The “Magic” Behind the Curtain: Understanding the Design Process of Hugh Dubberly

There are many different factors that go on to influence a design, some are often unseen, changing what it means to design as well as who designs. Each designer has a different process that rarely gets translated into explicit knowledge for other designers to build upon.  In focusing on designers’ practices, it is important to consider the contexts within which designers’ operate. In understanding not only the how, but also the why of designers, the public gains insight into replicating, remodeling, and critiquing current practices. In doing so, the opportunity arises to explore the limitations of current practices, while also introducing opportunities to expand existing approaches.

Hugh Dubberly is an interaction designer whose practice and research has been at the forefront of technological change. In reviewing his design practice, there is an opportunity to understand how his particular approach reflects his experiences in to the design field as well as how this approach is a reflection of his personal experiences. 

Design and technology have always been a part of Dubberly’s life. His parents were both engineers, and often brought home their work. On Saturdays, he was most likely to be found accompanying his father to his work office where he would spend his time draw with the quarter-rule non-repo grid paper that he still uses to this day. As his parents’ professional lives were into their home life, Dubberly had many opportunities to learn and experience design from an engineering perspective.

Growing up during the beginning of the technological revolution, Dubberly’s access to technology was often in a school setting. In his eighth grade year, he was introduced to the Game of Life, a math simulation game based on patterning. Game theorist Martin Gardner writes, “because of Life’s analogies with the rise, fall and alterations of a society of living organisms, it belongs to a growing class of what are called “simulation games” (games that resemble real life processes).”[i]  The game, even in its un-digitalized form, offered Dubberly a way to understand how things work by visually demonstrating previously invisible systems that were at play.

While in high school he had some exposure to basic coding, but digital technology was still in its infancy and not as widely understood. While his father had encouraged him to consider a career in engineering, he did not feel that it encompassed his interest and instead concentrated on design. Explaining his decision Dubberly says, “where science certainly is… concerned with… seeing things that are and asking why they’re that way. Design is… dreaming of things that are not and… asking why aren’t they that way.”[ii] Dubberly’s interaction with design also came at a time where there was a shift in practice.

The first major shift in modern history had happened in the 18th century when craft had begun to be replaced by industrial design. While previously the making and planning of objects had been left to the individual maker or workshop, in the industrial age, the modus operandi chanced. The process of planning was separated from and the action of making. The planners were those who developed the concept and then oversaw the entirety of the process of transforming the concept into a product.

As industrialism became entwined with modernism, there was a rejection of the traditional in order to reshape the human environment, marking the foundational thoughts of what would later become the Design Methods Movement. This shift inspired designers, especially within the architecture realm, to develop the concept of “total design”. In contemporary times the definition of “Total Design is the systematic activity necessary, from the identification of the market/user need, to the selling of the successful product to satisfy that need – an activity that encompasses product, process, people and organization.”[iii] As designers were only considered to be responsible for one portion of the process, total design looked to understand the role of the designer throughout the design process. Most notably, total design was embraced by the Bauhaus, a design school in Germany, which sought to bring together craft, technology, and the fine arts in order to reconcile mass production with the designers’ vision of what the product could be, both for the sake of social benefit and for the sake of aesthetics, which they saw as synonymous. Although the school closed after pressure from the Nazi regime, their ideas became central to the vision of the Ulm School of Design in Germany, which opened in 1953 under the rebuilding efforts following World War II. Here, designers began to amplify the notion of design as art with analytical methodology by incorporating semiotics, the study of signs and their operational contexts.

Horst Rittel, a proponent of cybernetics and operations research, was a professor at the Ulm School of Design. His link of science to design crystalized his notion of design as argument and his desire to build a way to track these modes of dissensus within the design process. In 1963, he took a position at the University of California Berkeley where he incorporated a scientific approach to design into the curriculum. Many of his students went on to teach at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Environmental Design Program, which Dubberly attended in 1976.

The Environmental Design Program looked at not only what is designed, but also incorporated ideations around how things are designed by reviewing design methodologies, or the processes of design. Unlike today’s association of environmental design with sustainable environments, the University of Colorado-Boulder program’s focus was around designing one’s complete environment. Architecture, being a discipline that encompasses many systems, served as the catalyst for discussing design methodology within the program. But architecture, says Dubberly was not his main interest:

I thought I was a little more interested in graphic design than I was in architecture. It appeared to be an architecture program. [It seemed that] they were more interested in design, as an activity rather than a put together medium. I thought we spent a lot of time talking about things rather than doing things.[iv]

So he transferred to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where he enrolled in the graphic design program. There he was able to study with Tom Ockerse, a graphic designer and design theorist. Ockerse’s early involvement with the deconstruction of conventional boundaries of art, allowed him to incorporate a more human centered approach into the graphic design program at RISD.[v] Ockerse’s instruction introduced him to Charles Morris’ relation of signs defined as: “the formal relations of the signs… how the sign signifies its referent  …how various people make interpretations.”[vi] Ockerse, like many of the program’s professors, had received their MFA from Yale, and Dubberly felt the need to go to the source of the inspiration.

I realized that many of the faculty had gone to school at Yale and I thought, ah ha, what I am missing is [that I am] getting [the information] from the second generation. 

I suspected that I had missed something at RISD and could find “truth” from the original sources in New Haven.[vii]

Although he had a job offer from Xerox, Dubberly attended Yale to pursue his MFA. His personal search for the “truth” of design was a convergent question looking to expose the “facts” of designing, but changed into an understanding of the possibilities that can be created through design. At Yale, he interacted with Paul Rand, most often remembered for his work on corporate identity. Rand stated that his design approach centered on:

…the method of putting form & content together. Design, just as art, has multiple definitions; there is no single definition. Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.[viii]

Paul Rand was heavily influenced by philosophy, especially John Dewey whose work in aesthetics explored how objects were embedded in social structures. Much of Rand’s teachings circled around the graphic designers ability to break down the boundaries between the ‘abstract’ space of a corporate brand and the ‘concrete’ space of the everyday[ix]. Rand’s approach was concerned with the graphic designs role in shaping corporate identity, which was the business realm Dubberly was soon to enter.

After leaving academia, Dubberly used his graphic design skills to communicate about products. His work focused on balancing the identities of corporations while meeting the wants of their clients.[x] At Apple, he was a part of the creative services team. His involvement with the company exposed him to new computer-based applications, like HyperCard and Picasso (a beta version of Adobe Illustrator) that were advancing computer software capabilities.[xi] During his tenure there, he is most often remembered for his participation in the “Knowledge Navigator,” a film developed for a technology conference to explore the future of technology within the field of publishing. The video concept raised questions about the relationship of new technologies within the world of its users. This approach described a larger conception of interaction that incorporated the world beyond just programming data. That shifted the focus to include not only its function within software systems, but also how it would shape “interaction[s] in communities – in ecosystems.”[xii]

After leaving Apple in 1994 he went on to work for the publishing giant Times Mirror as the Director of Interaction Design. His position centered on understanding the relationship between the products that they were purchasing and the digital strategies that they were implementing. He spent a lot of time consulting with Microsoft and cementing a process of moving publishing into the digital world. Not soon after, he went on to work at Netscape where his role shifted from communication about products, to making products. Turning to software development, he worked with an assortment of engineers to devise and understand software. After acquiring Newhoo, a web content directory that developed a new search query, Netscape wanted to incorporate the new process into their existing service. As form cannot be controlled in a virtual space, there is a need to understand the rules that are associated within the new interface in order to understand how users will interact with it. By sketching the intent of the product, the team was able to see how these complex entities would be interacting together. In essence, the drawings allowed the company to see the forest for the trees.

In 2000, Dubberly departed from Netscape to form his own office Dubberly Design Office (DDO) in San Francisco. Building on his experience and practice, DDO offers services aimed at improving organizations products and services. At Dubberly Design Office they “put people at the center of the design process. By paying close attention to what people want and making sense of it, we help create useful products.”[xiii]

Our bread-and-butter work is the design of software applications primarily delivered over the web or on mobile devices. This work focuses primarily on the structure of systems, but it almost always also involves form and context – and these systems are almost always embedded in complex ecologies, which we need understand in order to be effective.[xiv]

Systems are a representation of the invisible and visible relationships that make up the interactions within every day life. As software is often an intangible entity, it can be hard to understand the tacit connections it has to the physical world. “Technologies need to be thought of as social Being, and in a social context.”[xv] As software is user-based, DDO believes there is a need to understand the world within which the users interact. In doing so, they underscore the complexities of the systems associated with technology and demonstrate a need to concretize an overarching goal, or problem. Dubberly’s approach to understanding problems is heavily influenced by Horst Rittel’s definition of simple and wicked problems. They key traits are listen here:

  • Simple problems (problems which are already defined) are easy to solve, because defining a problem inherently defines a solution.
  • The definition of a problem is subjective; it comes from a point of view. Thus, when defining problems, all stake-holders, experts, and designers are equally knowledgeable (or unknowledgeable).
  • Some problems cannot be solved, because stake-holders cannot agree on the definition. These problems are called wicked, but sometimes they can be tamed.
  • Solving simple problems may lead to improvement—but not innovation. For innovation, we need to re-frame wicked problems.
  • Because one person cannot possibly remember or keep track of all the variables (of both existing and desired states) in a wicked problem, taming wicked problems requires many people.
  • These people have to talk to each other; they have to deliberate; they have to argue.
  • To tame a wicked problem, they have to agree on goals and actions for reaching them. This requires knowledge about actions, not just facts.
  • Science is concerned with factual knowledge (what-is); design is concerned with instrumental knowledge (how what-is relates to what-ought-to-be), how actions can meet goals.
  • The process of argumentation is the key and perhaps the only method of taming wicked problems.
  • This process is political.
  • Design is political.[xvi]

When working with clients, Dubberly first negotiates the intentionality of the project to reach an agreement on what the problem is, as well as, what the approaches will be applied to solve it.[xvii] Using the ‘wicked problem’ model enhances Dubberly’s ability to parse out additional complications rooted within the system.[xviii] Because clients’ deliverables are situated within complex systems whose structures are not always understood, he offers organizations an analysis of the context and domain of the problem. Furthermore, Dubberly says,

…I think that the first thing, which is really what is implied by design methods, is that there is a process. And that this process involves… research into understanding a context… understanding an audience or stakeholders. Ideally, talking to those stakeholders directly…. understanding that ultimately the… process is political.[xix] 

He believes that design lives in relation to various ecologies, or systems.[xx]  While connecting these often intangible links within the system, Dubberly works to resolve any dissensus, or disagreement, between the stakeholders’ (clients, engineers, users and programmers) understanding of the system. Resolving these disagreements creates a hierarchy from which causal structure of the project can be determined.[xxi]



These interactions become entry points into the ‘wicked problem,’ creating an argument to support the choices that shape the content and form of the design. These arguments are molded through constantly defining, testing, and refining the components of the system. This process is reflexive, rather than linear, creating a more finite approach with each iteration.


