apple for the first time in 1987. It was impressive but seemed far-fetched at the time. The film correctly forecasts much of what we take for granted today, tablet computers, intelligent agents, voice recognition and commands, video telephone services via computer, touch-screen as well as access to information around the world.
HDKnowledge Navigator began as a finale for Apple CEO John Sculley's 1987 keynote speech at EduCom, the main higher-education conference on computing. The year it was made, I submitted the film to the AIGA's annual design “competition;” they returned it, saying they didn't know which category to put it in.
CB:fter Netscape you opened your own office.
HDYes, I started Dubberly Design Office in 2000 with Heather Furmidge and Robin Bahr, two other Apple and Netscape alums.
CBYour office does a lot more than the traditional design studio.
HDOur office is not a traditional graphic design firm. Sometimes we are involved in branding, packaging, and even printing, but that’s mostly as an extension of our main work on products.
CBIf your office isn’t a graphic design firm, how would you describe your practice?
HDWe design software products or product systems, like the UI/UX to an artificial pancreas, smart thermostat, or satellite image data refinery. That means interaction design, information design, and service design. Since products are connected to each other and to cloud services, it’s also systems design.
We like complexity. We like to dig deeply into technology, content, business, and user issues so that we understand the systems we’re working with. We have developed a number of methods for mapping or modeling systems and issues—making them visible to ourselves and to our clients.
CBYour office always seems very active when I visit. What makes it successful?
HDA successful business depends on repeat customers. We’re not right for everyone, and not all our customers come back. With those that do return, we’ve developed a bit of trust, and follow-on projects offer an opportunity to change the conversation—to talk about process and to get into strategic issues. That’s where opportunities open up to affect the work—and the client’s business.
Our clients have included Alere, Amgen, Amazon, Avaya, BD, Cisco, Citrix, CNN, Daikin, Facebook, GE, Google, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Lilly, McDonald’s, National Geographic, Nikon, Orange, Palm, Patagonia, PayPal, Pearson, Samsung, Sapient, Sun, Visa, Yellow Pages, and a host of start-ups.
CBYour association with the Samsung is particularly interesting.
HDI was on the Samsung’s Global Design Advisory Board for four years. The board was comprised of six designers, who were from Germany, Japan, the UK, and the US. We met quarterly in Seoul or at other Samsung offices around the world to review products, discuss trends, and offer advice.
CBAt one time or another I’ve visited most of the organizations you have headed. In each of them I’ve sensed that the designers were in a stimulating atmosphere and found their work interesting and rewarding. How does that happen?
HDWe’ve been very fortunate in hiring some great designers, including several former students of yours. Our work is always changing, which means new topics and new technology—and lots of new things to learn. Good designers love to learn.
CBBeginning in the 1980s, you played a big part in introducing graphic designers to the possibilities of the computer.
HDMany folks from the Bay Area played a role in introducing designers to the computer and its possibilities. You, through your writing in PRINT. Clement Mok was also an evangelist for computers.
In 1988, Ron Fernandez and the rest of my team led an effort to convert Apple’s communication group to Mac design and production. We shut down the 120-person group for two weeks, gave everyone a new Mac II, software, and training—and then the group began doing everything on the Mac.
That same year, I organized a program through Apple to give Macs, LaserWriters, and software to a small group of influential design schools (Art Center, CCA, Cooper Union, Cranbrook, Institute of Design, Pratt, RCA, RISD, Yale). We also gave the same equipment along with AppleLink (email) accounts and modems to the AIGA headquarters in New York. The idea was to connect the AIGA chapters. A short time later someone at AIGA headquarters called my boss at Apple and said they had no idea what to do with the equipment!
CBYou were involved in many AIGA San Francisco technology events starting in the late 1980s, but most of your AIGA activity has been at the national level.
HDI served on the AIGA national board from 1993 to 1996. It was a transition period. The AIGA organizational structure was changing, and technology was changing design practice. Debates raged.
CBIt’s obvious your contribution to design goes far beyond traditional graphic design.
HDI’m not sure I’ve made any “contributions” to graphic design.
CBWell, you did and continue to do so.
HDIt might be fair to say I helped pioneer the practice of interaction design—helping introduce Apple’s HyperCard, the first consumer “hypermedia” software, in 1987 and setting up a team inside Apple’s Communications Group to do interaction design. That team created the world’s first interactive digital marketing piece, a HyperCard version of Apple’s 1987 Annual Report. At Netscape, my team built the world’s first Internet portal.
Part of “contributing” might be developing new methods. Maybe I’m best known for the film Knowledge Navigator. It sparked a new method of prototyping, now taught in design schools around the world.
CBYou’ve written a number of articles on process models and systems models and their importance in complex design problems.
HDConcept maps and other types of diagramming are increasingly important as design focuses on systems. Systems are often intangible. They unfold over space and time, in ways that make them difficult to “see” all at once. Understanding systems require mediation—maps or models that represent the systems. Some types of systems models, for example, stocks-and-flows or feedback-loops, recur quite often. Codifying such models and sharing them builds knowledge in the design community. I hope it makes designing easier for others.
CBWhat’s surprised you most over the course of your career?
HDThe Internet seemed likely to connect buyers and sellers directly—cutting out brokers and other “middlemen.” I thought that would mean a quick end to real-estate brokers. Unfortunately, they’re still with us, while bookstores are disappearing. One of the folks who worked with me at Netscape left to become employee number eight at Amazon. I told her, “No one will ever buy books online.” She no longer needs to work!
What’s sad though is that the Internet we have now is not the Internet we were promised. In important ways, the future imagined by visionaries like Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart, and Ted Nelson is still unrealized. Amazon has given us “electronic books,” but Kindle is hardly “interactive” in any true sense of the word. The good news is: Books and photography and design are continuing to evolve.
CBHow is design continuing to change?
HDWe’re still at the beginning of the “information revolution”—and it will continue to change both how we design and what we design.
In the last few years, more and more of our projects have involved sensors generating large amounts of data with “machine intelligence” used to find patterns in the data and make predictions. The Economist has proclaimed, “Data is the new oil.” Amazon, Facebook, and Google are vast “data refineries.” They are not outliers; they are signals of the future. “Big data” plus “machine intelligence” will change the way all businesses work. “Machine intelligence” is a new wave and will affect designers and design as much or more than PCs, the Internet, and smartphones.
As computing becomes part of everything, the practice of design is shifting focus from the form of objects to smart-connected products and product-service ecologies—from things to systems, from simplifying to managing complexity, from finishing something to creating platforms on which others can build.
The design process has always been a conversation (understanding people and their needs and agreeing on goals and what we wish to take forward); increasingly, we’re also designing for conversation (creating “spaces” in which conversations can happen, developing “tools” that facilitate conversation and enable others to design).
Beyond that, who can say what the next wave will be?Chuck Byrne is a 2017 Fellow recipient. You can read his full bio on the AIGA SF website, HERE.