This selective and iterative process creates a series of feedback loops. Feedback loops are placed within the system where adjustments can occur that will produce changes to the function and maintenance of the system.[xxiv] These points define the system while also being potential opportunities of change. Each loop allows for the refinement of decisions about the system. To get at many of these loops, Dubberly provides a remodeling of Charles Morris’ pragmatic-semantic-syntactic model that is concerned with:

  • Structure How do we reach the audience?
  • Content What do we say to them?
  • Form What does it look like? 

Documentation of the process usually results in sketches that map experiences within the system. These sketches allow designers to visualize the multiple, often intangible, interactions that occur between and within systems. Dubberly refers to these sketches as concept maps. Concept maps create defined links between perceptions providing a framework for looking at a particular system.[xxv] Through patterning, relationships, and connections, concept maps provide an easier documentation of intended outcomes of the system, while also creating the possibility to compare these to the actual outcomes of the system (feedback loops).

…each pattern represents our current best guess as to what arrangement of the physical environment will work to solve the problem presented. The empirical questions center on the problem—does it occur and is it felt in the way we have described it?—and the solution—does the arrangement we propose in fact resolve the problem? And the asterisks represent our degree of faith in these hypotheses. But of course, no matter what the asterisks say, the patterns are still hypotheses… —and are therefore all tentative, all free to evolve under the impact of new experience and observation.[xxvi]

In mapping these interactions, clients have an easier time visualizing changes or updates that need to be made to the current structure. Concept maps can help in three ways: developing the structure of the idea (See Appendix A), developing the content of the project (See Appendix B), and developing the form of the prototype (See Appendix C).

Visualizing the complexity of the system combines both Hugh’s practice, as a graphic designer and design manger, and his research, his interest in expanding the understanding of the design process. While concept maps are ideal representations for clients to understand the outcome of the design process, they are inherently exclusive, tailored for a specific audience—usually for organization purposes who are able to decipher the complexities of the individualized choices. As these systems ultimately produce a product for consumption, most of the concern is the final outcome, rooting the practice within traditional business models. Like products themselves, these concept maps offer no insight into the dissensus that shaped the political argumentation for context, structure, and form; and instead present the concept as an absolute. Without understanding the history of negotiation and discussion behind each map, the final visualization appears too resolved and opens up the possibility for argument and scrutiny by outside parties. However, despite these limitations, concept maps still provide a practical way to talk about issues that are often difficult to explain and interpret, especially within the unseen components that constitute computer systems. As an entry into a complex systems, concept maps can visualize how existing technologies have been developed and adopted, thereby creating a space for specialized work to become understandable to people from a wide variety of disciplines whose input could have the potential to create new ways of addressing change.

The map can help students from different disciplinary backgrounds to understand each others’ mind-sets, approaches, and tools for doing research. The map can help students recognize where their past training and/or experience positions them as researchers, and it can also show them new directions for exploration and learning.[xxvii] 

The real opportunities to understand the design process lay within the multiple iterations that were constructed while designing the concept map. Without access to previous conceptions, the experience becomes tacit, and therefore inaccessible to designers looking to gain insight from this methodology. As Dubberly Design Office is a for-profit business, it is understandable why their methodology would not be privy to the public, but their approach could be appropriated into a teaching tool for design learners. Understanding Dubberly’s design practice shows the shift in design outcomes when concerning technology. His approach allows designers to create through experience while also providing an opportunity to record their tacit knowledge. This epistemology is deeply rooted in bridging communicative gaps not only between stakeholders, but also with designers.



Alexander, Christopher. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Buxton, Bill. Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design. Amsterdam: Morgan Kaufman, 2007. 

Dubberly, Hugh. “Managing Complex Design Projects,” Communication Arts, March/ April 1995: 30-36.

Dubberly, Hugh. “The Future: New Ways of Solving Problems,” Originally published in CG: The Magazine for Compugraphic Customers, 1998.

Dubberly, Hugh. “Protecting Corporate Identity,” In Ed. DK Holland, Design Issues: How Graphic Design Informs Society, 49-53. New York: Allworth Press, 2001. 

Dubberly, Hugh. “Towards a Model of Innovation.” Interactions, January/February XV (1): 28-37, 2008.

Dubberly, Hugh. Interview by Melissa McWilliams and Tia Remington-Bell. Personal Interview 1. New York, February 12, 2013.

Dubberly, Hugh. Interview by Melissa McWilliams and Tia Remington-Bell. Personal Interview 2. New York, February 13, 2013.

Forrester, J Write. Principles of Systems. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1968.

Fry, Tony. Becoming Human By Design. London, UK: MPG Book Group, 2012.  

Gardner, Martin. “Mathematical Games – The fantastic combinations of John Conway’s new solitaire game “life.” Scientific American, 223 (10): 120–123, 1970. Archived from

Henderson, Austin. Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design (Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics). New York: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2011.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991.

Pugh, Stuart. Total Design: Integrated Methods for Successful Product Engineering. Harlow UK: AddisonWesley Publishing Company. 1991.

Maeda, John. “Thoughts on Paul Rand” In Maeda @ Media, Massachusetts: MIT Universe Press, 2001.

Novak, Joseph D. and D. Bob Gowin. Learning How To Learn. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Rith, Chanpory and Hugh Dubberly. “Why Horst W. J. Rittel Matters,” Design Issues, Volume 22 (4), 2006: 1-20.

Rittel, Horst and Melvin Webber. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences, Volume 4, Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., 1973. [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley and Sons, Chichester, 1984:135-144.]

Sanders, Liz “An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research.” [Originally published in Interactions Magazine – Designing games: why and how, 15 (6): 13-17, 2008]. Retrieved from, 2008. 

Skaggs, Steven. “Syntax and Semantics.” In Visual Design Semiotic Primer. [July 27, 2011]. Retrieved from, 2011.

Thomas Ockerse. Rhode Island School of Design: Division of Architecture and Design, Graphic Design. Retrieved from Accessed 8 March 2013.

APPENDIX A: Structure of Problem

A concept map that deconstructs baseball in order to understand the underlying interactions associated with the game.  


Taken from


APPENDIX B: Content of the Issue

 This concept map shows a model of Alzheimer’s disease.


APPENDIX C: Prototype of Software 

Outline of the process of Flickr, a media hosting website. 


Taken from



[i] The game is played on a grid with two counter colors as the game pieces. The player starts with a simple makeup of counters. The object is to see how the game changes when applying the rules of the game using the criteria of “laws” for birth, death, and survivals. Gardner, 1970. 

[ii] Dubberly, Personal Interview 2, 2013.

[iii] Pugh, 1991: 3.

[iv] Dubberly, Personal Interview 2, 2013.

[vi] Skaggs, 2011. 

[vii] Dubberly, Personal Interview 2, 2013.

[viii] Maeda, 2001: 1.

[ix] See Lefebvre, 1991 for ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ space.

[x] Dubberly, 2001.

[xi] Brown, 2000.

[xii] Dubberly, Personal Interview 2, 2013.

[xiii] Dubberly Design Office

[xiv] Dubberly, Personal Interview 3, 2013.

[xv] Buxton, 2007: 32.

[xvi] Rith and Dubberly, 2006.

[xvii] Dubberly, 1995.

[xviii] Rittel, 1984.

[xix] Hugh Dubberly, Interview 2, 2013.

[xx] Fry, 2012.

[xxi] Forrester, 1968.

[xxiii] Image taken from Dubberly, 1995.

[xxiv] Meadows, 1999.

[xxv] Novak, 1985.

[xxvi] Alexander, 1967: xv.

[xxvii] Sanders, 2008: 4.


Designerly Ways of Researching: Re-thinking the Design Process. Lisa Grocott’s Practice-led Research as a Model for Design Education

Research in the field of communication design is very nascent, and practice-led research is an emergent area that often leaves the practitioner feeling like a pioneer. I felt that design, like other disciplines, can and should have a strong research culture that would drive and facilitate the development and sharing of knowledge. The problem was that the majority of practitioner’s do not perceive research as relevant to the professional practice of design. [My] research sought to establish relevance for research by investigating “Discovery-led research as an integral component of Professional Practice.” [PhD dissertation]

—Lisa Grocott, taken from personal statement

Traditional education has been, for too long, a one-directional, passive transference of limited knowledge from teacher to student—what Paulo Freire, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000), calls the “culture of silence” 1; power relations within a classroom setting limit what students learn, and keep them in ignorance. Design education is no different; practicing affirmative design—that which “reinforces the status quo”2—by memorizing a set of stylistic formulas that emulate conventions of ‘good design’ is not enough anymore. In a fast-changing world—of massive information flows, hyper-consumerism, open-source technologies3, DIY4, and climate change—design students need to be able to go far beyond producing design that perpetuates design for obsolescence, and more towards developing valuable innovations that contribute to imagine future possibilities5 while exploying new ways of thinking design.

Australian-born communication designer Lisa Grocott advocates for a paradigm shift in design education by re-configuring the conventional action-research paradigm into a peer-learning, reflective practice, in which the teacher undergoes a transformation from “depositor….prescriber….domesticator”6 to “facilitator ….integrator….synthesizer.”7 In deconstructing the design process, Grocott attempts to evaluate particular situations in terms of possibilities, from a macro—situated open-ended problem—to a micro—negotiations amongst participants within a given context—perspective. Research-led design practice is her method of unpacking convoluted, multifaceted dynamics, of “wicked problems”8, which are made visible through the use of proposition diagrams that she calls figuring (out)—“a designerly way of drawing.”9 Figuring is Grocott’s visual language to stimulate design conversations; it functions as a mediator between her self-reflective design thinking and communication with her peers. Together—research-led design practice and figuring—construct Grocott’s practice-led research, which serves as an educational model for student-centered education. Grocott defines herself an “integrator”; one who appropriates aspects of many disciplines such as the social sciences. Her research studies have been informed by educator and researcher Brad Haseman’s “performative research”, architect Alain Findeli’s framework for “project-grounded research”, and philosopher Donald Schön’s idea of the “reflective practitioner.”10

When practice-led research is employed as a teaching model in a studio classroom, the essence of her methodology—of being discursive, speculative, performative, multi-modal, and solution-oriented—takes the form of a series of storytelling exercises as a means to embark in a serendipitous research through speculation.11 Her unique contribution to the field of design education lies in the ways in which she re-thinks design education as an experiential process of continuous questioning opened to ambiguity. She introduces students to new ways of creative thinking through research—an experience geared towards independent learning “to make explicit the many transferable skills associated with design thinking.”12

Grocott’s interest in speculative design as an educational model is the result of her personal experience as a college design student.13 These experiences sparked a quest for embracing “exploration beyond formulation”14—of “knowing rather than knowledge.”15 

As she explained in her personal statement:

I had two educational experiences that introduced a pedagogical approach to teaching and learning that were almost antithetical to my Western education. As an exchange student in India at the National Institute of Design and as a student in a total immersion Maori Language program in New Zealand, I observed teaching practices that fostered a supportive peer-learning environment that deflected the authority of the teacher and surprisingly served to promote independent learning. When I began teaching these formative experiences and the courses I undertook in Adult Education enabled me to develop an extensive repertoire of strategies focused on delivering a student centered experience.

As full-time faculty at Parsons since 2005, Grocott has conducted a series of workshops geared towards training the studio-based teacher to make the transition from domesticators to facilitators of the learning process. Her aim is to create learning spaces that foster open-ended and “what if” propositions rather than finite design artifacts.

At this point, it is important to clarify the ways in which Lisa employs the terms practice-led research and research-led practice (and other terms such as discovery-led, speculation-led, design-led, etc.). She says,

[R]esearch-led practice is primarily about a practice that is informed by research methodologies (user-testing, ethnography, etc.) whereas practice-led research primarily seeks to contribute to bodies of knowledge and is interested in doing that through practice methodologies. The research field in this case might not be even about design—as in it could be my more current research on learning (or humanitarian work)….using designing (iterating, speculating, prototyping, etc.) as a research methodology.16

Studio Anybody: Discovery-led Design Practice

In 1998, with a BFA in Graphic Design and Cultural Studies from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, an MFA in Painting, and a M.Des in Communication Design from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Australia, Grocott opened Studio Anybody (1998-2004). In her independent design studio, she functioned as part-time creative director while working as full-time design teacher and director of the Communication Design Masters at RMIT in Melbourne. Grocott’s exploration of the design process can be traced back to Studio Anybody where visual maps—examples of what Donald Schön calls “reflection in action” and “theories in use”17—were implemented as a common language between her office and her clients, a methodology that could potentially make explicit transferable skills to allow other practitioners to explore “ways of knowing” 18 as a new way of design thinking. Her interest in education led her to concentrate—within her studio practice—on “research as an integral component of a professional practice environment”19 and to figure out the ways in which speculative projects—client-free, art-based projects—influenced the client-driven, commissioned work.20

Grocott’s design practice evolved from being solely client-driven to a combination of client-driven and client-free projects, which allowed Studio Anybody to get exposure and traction as an unconventional design studio without set styles, or preconceived design solutions.4   Projects were framed as situated exercises in socio-cultural contexts; after a while, the art-based speculative work informed the commissioned work. As a consequence of the new studio practice—of the convergence of traditional commercial design, and speculative explorations—a “discovery-led” methodology was set in motion; one that, Grocott said, “valued speculation—an experimental, investigative space—where [we hoped] design could once again reside in what Clive Dilnot refers to as ‘the realm of possibility.’” 21

Grocott explains the evolution of her studio practice visually:

 Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 2.23.16 AM

Figure 1. Left: Client-led Presentation Process for Commissioned Projects. The dotted section of a client-led process represents the limited space for speculation within a predominantly predetermined, reductive design process. Right: Discovery-led Process for Speculative Projects. The dotted section of a design-led process represents the possibilities afforded within the space for speculation in this poetic, iterative design process.

Looking at the graphs shown above (figure 1), it is evident that the new “discovery-led” studio practice (illustrated on the right) became a more fluid, iterative exploration of ideas than the traditional design process (illustrated on the left), facilitating a space for research and experimentation. This experimental, investigative space is what English psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, in his theory of transitional phenomena,22 describes as a transitional or potential space. Applying the theories of D. W. Winnicott, and British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas23, educator Elizabeth Ellsworth24, in her book Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy, describes this kind of space as a potential spacewhere an “evocative object” transforms25—a space for experiential learning that fosters innovation:

…[the transitional space] is an “answer” that provokes us to keep thinking…. Unlike spaces that put inside in relation to outside in an attempt to make the inside comply with the outside, transitional space opens up a potential for learning about the outside without obliterating the inside…[the transitional space] allows us to use the environment to get lost in oneself, to make a spontaneous gesture, to get interested in something new, to surprise oneself, to organize bits of experience into a temporarily connected sense of self and then to allow those bits to “un-integrate” so that they can be surprised by themselves and reconfigured into new thoughts and ways of being with self and others.” 26

In developing a transitional space of “discovery-led” business strategy, Studio Anybody educated their clients to be more open to un-set processes and move towards more flexible, open-ended, and reflective iterations, in which they and “we could once again follow tangents, embrace serendipity, and step into the unknown.”27 —beyond “simply emulating stylistic fetishes.”28

Even though discovery-led design projects might have been more exploratory in the ways in which possibilities were discovered and artifacts produced were defined, the process did not make a difference in terms of differentiating aesthetic solutions. One could argue that once discovery-led became a set methodology that could be followed and replicated by other practitioners it defeats the non-directional, serendipitous values of the process, and became in itself a formula to be followed. The projects, seen in figures 2-4, exemplify the different approaches to practice within the studio; the work developed for Experimenta (2) illustrates their discovery-led business strategy. Although generated within different parameters, goals and expectations, all examples below share a certain aesthetic style that binds them together as belonging to the same studio—a house style. Again raising the question of the potentially prescriptive nature of an ostensibly open-ended process.

 Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 2.23.30 AM

Figure 2. Research for new business strategy. Left: detail from “La lala la” studio-initiated public project [1999. Right: detail from Mooks Clothing Co. fall / winter catalogue [2000] 29

Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 2.23.36 AM

Figure 3. Research for formal reservoir. Left: detail from “He thought, He felt—Something” studio-initiated poster [2001]. Right: collection of promotional material for Experimenta’s Waste exhibition [2001]30

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 9.10.11 AM

Figure 4. Research for cultural critique. Left: detail from work-in-progress Melbourne Fashion Festival arts program [2003]. Right: last-minute design for Melbourne Fashion Festival arts program [2003]31

At the same time she was transforming her practice at Studio Anybody, Grocott worked as the Research and Graduate Coordinator of Communication Design at RMIT Melbourne. Between 2000 and 2004, she developed a teaching model based on peer learning that aimed to move away from the hierarchical, traditional educational system and allowed individual students to investigate their research interests. At this point, her educational philosophy mirrored her design philosophy.


Designing Conversations: Figuring (Out) as a Self-Reflective Language

Grocott moved to the Unites States in 2005 when she joined Parsons The New School for Design as full-time faculty and Associate Dean of Academic Initiatives. Her intention was to elicit conversations about the role of Parsons in the future of design education and simultaneously, to bridge the gaps between the professional languages of participants of various disciplines within the Parsons community—educators and administrators equally.32 New to Parsons, her challenge was to understand the structure, relations and negotiations of the institution in order to reframe and deliver new design propositions for re-structuring the school. In her attempts to design and communicate new curricula initiatives, Grocott encountered difficulties expressing her ideas in the form of standarized white papers. Because of her art and design background, Grocott chose to use figuring as her professional language—figuring is her term for visualizing abstract ideas.

Still in force today in her practice, figuring is a design-led research strategy conceived to amplify the back-talk 33 of designing in a research context.” In figuring (out) Grocott interrogated new ways of designing communications through a new “designerly way of thinking.” In the process of rethinking design practice, the thing produced is an open-ended proposition, a conversation, that seeks understanding rather than fixing—since fixing implies a fixed solution to a problem whereas understanding comprises a criticality and reflectiveness that allows for the realm of possibilities to arise.14 In the act of figuring lies the capacity of design to be “performative, negotiative, adaptive, situated, and discursive” through the practice of research attributes—“purposive, inquisitive, informed, methodical, and communicable”.34 

Figuring makes explicit the structure of practice-led research, which proposes a collage of methods that integrate aspects of various design approaches, such as critical design,participatory design,co-creation,and adversarial design.35Grocott does not refer to these practices as being an influence on her own explorations, and instead speaks of her own practice in terms of active verbs—participate, critique, contest, question, and co-create. However, her methodology does embody integral aspects of the aforementioned approaches, made explicit through abstract visualizations. Hers, is a “poetic approach to design that promotes a critical engagement with a speculative practice….of happenstance.”36

In the context of design education at Parsons, the visualization of design problems through figuring was Grocott’s way of understanding, re-thinking, and re-configuring the school’s organization. “Designing a Design School” is Grocott’s understanding of Parsons’ structure and dynamics, and a proposition of the re-configuration of Parsons for the 21st century.37

In 2005, while working in her PhD dissertation, her advisor, Cameron Tonkinwise—at the time the associate dean for Sustainability at Parsons—introduced Grocott to grounded theory (figure 5).38 This theory, borrowed from the social sciences, guided her into developing a set of codes to improve the visual conversations she thus far produced through figuring. In applying grounded theory, Grocott intended to show the ways in which visual essays and studies both supported and constructed by activities within the institution. Her PhD dissertation39 focused on analyzing design praxis—its limitations and possibilities—as a means to explore the potential of design as a research methodology geared towards training the studio-based educator. In her dissertation she stated:

A highly structured approach to designing that deploys a series of integrated strategies to assess and engage different constituencies at determined moments throughout the process audience centered playing off the centripetal and centrifugal push / pull between looking to others for information, observations, analysis, feedback and insights, then returning to work independently until the next phase of engagement. 40

Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 2.28.19 AM

Figure 5. Left: Grounded Diagram I. Right: Grounded Diagram II


The graphs below (figure 6) show the coding system—a kind of language—that Grocott developed during her PhD, and illustrate the ways in which visual symbols represent different dimensions of the design process: its tensions, conflicts, collaborations, interrelations, and overlaps.

Fig4 Fig1 Fig15 Fig14

Figure 6. Figuring Practice-led Research.

Several similarities can be found between Grocott’s figuring, system designer Hugh Dubberly’s process maps and social scientist and designer Elizabeth Sanders’ evolving maps (figure 7) in the ways in which implicit information is made explicit through naming elements and representing them in an abstract form. However, figuring undergoes a metamorphosis when applied to the learning space; it defines a design process by making the process of thinking physical, of eliciting the movement of participants in space by using a set of classroom exercises.

Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 2.36.10 AM

Figure 7. Left: Hugh Duberly process map. Right: Elizabeth Sanders evolving maps.

As a teacher in the Transdisciplinary Department at Parsons, Grocott applied this new method of design thinking. Jamer Hunt, Director of the MFA in Transdisciplinary Design, School of Design Strategies at Parsons, encouraged her to re-think her way of teaching since he considered her approach to be too abstract: he felt students couldn’t be studying “design research about design research.”41  Due to her conversations with Hunt, figuring began to evolve as a practical method within the studio classroom, a method that appropriated from other disciplines—like the social sciences—in order to draw content to the research method. In this process of re-examining her approach to teaching, Grocott started developing ideas for a class at Parsons that soon became a series of workshops for students and faculty called Learn.Engage.Design (figures 8-9).42

The Reflection Studio: Figuring in Action

“…the centripetal impulse pulls the practitioner toward what he or she knows,
drawing connections with established practices. This pull is countered by the practitioner’s centrifugal impulse to seek the unknown, to deviate from the normal
in search of new possibilities”

—Lisa Grocott, 2012

Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 2.37.28 AM

Figure 8. Learn. Engage. Design. Prototyping Workshop. Student workshop at Parsons Transdisciplinary Department. Facilitaror: Lisa Grocott. February 2013.

Using the same design problem, participants embark in an ambiguous exploration of possibilities. Grocott’s practice-led research, which she has illustrated in her figuring, is in this context acted instead of illustrated; the workshops follow a series of questions that allow participants to navigate ideas of “what if”. The “discursive, speculative, perfomative, multi-modal, and solution-oriented” nature of her method is evident in the instructions44 given at the beginning of the workshop:

As a participant in one of these faculty workshops at Parsons, this writer found the experience of voicing her own reflections very intimidating, but the accessible, friendly materials provided—such as colored paper, fabric, toys, glitter, boxes, etc.—helped ease the anxiety of not knowing where the project was going: What were its parameters in terms of deliverables? Or how should the final solution look like? The physicality of the exercises, of bodies—participants—moving in the space, created a dynamic thinking process that embraced imagination through the use of storytelling. As final propositions, imagined scenarios were constructed, stories narrated, and recorded to be share with the group.45

worshop pics

Figure 9. Learn. Engage. Design. Prototyping Workshop. Student workshop at Parsons Transdisciplinary Department. Facilitaror: Lisa Grocott. February 2013. Proposed solutions delivered orally, and documented in video format.


Since she first disclosed her propositional diagrams at Studio Anybody, Grocott’s design thinking has gone through a progressive evolution that is evident in the transformation of figuring as a coded visual language—a language that can be transferred into different design contexts in the reflection studio, from a professional discovery-led practice to design education. Grocott’s efforts to re-think  (and re-design) design education, are essential to her current responsibilities as a design educator, and chair of the committee to develop a PhD program at Parsons. In this new position, Grocott seeks to unbundle educational structures and re-negotiate power relations between students and the institution. She is interested in developing practice-led research Masters and PhD programs that will “educate a new generation of designers who clearly understand the socio-natural and political agency of design.” 46

Although she feels that she never transitioned from being a design practitioner to a design educator—since she was both a full-time design teacher and director of the Communication Design Masters at RMIT University while functioning as part-time creative director at Studio Anybody (1998-2004) in Melbourne, Australia—it is clear that her interest in education has led her to a position as an academic administrator. However, her graphic design skills have served as an important element of her work as an educator, as a designer of “more effective conversations”. 47 Figuring has become an integral aspect of her process of distilling information in abstract from to put it back into material form—it draws on both the material and cognitive knowing of the designer. Figuring is Grocott’s reflective method to critically probe and visualize design problems, through which she explores the ways in which research could be an asset to design practice and design education as a way to “better reflect a practitioner’s perspective, expertise and motivations.” 48

Lisa Grocott’s practice: CONCEPT MAP


Classroom exercises at Vimeo


  1. Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000), 30
  2. Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby. “Critical Design”. Retrieved April 22nd, 2013.
  3. Open Source website. “What is Open Source?” Retrieved May 2nd, 2013. “Open source has evolved beyond referring to just software development. It can describe a way of doing things, a perspective, and a culture—in life, business, government, education, law, and health. All over the world, people are approaching problems with an open mind, using and modifying open source code, and applying open source principles to projects. In essence, this is what we at call the open source way—open exchange, community, rapid prototyping, meritocracy, and the power of participation.”
  4. Paul Atkinson, “Do It Yourself: Democracy and Design.” Journal of Design History 19, no. 1 (2006): 1-10. DIY is a set of creative practices beyond maintenance of the home towards the democratization of design.
  5. Clive Dilnot. Lecture for “Design for the 21st Century” (Parsons The New School for Design, New York, November 1st, 2012)
  6. Kjetil Fallan. De-scribing Design: Appropriating Script Analysis to Design History (Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Design Issues, Vol. 4, No. 2, Autumn 2008)
  7. Lisa Grocott, conversations with author (March 25th, 2013)
  8. Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked problems in design thinking.” Design issues 8, no. 2 (1992): 5-21.
  9. Bryan Lawson. What Designers Know (Routledge, 2004). Refer to Lawson’s proposition diagrams as “the heart of the design process”.
  10. Tim Marshall and Lisa Grocott. Figuring Design: mappings of the design process. Designing Schools of Design. Presented at the Design Perspectives: envisioning design for the XXI century conference in Mexico City, 2005. 3
  11. Lisa Grocott. “Design Research and Reflective Practice: the facility of design-oriented research to translate practitioner insights into new understandings of design. (PhD dissertation, RMIT University, 2010).
  12. Tim Marshall and Lisa Grocott. Figuring Design: Mappings of the Design Process. Designing Schools of Design. (Paper presented at the Design Perspectives: Envisioning Design for the XXI Century conference, Mexico City, 2005. 3
  13. Lisa Grocott, conversations with author (March 25th, 2013). Question 2.
  14. Tim Marshall and Lisa Grocott. Figuring Design: Mappings of the Design Process. Designing Schools of Design. (Paper presented at the Design Perspectives: Envisioning Design for the XXI Century conference, Mexico City, 2005. 5

15. Lisa Grocott, conversations with author (March 25th, 2013). Question 1

16. Lisa Grocott, conversations with author (March 25th, 2013)

17. Lisa Grocott. Designing a Space for Speculation, 2006. 5

“Schön’s (1983) description of individual, professional practices, focuses on the work by practitioners during their “reflection-in-action” as they move to reframe problems, based on judgment. Work by Rowe (1987), Cross (2006) and Lawson (1980/2006), for example, described research attempts to describe the thought processes of designers in action: their designerly way of knowing (Cross 2006) or design thinking (Rowe 1987). Emerging from this design studies tradition, Buchanan’s (1992) paper “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” shifted design theory away from its legacy in craft and industrial production towards a more generalized “design thinking” that could be applied to nearly anything, whether a tangible object or intangible system. (Lucy Kimbell. “Beyond Design Thinking: Design-As-Practice and Designs-In-Practice.” In CRESC Conference, Manchester. 2009. 3-4

18. Ibid.

19. Lisa Grocott, conversations with author (March 25th, 2013). Question 2.

20. Ibid., question 5

21.Lisa Grocott. Designing a Space for Speculation, 2006. 5.

22. Donaldd Woods Winnicott. Playing and Reality. (Burns & Oates, 1971)

23. Elizabeth Ellsworth. Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy (Routledge, 2005)
Refer to English pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s theory of the transitional phenomena, the “not-me” object, and the “good-enough” mother; and British psychoanalyst and writer, Christopher Bollas’ “evocative object”.

24. Ibid.

Elizabeth Ellsworth is a professor of Media Studies, and Associate Provost for Curriculum and Learning at The New School University.

25. Christopher Bollas. The Evocative Object World (Taylor & Francis, 2009)

26. Elizabeth Ellsworth. Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy (Routledge, 2005) 59-61

27. Lisa Grocott. “Design Research: Methods and Perspectives” in Speculation, Serendipity and Studio Anybody (Edited by Brenda Laurel. MIT Press, 2004, Chapter 3)

28. Ibid., 3

29. Lisa Grocott. “Design Research: Methods and Perspectives” in Speculation, Serendipity and Studio Anybody (Edited by Brenda Laurel. MIT Press, 2004, Chapter 3. 5) 7

30. Ibid., 8

31. Ibid., 9

32. Lisa Grocott, conversations with author (April 17th, 2013).

33. Donald A. Schön. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (Vol. 5126. Basic books, 1983). Lisa’s speculation-led approach to a reflective practice is what Schön calls the ‘back talk’ of practice; by engaging the audience in a process of co-creation, of figuring, participants explore their own understanding of design praxis.

34. Lisa Grocott. Designerly Ways of Researching (Studies in Material Thinking, Volume 06, 2012) 3, 4.


Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby. “Critical Design”. Retrieved April 22nd, 2013.

“Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method. There are many people doing this who have never heard of the term critical design and who have their own way of describing what they do. Naming it Critical Design is simply a useful way of making this activity more visible and subject to discussion and debate. Its opposite is affirmative design: design that reinforces the status quo.” Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby

Elizabeth B-N. Sanders. “From User-Centered to Participatory Design Approaches.” (Design and the social sciences: Making connections. 2002: 1-8); Michael J. Muller. “Participatory Design: The Third Space In HCI.” (Human-computer interaction: Development process, 2003: 165-185). Participatory design is designing “for” people.

Austin Center for Design (AC4D). “News and blog posts from our students and faculty.” Retrieved on April 22nd, 2013.

“Liz Sanders sets out the primary tenants of co-creation by defining it as ‘any act of collective creativity that is experienced jointly by two or more people.’ She divides the value spectrum of co-creation into three groups: monetary, use/experience, and social. She argues that the social end of this spectrum has the most potential for generating value through the process of co-creation.” Co-creation is designing “with” people.

Carl DiSalvo. “Adversarial Design”. Retrieved April 22nd, 2013.

“Adversarial design is a term I use to describe designed objects that highlight contemporary political issues in ways that provoke a reaction from the people who use or see those objects. That’s what I mean when I say adversarial designs are political provocations — they incite us to consider various societal values, beliefs, power structures, and desires, expressed through artifacts and systems.”

Carl DiSalvo

36. Elizabeth B-N. Sanders and Jan Stappers Pieter. “Co-Creation and The New Landscapes of Design.” (Co-design 4, no. 1 (2008): 5-18).

37. (

38. Anselm Strauss, and Juliet Corbin. “Grounded theory methodology.” Handbook of qualitative research (1994): 273-285.

39. Lisa Grocott. “Design Research and Reflective Practice: the facility of design-oriented research to translate practitioner insights into new understandings of design. 7 (PhD dissertation, RMIT University, 2010).

40. Ibid., 7

41. Lisa Grocott, conversations with author (April 17th, 2013).

42. Lisa Grocott. Designerly Ways of Researching (Studies in Material Thinking, Volume 06, 2012) 3.

43. Go on And Think Safari…or the Physicality of Reflection. February 21, 2013. Retrieved March 20th, 2013.

44. Go on a Thinking Safari…*or The Physicality of Reflection. Learn.Engage.Design workshop instructions, extracted exactly from

45. Examples of these exploratory exercises in the studio classroom are available at Lisa Grocott’s page on Vimeo: Retrieved April 28th, 2013.

46. Lisa Grocott, conversations with author (March 25th, 2013). Question 2.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

* Grocott has produced a body of work for academic conferences and publications—some peered reviewed—in relation to design practice and research. An array of her writings can be found at Designerly Ways Of Researching: Design Knowing And The Practice Of Researching, 2012; Design Research & Reflective Practice 2010; The Discursive Agency Of Productive Ambiguity, 2009; Designing A Space For Speculation, 2006; The Discursive Practice Of Figuring Diagrams; Disseminating Design Research: The Contribution Of Visual Communication In Capturing And Translating Design Knowing, 2005; Promoting Potential: The Dissemination And Reception Of Practitioner-Led Design Research, 2005; Figuring Design: Mappings Of The Design Process 2005. Her PhD dissertation is available at


Atkinson, Paul. “Do it Yourself: Democracy and Design.” Journal of Design History 19, no. 1 (2006): 1-10.

Bollas, Christopher. The Evocative Object World. Taylor & Francis, 2009.

Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked problems in design thinking.” Design issues 8, no. 2 (1992): 5-21.

Cross, Nigel. Designerly Ways of Knowing. Berlin: Springer, 2006.

Cross, Nigel. “Natural Intelligence in Design.” Design studies 20, no. 1 (1999): 25-39.

Dilnot, Clive. “Design for the 21st Century”. Class lecture, Parsons The New School for Design, New York, November 1st, 2012.

DiSalvo, Carl. “Adversarial Design”. Retrieved April 22nd, 2013.

Dunne, Anthony and Raby, Fiona. “Critical Design” Dunne and Raby studio.

Ellsworth, Elizabeth. Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy. Routledge, 2005.

Fallan, Kjetil. De-scribing Design: Appropriating Script Analysis to Design History. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Design Issues, Vol. 4, No. 2, Autumn 2008.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.

Grocott, Lisa. Conversations with author, March 25th, 2013.

Grocott, Lisa. Designerly Ways of Researching. Studies in Material Thinking, Volume 06, 2012. 3, 4.

Grocott, Lisa. “Design Research and Reflective Practice: the facility of design-oriented research to translate practitioner insights into new understandings of design. PhD dissertation, RMIT University, 2010.

Grocott, Lisa. “The Discursive Agency of Productive Ambiguity.” Nordes 3 (2009).

Grocott, Lisa. Designing a Space for Speculation, 2006. www.

Grocott, Lisa. “Promoting Potential: The Dissemination and Reception of Practitioner-Led Design Research.” In Design Perspectives Conference, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico. 2005.

Grocott, Lisa. “The Discursive Practice of Figuring Diagrams The Discursive Practice of Figuring Diagrams.” www.

Kimbell, Lucy, and Park End Street. “Beyond Design Thinking: Design-As-Practice And Designs-In-Practice.” In CRESC Conference, Manchester. 2009.

Lawson, Bryan. What Designers Know. Routledge, 2004.

Marshall, Tim and Grocott, Lisa. Figuring Design: Mappings of the Design Process. Designing Schools of Design. Paper presented at the Design Perspectives: Envisioning Design for the XXI Century conference, Mexico City, 2005.

Muller, Michael J. “Participatory design: the third space in HCI.” Human-computer interaction: Development process (2003): 165-185.

Open Source website. “What is Open Source?” Retrieved May 2nd, 2013.

Sanders, Elizabeth B-N., and Pieter, Jan Stappers. “Co-Creation And The New Landscapes Of Design.” Co-design 4, no. 1 (2008): 5-18.

Sanders, Elizabeth B-N. “From User-Centered to Participatory Design Approaches.”  Design and the social sciences: Making connections (2002): 1-8.

Schön, Donald A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. Vol. 5126. Basic Books, 1983.

Winnicott, Donaldd Woods. Playing and Reality. Burns & Oates, 1971

Ellen Lupton: A Designer For All

Ellen Lupton is a writer, educator, designer and curator. Currently, Lupton is the director of the MFA program in graphic design at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She is also the curator at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. Since Lupton has not limited herself to a single discipline, but has been active in design writing, educating, and curating, her multi-faceted work in the design field is multi-faceted and greatly influential. The characteristic that runs through all of Lupton’s work is the desire to share design tools. Says Lupton, “My profession is teaching, curating, lecturing, and spreading the word about design. And so I consider a lot of what I do in that capacity, ‘designing.’ But it’s not where the design is the fore-grounded element. Design is my subject and I’m a kind of tool for delivery.”[i] Lupton’s body of work includes many educational materials, design guidebooks, and ideas to expand the read on design. At this point in her career, Lupton has written or edited twenty books and curated over fifteen exhibitions.  This paper reviews a portion of her work as it contributes to graphic design and the Design It Yourself (D.I.Y.) movement. This paper will offer a canonical review and engage critically with the D.I.Y. movement as it reviews Lupton’s career trajectory and focuses on her ethos of sharing.

Lupton’s close ties with design theory and education materials have contributed specifically to the graphic design discourse. Lupton’s career began to take shape when she first became interested in design and theory as an undergraduate at Cooper Union. This combined study of design and theory has evolved into the current day Design Studies discipline, but at the time it was a somewhat sequestered academic pursuit.[ii] Fellow student and designer J. Abbott Miller, who eventually became Lupton’s husband, collaborated with her on multiple self-initiated research activities that tested and explored these subjects.[iii] In 1991, Lupton and Miller wrote and edited The ABC’s of Bauhaus, The Bauhaus and Design Theory.[iv]After a decade of experimental writing in design and theory, the result was a series of essays collected in the book Design Writing Research, which Lupton and Miller self-published in 1996. Despite its mid-90s publication date, this book still merits attention today from the graphic design community as it examines complex themes of race, philosophy, form, aesthetics, typography, art, media, and design’s intersection with them.

While these three disciplines, design, writing and research, can and do function independently, Lupton and Miller sought to shed light on the benefits of combining all three for a more a comprehensive view of design. While single disciplines can be closeted from one another, this book suggests something more team-based. Using writing and research to explore design gave the discipline a wider view on its affects in coordination with theory, philosophy, form, and sociology.

Aesthetically, Design, Writing, Research reflects the latter day adaption of the Bauhaus style– with its heavily gridded layout and floating blocks of black and red type. The content reflects an ongoing engagement with modernism as well as with essays such as “Language of Vision” chronicles through Gestalt psychology,[1] and “Body of the Book”[v] and “Laws of the Letter,”[vi] which examine modern and rationalist type. These particular essays forcast Lupton’s later work on typography: Thinking with Type (2010). In Design, Writing, Research, Lupton and Miller also build off Foucault to describe design as “dispersed across a network of technologies, institutions, and services that define the discipline and its limits”[vii] Lupton and Miller use Foucault’s writings to examine the nature of design “medicine” and “madness,”[viii] two sides of the same coin in design practice.

“Modern Hieroglyph,”  Design, Writing, Research. 41.

“Modern Hieroglyph,”
Design, Writing, Research. 41.

 “Laws of the Letter”  Design, Writing, Research, 56.

“Laws of the Letter” Design, Writing, Research, 56.


 “Laws of the Letter” Design, Writing, Research, 57.

“Laws of the Letter”
Design, Writing, Research, 57.


One of the Design, Writing, Research essays, “White on Black on Gray,” described an advertising campaign for “Of Black America,” an African American history television program that ran during the summer of 1968.[ix] The ad for the show appeared in The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune. The ad showed an image of an African American man with his right cheek streaked with white painted in the pattern of stars and stripes. While this ad hoped to engender progressive thinking on race, Lupton and Miller point out that its white producers were championing a group they themselves had originally ostracized from the media. “It was noted that many of these programs were written, produced, and directed by white journalists; among seven producers of the CBS series, none were African-American.”[x] The reality of the times was that although blacks made up 20% of the American population in 1966, the demand for black models was scarce.[xi] The ad was unusual for the provocative depiction of the American flag as the white stripes they resembled a white “jail” that kept these black models inside. Furthermore, Lupton and Miller argue that the male African-American model in the CBS ad was not a representative for his own cause of equality, but the result of another’s cause imposed upon him: “The model is in a position of subservience: he is the passive vehicle for someone else’s statement about oppression”[xii] Although this ad ran in the 60s, this issue persists in contemporary ad campaigns. (See Appendix 1).

“Of Black America” advertisment 1968. Design Writing Research, 102.

“Of Black America” advertisment 1968.
Design Writing Research, 102.

Altogether, Design Writing Research can be seen as encouragement for graphic designers to bring these aesthetics to a thoughtful and socially minded issues. This book has become an international “classic” graphic design theory book. It is a valuable platform for those who want to engage critically in design practice and theory and observe the social refractions design creates. One of the most important parts of Design Writing Research is its attempt to build bridges among other disciplinary understandings of communication. This fits into Lupton’s larger impetus to share her knowledge, and the knowledge of her field.

Mechanical Brides (1993) and Mixing Messages (1996)

Mechanical Brides (1993) and Mixing Messages (1996)

During the time she was writing Design Writing Research, Lupton worked as the original curator for the Cooper Union Herb Lubalin Center. Later in 1992, she joined the curatorial staff at the Smithsonian’s Cooper- Hewitt National Design Museum. There she curated exhibitions such as Mechanical Brides: Woman and Machines, from Home to Office (1993-94) and Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture (1996-97). Her work as a curator provided the opportunity to use her graphic design skills to create the exhibition’s media, such as its publications, signage, identity, or educational materials.[xiii] Lupton says while curating, it has “always been really empowering to be able to use the tools of graphic design and have ability to do a book, or do something quickly.”[xiv]

This notion of empowerment evolved as Lupton wondered if more people could benefit from a basic set of graphic design skills.[xv] The interest deepened around 2000, when Lupton taught her twin sister Julia to use InDesign, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and a CMS program called TextPattern. Julia Lupton is a Shakespearean scholar with a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Yale. In other words, not the likely designer. “She is my authentic, hardcore D.I.Y. project, ” says Lupton.[xvi] In discovering that Julia was able to navigate the tools of graphic design, Lupton saw an interesting opportunity for the democratization of graphic design: “I thought, why not tap in to the cultural interest of “Do It Yourself” (D.I.Y.) but focus it on graphic design, which at that point had been overlooked in most of the D.I.Y. buzz.”[xvii] In 2006, Lupton authored and edited with her graphic design graduate students at MICA D.I.Y., Design It Yourself, a collection of graphic design teachings and methods. Accordingly, the book gives a step-by-step description of how to use a blog, how to make business cards, cds, flyers, invitations, logos, newsletters, notecards, posters, stationary, t-shirts, web sites, wall graphics, zines and more.[xviii] The inside cover states: “Design is art people use.” After D.I.Y, came D.I.Y. Kids, which Lupton co-authored with her twin sister Julia, and her children illustrated.[xix] After that, in 2009, Ellen and Julia Lupton co-authored and published Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things, directed at general readers. Design Your Life offers readers insights about common objects. The chapters are also online with downloadable PDFs of essays, “Are Toasters Necessary?” and “Why No One Wants To Read Your Blog.”[xx] Lupton collaborated again with her graduate students to write the book Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book, a guide for those interested in bringing their book ideas or zines to fruition.[xxi] Thinking with Type,[xxii] Lupton’s book from 2010 on how to choose and use typefaces, falls under the design tt yourself umbrella as well. Throughout all of Lupton’s projects, sharing is still the common thread. She says: “All these books, however, are about spreading the word and announcing that design practice is open and accessible.”[xxiii] Nearly all of Lupton’s books have been adapted into websites, so there are open source versions that are freely accessible to the public. In addition, Lupton has online resources for teachers to download a free graphic design class outline or syllabus.[xxiv]


It is notable that D.I.Y. Design It Yourself, was something of a pop culture success, holding a place on the shelf at Urban Outfitters for over a year.[xxv] Not only does Lupton’s D.I.Y. carry amateurs through design, but it also affords users because the design process gives one a feeling of independence.[xxvi] This is reiterated in Julia Lupton’s point which reflects her Marxist views in her essay, “D.I.Y. Theory.” She writes: “Capital works by separating ownership from labor. The capitalist owns the means of production and distribution (the factory, the tools, the retail stores), while the worker does the producing (earning a wage instead of owning what he or she makes). When you design your own products and publications, you get to engage both creatively and critically with capital.” [xxvii]In the case of D.I.Y., the producer or maker is not earning a wage. The experience of ownership is based upon the unique manner in which one conducts their craft.[xxviii] By this logic, when one engages in the D.I.Y. production and makes their own product, they, in turn, own the product. One could argue that the original author of the D.I.Y. template is the owner of the piece, but each piece is in fact unique to the maker’s way of using the template. D.I.Y. methods engage the ‘worker’s’ experience and allow ownership over the final product. The D.I.Y. maker is loosened from any corporate capitalist grip. And Lupton has made efforts to be sure that all can have this experience. Her D.I.Y. writings speak to those from “all walks of life”[xxix]

“Business Cards,” D.I.Y. Design It Yourself, 58-58.

“Business Cards,” D.I.Y. Design It Yourself, 58-58.

However, D.I.Y. has its shortcomings as well. Although D.I.Y. is a guidebook for many graphic design projects, such as party invites and zines, it does not include any of the graphic design software traditionally needed to complete much of this design work, such as Abode Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, or even simpler programs like Keynote or Word. The end of the book does have a brief section on websites that gives tips on how to organize and structure HTML files, a skill useful in graphic design, but there is no particular software guidance. This can be seen as limiting design accomplishments. It is also difficult to judge the level of design quality based on the graphics and products of this book, since the work is so varied. Tracy Jenkins, a founding partner of Village, a New York network of type foundries said in her review of D.I.Y. which appeared on Design Observer:

Perhaps its’ precisely the absence of a cohesive body of work, in this book, that is most vexing – for while the brevity of the chapters allows the book to cover a lot of ground, the overall read is choppy, and the work shown here is uneven. Some chapters seem to end abruptly, while others feature a wider variety of projects. It is difficult to discern whether the authors intended to represent each student’s best efforts, or if certain pieces aren’t simply meant as sketches, illustrating an idea rather than a finished portfolio piece.[xxx]

Design quality remains an unaddressed within D.I.Y. Although ‘quality’ in design is subjective, D.I.Y. as a model for quality raises concern. Since D.I.Y. is meant for “all walks of life,” the results are necessarily erratic in terms of quality.

This seems to debunk the idea that graphic design belongs to a long lineage of “good” professional work. Graphic design, like any other discipline, has layer upon layer of historical style and visual treatments, each with its own masters and exceptionally talented individuals. For example, during the 1880s, Henri Toulouse Lautrec produced posters with his exceptional gift for uniting the Japanese flat fields of color with the Western European style of the painting faces and figures.[xxxi] In the early 20th century, figures such as Kazimir Malevich were guided the principle of only using essential colors. After that, came the the Bauhaus, the Swiss grid, trends of red, black and white and the teachings and influence of Herbert Bayer.[xxxii] Post-war figures set new standards, they include Paul Renner, the inventor of Futura; Max Bill, renowned for his geometric paintings with color overlay; and high modernist Josef Muller Brockman, famous for furthering minimalist advertising. The 1960s saw Paul Rand’s approach to corporate identities, [xxxiii]and the Lance Wyman’s “Mexico 1968” logo.[xxxiv] The 1970s saw Helvetica revitalized in the NYC subways by Massimo Vignelli.[xxxv] Milton Glaser’s “I Love NY” followed. In 1999, Stefan Sagmeister cut his body for the sake of an AIGA poster.[xxxvi] It does not seem fitting to this writer that design should see so many movements, styles and icons, and then devolve to the lowest common denominator. Is this the culmination of decades of design thinking and discourse? Is the spotlight now turned towards the amateur after 200 years of refinement? The more important question becomes: is the movement that D.I.Y. brings making it impossible to judge quality?

Upon D.I.Y.’s release, Lupton met with Steven Heller in a “friendly debate” regarding such concerns.[xxxvii] Heller told Lupton:

I recoil when I think of mediocre designers “doing it themselves.” People should not think they are Designers because they can fiddle with type on a computer template. If people start thinking that graphic design is as easy as one, two, three, it will diminish designers’ authority and clients’ respect.[xxxviii]

Later in the same debate, Heller admits to a “certain level of paranoia.” However, his projections carry legitimate concern. Template design is the bread and butter of D.I.Y., and repeated template design does not usually challenge the field of design, it moves design along at a steady pace. Heller continues: “I worry that D.I.Y. is a license to kill—and to kill the designer. Please save us from well-meaning amateurs!”[xxxix]

Heller is concerned that the attitude of D.I.Y. will diminish the field for the professionals. But another, and possibly greater concern is, how could D.I.Y. methods contribute to or raise the field of design? Most people engaged with D.I.Y. practices assume that it is a means to an end, whereas professional designers are trying to contribute to a discourse.[xl] If the influx of D.I.Y. brings about the attitude of designing as a means to an end, how then could the design discourse be fulfilled? Lupton’s book is instructive on how to make logos that are acceptable, but should ‘acceptable’ within design be ‘normal?’ Shouldn’t graphic design be something to aspire to?

However, the distinction between the designer’s and non-designer’s objective should not be confused, according to Lupton. While the D.I.Y. amateur and professional both make design, the two are not the same, says Lupton,

Not everyone is a design “professional,” a person dedicated to solving complex problems and carrying out large, capital-intensive projects. But everyone can design elements of their own life, from their personal business cards or letterheads to their own flyers and wedding invitations.[xli]

The two are distinct in their design objective. Also, in some views, D.I.Y. is seen more as “arts and craft” which has always seemed to cause trouble when mistaken for “fine art” or “design.”[xlii] When the two remain separate, there seems to be less concern about ‘quality.’

The point of D.I.Y. is not for the amateur to masquerade as a professional and set other standards for quality in the design field, (as per Heller is concerned) but to successfully complete their own task. One is not of greater value than the other; they just serve different purposes. D.I.Y. in particular serves the purpose of everyday life, and that, in and of itself, is an important, yet different quality. Says Lupton, “Perhaps the focus should be shifted away from the elitism. Perhaps our credibility shouldn’t come from design’s elite status, but rather from its universal relevance to daily life.”[xliii]

And while D.I.Y. runs a gamut of possibilities, so does design. As Victor Papanek states in his classic Design for the Real World, “Design is composing an epic poem, executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto. But design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple pie, choosing sides for a backlot baseball game, and educating a child.”[xliv]

Furthermore, with the expansion of the digital age, D.I.Y. is becoming more natural in our culture. The digital age enables self-education, with makes D.I.Y. even easier. With online resources such as the graphic design course libraries and, and the Do It Yourself archive, the design-it-yourself movement is expanding. Trade schools such as 3rd Ward[xlv] and General Assembly[xlvi] offer design classes taught by professionals on Adobe programs: Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, After Effects, Flash, along with Arduino, and 3-D printing and modeling. Because of this, design work is being done outside the professional realm, whether anyone likes it or not.

Small business owners have predicaments where they need graphic design work. People continue to need signage and business cards and do not always have the wherewithal to hire a professional designer. People will continue to have these needs, and continue to independently use design tools available to them, such as Photoshop and Illustrator, in order to solve their design dilemmas. Says Lupton:

A lot of the work that small businesses or individuals create for themselves would not have been created by a professional designer in the first place: a business card for a dog walker or an invitation to a vegan wedding. People who do engage in their own design work often develop a deeper respect for the complexity of design. I’ve had several readers of my book “Indie Publishing” contact me looking for a book designer. When you sit down and try to create something as challenging as a book, you quickly see that it’s more than just “software.”[xlvii]

When D.I.Y. methods cut into the field of the professionals, they can be a threat. But no more a threat than the schools that open their doors for public design courses. Also, D.I.Y. could be inspiring if posed as a challenge to “force designers to look at how they can produce real value in our culture.”[xlviii]

1. Graphic Design: Now in Production catalog cover 2. Metal band logos, Christophe Szpajdel, 2009-2011 3. Graphic Design: Now in Production catalog, 118-119. 4. Churchward International Typefaces, David Bennewith, 2009. 5. Oil and Water Do Not Mix, Anthony Burrill, 2010. 6. History Flow, Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas, 2003. 7. Iconic Tv Series, Albert Exergian, 2009-2010 8. No Ghost Just a Shell, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, 2000.

1. Graphic Design: Now in Production catalog cover
2. Metal band logos, Christophe Szpajdel, 2009-2011
3. Graphic Design: Now in Production catalog, 118-119.
4. Churchward International Typefaces, David Bennewith, 2009.
5. Oil and Water Do Not Mix, Anthony Burrill, 2010.
6. History Flow, Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas, 2003.
7. Iconic Tv Series, Albert Exergian, 2009-2010
8. No Ghost Just a Shell, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, 2000.

This challenge is developed in Lupton’s essay, “The Designer as Producer.” It appeared in the catalog for the Graphic Design: Now in Production exhibition, which was curated by Ellen Lupton and Andrew Blauvelt in 2012. It was the largest American graphic design exhibition since Mixing Messages.[xlix] In her essay, Lupton makes the distinction from “designer as author” and “designer and producer.”[l] Lupton argues that “author” implies one origin, which may exclude certain ideas or methods of design. Eventually, Lupton makes the case that a designer as a “producer” allows for something more “team-based.”[li] This reflects Lupton’s practice as a “producer,” and how Lupton’s essay shows one way of how the designer can have an impact and create “real value” with and for society.  The exhibition Graphic Design: Now in Production is an example of design work from high and low culture that co-exists in an open way.[lii]

Overall, Ellen Lupton shares design knowledge. Her work in design theory, writing, and research is laden with important, yet complex graphic design issues that can require a slow, and ponderous digestion. On the contrary, Lupton’s Design It Yourself methods are step-by-step processes for anyone to follow quickly and easily. Lupton’s work provides a complex and thorough contribution to the design discourse. But it also demystifies and democratizes the design process so the power is placed in individuals rather than solely in design icons. Through her work, Lupton is attempting to make design everyone’s history.


[1] Lupton and Miller describe Gestalt psychology “A theory of design that isolates vsual perception from linguistic interpretation encourages indifference to cultural meaning.” Graphic Designers often use this as an aesthetic or form to convey an object in its simplest form. It is also a useful technique in halftone printing or line art.

[i] Ellen Lupton Interview March 28, 2013

[ii] Ellen Lupton Interview February 14, 2013

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller. The ABCs of Bauhaus, The Bauhaus and Design Theory. New York: The Cooper Union and Princeton Architectural Press, 1991.

[v] Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, Design Writing Research: (Phaidon, 1996), 50.

[vi] Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, Design Writing Research: (Phaidon, 1996), 53.

[vii] Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, Design Writing Research: (Phaidon, 1996), 67.

[viii] Ibid. 70-71

[ix] Ibid. 102

[x] Ibid. 103

[xi] Ibid. 108

[xii] Ibid. 115

[xiii] Ellen Lupton Interview February 14, 2013

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ellen Lupton Interview April 27, 2013

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii]Maryland Institute College of Art MFA program, D.I.Y. Design It Yourself, ed. Ellen Lupton (Princeton Architectural Press: 2006), 1.

[xix] Ellen and Julia Lupton, D.I.Y Kids, (Princeton Architectural Press: 2007)


[xxi] Indie Publishing

[xxii] Ellen Lupton, Thinking with Type. (Princetion Architectural Press: 2010)

[xxiii] Ellen Lupton Interview April 27, 2013

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Bruno Latour. “Actor Network Theory.”

[xxvii] Julia Lupton. “D.I.Y. Theory.” D.I.Y. Design It Yourself. (Princeton Architectural Press: 2006), 25.

[xxviii] Ibid. 1

[xxix] Ellen Lupton, D.I.Y. Design It Yourself. (Princeton Architectural Press: 2006), 17.

[xxx] Tracy Jenkins. “D.I.Y. Design It Yourself” (January 2006). 1.

[xxxi] Phillip Meggs. 2011 Meggs’ History of Graphic Design (4th edition) (2006).

“Art Nouveau.” 202-203

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Lance Wyman designed the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, still re appropriated today on sport jerseys.

[xxxv] Ethan Robey. “Graphic Design History” course at Cooper-Hewitt, April 25 2013

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ellen Lupton Interview February 14, 2013

[xlii] Paul Atkinson. “Do It Yourself: Democracy and Design.” Journal of design history. University of Huddersfield. 2

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Victor Papanek. Design for the Real World. (Academy Chicago Publishers: 1984), 3.

[xlv] 3rd Ward is an art and design school located in Brooklyn with courses taught by professionals and open to anyone.

[xlvi] General Assembly is a design and technology school with open courses taught by professionals. They have locations in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sydney, London, Hong Kong, and Berlin.

[xlvii] Ellen Lupton Interview April 27, 13

[xlviii] Ellen Lupton Interview April 27, 13

[xlix] Rick Poynor. “Read All That? You Must be Kidding Me.” (January 2012).

[l] Ellen Lupton. Graphic Design: Now in Production catalog. (Walker Art Center 2011). 12

[li] Ellen Lupton Interview March 28, 2013

[lii] Ellen Lupton. Graphic Design: Now in Production catalog. (Walker Art Center 2011), 9.


Appendix 1

“In Africa, many kids would be glad to worry about school” UNICEF ad in Germany, 2007, pulled due to controversy

“In Africa, many kids would be glad to worry about school”
UNICEF ad in Germany, 2007, pulled due to controversy

This point “someone else’s statement about oppression” further resonates with current discussions about race, culture, and ethnicity in graphic design. One example today, is the popularization of large imagery of non-white children in the humanitarian sector of design. This ode to the ‘exotic other’ hopes to extend financial and moral support, but exhibiting large images of ‘exotic’ faces might be etching deeper lines in the stereotypes of the first and third world. Furthermore, as in the instance of “Black America,” the image of the child becomes the subject of someone else’s “statement about oppression.”


Map of Ellen Lupton’s Practice

Ellen Lupton's Mapped Practice by Sarah Lillenberg 2013 For closer detail:

Ellen Lupton’s Mapped Practice by Sarah Lillenberg 2013

For closer detail:


Sean Donahue, Media Designer: Using Design Research to Encourage Conversation within Communities

Sean Donahue Media designer is a core member of faculty in the Media Design Graduate program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.1 He is also the principal of Research Centered Design, a design practice, based in Los Angeles, which aims to investigate ways in which design research, as a discipline, can inform the practice of design in social situations.

Design research is at the core of Donahue’s practice. It involves the curation of ideologies and the creation of conversation. He makes it clear that design research is not about fitting it into existing discipline, neither is it about solving problems. This accords with another design advocate Yanki Lee. She says, “The design focus is not only focus on solving problems… but also on enhancing our design capabilities to search for optimal solutions for all”.2 Another well known pair of designers, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby support this approach as well. They state that “critical design or design that asks carefully crafted questions and makes us think, is just as difficult and just as important as design that solves problems or finds answers. Its purpose is to stimulate discussion and debate among designers, industry and the public about the aesthetic quality of our electronically mediated existence”.3

Donahue’s practice is based on speculative and critical thought, which encourages questioning and investigation, elements that are common in his work as well as in the classroom. “I think a large part of my work is speculative. It provides me an opportunity to pose questions that ultimately translate into more significant inquiries about the world around me and my discipline”.4 This requires input by the community to delve into the impact of design decisions.5

Although Donahue’s practice is not involved in design of objects in this sense of the critical, the idea that critical design stimulates discussion holds true in his work. Encouraging conversation between designers and those impacted by design is a significant methodology used by Donahue. Some of the communities he has worked with include the elderly community, the visually impaired and the Latino community in Los Angeles. Donahue’s practice is rich in collaboration, exploration and research of a design nature and design influence.

Donahue refers to himself as a media designer and a maker, “I make tactile things through which I am able to create an understanding of the result of the processes I have used”.6 He creates artifacts rooted in graphic design that involve three concepts, “hybridity, emergence and discovery.” These concepts are also incorporated in his teaching.7

Extra-curricular activities during his years as a scholar as well as organizations and movements outside of his own have shaped the ideologies embedded in his work. Post-Colonial studies and post-Fordist theory have been important influences. Donahue also embraces post-modernist design theory which takes an emotional and ephemeral experiences into account.

Two movements of significance to the development of his philosophy and practice are Asco and the Women’s Building. Asco, a Chicano artist collective based in Los Angeles, focused on the construction of images and identity within the media. The Women’s Building, also based in Los Angeles, provided a platform for the women’s movement and feminism as a whole. These entities have provided a sounding board for critique, not just of other institutions but also to provide new alternatives to those critiques.

Design, to Donahue, is about the construction and production of knowledge. However, he believes the term to be generic when used by those who do not immerse themselves in the field. “Whether your work is art or design (…) you [need to] choose to participate in the mechanisms that critically evaluate and participate in the knowledge construction of that said discipline”.8 Donahue believes that though not everyone can call themselves a designer, “the reality is that people create or construct their own world.” 9

The relationship between design and other disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and philosophy, is not as simple as Donahue would like it to be. “I wish designers could just follow their intuitions and their passions … [and] connect with these disciplines in a way that [they would perceive] … design as not a second class citizen but as … knowledge capital that is just executed through a different mode, through knowledge constructed in a different way and explore the potential of that and bring that back to design to talk about those relationships”.10 He has also aimed at implementing this relationship within his media design lessons.

Regarding his students, Donahue has created a pedagogy of new alternatives to the current mode of teaching as a way to illustrate how to draw upon different modes of thought according to one’s expectations. This encourages students to explore spaces of their interest “as opposed to fitting into spaces where other people want to use designers”.11

He believes that design as a discipline should be aware of the knowledge of other modes of thought, however, this relationship should be symbiotic. Donahue says, “I wish anthropologists would talk to designers more when it comes to some [of our common concepts and] … build off our history of scholarship around how these ideas manifest as visual and material communications”.12

During the first five years of his practice, Donahue did not integrate any of his design work with other disciplines in order to have the space and freedom to investigate how design research in its own style could “influence, inform and supplement the work around shared areas of interest” in said disciplines.13 This questioning is still valid because there is currently a crisis whereby design is being forced into fitting within existing models. An example he uses to demonstrate this is design ethnography, “I understand what design ethnography can be but why call it design ethnography? Why not just call it design?”14

The founder of Research Centered Design, Donahue knows where design rests with regard to research practices. He says, “Designing is researching”.15 To this he adds that design research shouldn’t be represented as any other discipline because it is the process of design.16 Designers use the artificial to observe interactions and it is within the act of interaction that meanings are constructed, therefore in his view “form influences behavior”.17

To exemplify Donahue’s design philosophy and methods, two projects led by Donahue will be evaluated; the first, Touch Magazine and the second, LA Has Faults. These projects explore Donahue’s work as “addressing human and environmental” dilemmas through design research and design strategies.18

Touch Magazine (fig. 2) illustrates how design research can produce conversation as well as tactile outcomes as a response to the conversation. Touch Magazine was created for both low-vision and no-vision communities.19 Through in-depth investigation and innovation, Donahue was able to merge the interests and needs of these communities.

Fig. 1. Touch Magazine

Fig. 1. Touch Magazine, Sean Donahue, 2002. Contrasting conventional and raised text.

– Research Centered Design

The process stretched over seven years during which Donahue interviewed low-vision and no-vision individuals, took part in their daily routines and witnessed their family life. He posed the question, “Could the application of the principles of typography to Braille communication enhance the tactile language?”20

Donahue learnt that low-vision individuals are classified as being blind even though they do have a small ability to see forms. This isolates them in the community because they fall into the gap between the sighted and non-sighted.21 To assist in the transition from sight to no sight, Donahue developed graphics that bridge this communicative gap. Braille, text, texture and conventional visuals are incorporated into a single publication to address all needs. Thermographic ink was utilized to create raised text and visual forms so that low-vision readers could feel their way through the magazine whilst looking at visually stimulating forms.22

Fig. 2. Touch Magazine

Fig. 2. Touch Magazine, Sean Donahue, 2002. Combining raised text and Braille.

– Research Centered Design

Fig. 3. Touch Magazine

Fig. 3. Touch Magazine, Sean Donahue, 2002. A Rolling Stone Magazine cover using Braille in place of text.

– Research Centered Design

By making text tactile, Donahue moved away from conventional graphic methods and paved the way for a new graphic audience. The publication addressed “both physical and physiological needs of the community” creating an experience and a space for imagination.23 However, an issue that arose during the iterations of this process was the provocative notion of touching. Touching a raised image of a woman (see fig. 3) was taken as more provocative than looking at the image, which was ironic to Donahue as he believed there was no real difference in looking at or feeling the image.

Whilst individuals were involved in the interview and immersive process, strong evidence of individuals being involved in the design process was not apparent. There were iterative phases of the magazine where Donahue would receive feedback but this writer did not see any evidence of direct involvement of the individuals he spoke with in the creative process. By stating that design research is a collaborative discipline one would expect to see more inclusion of individuals in the design conceptualization process.

Donahue borrows from other disciplines such as ethnography to enhance design research by interviewing the community he is designing for and attempting to understand what design means to them by immersing himself in their daily routine. But at the same time, he uses iterative processes to get feedback on the artifacts that he believes would impact the community in a positive way. The attention paid to designing for the individual rather than a consumer market reflects his post-Fordist ideals which reject systemized solutions and favor an iterative process.

Donahue’s LA Has Faults initiative (fig. 4) was used as a platform to address earthquake preparedness in communities whose infrastructure lacked efficient and sufficient means of communication before and during the natural disaster.24 The aim of this outreach project was to create innovative ways of encouraging effective communication to inform the predominantly Latino-American community in MacArthur Park, Los Angeles about the risks of a natural disaster. As a member of faculty in the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design, Donahue led the project with four core designers: Yee Chan, Vera Valentine, Hye Rin Kang and Ken Huang (fig. 5).25

Fig. 4. LA Has Faults

Fig. 4. LA Has Faults, MacArthur Park, Los Angeles, Sean Donahue, 2008.

Photo – Yee Chan

The design interventions involved two phases; phase one: introduction and phase two: starting a conversation.26 Phase one (fig. 6), which took place in March 2008, was focused on introducing the design team to the community through acquisition of inquiry. The team constructed large-scale models, 10-feet high, consisting of letters which spelt out five words. The words “Shake”, “Shift”, “Aware”, “Alerta” and “Alto” in English and Spanish, were left to stand for half an hour at a time. Curiosity led residents and visitors of MacArthur Park to question the presence of these artifacts as well as experience them by playing around or resting on the objects.

Fig. 5. LA Has Faults

Fig. 5. LA Has Faults, MacArthur Park, Los Angeles, Sean Donahue, 2008. The design team with the “Alto” model.

Photo – Yee Chan

Fig. 6. LA Has Faults

Fig. 6. LA Has Faults, MacArthur Park, Los Angeles, Sean Donahue, 2008. Conversations with the community.

Photo – Yee Chan

Communication with residents at the site allowed for phase two of the project. In May 2008 the team rented a retail space which they converted into a temporary community center for two weeks. (fig. 7) Community leaders, residents and other stakeholders used the community center to discuss issues regarding earthquake preparedness. Residents were provided an outlet to share their current earthquake preparedness strategies, which facilitated talks on the type of information that the residents already had and the strategies that they were not aware of (fig. 8).

Fig. 7. LA Has Faults

Fig. 7. LA Has Faults, Community center, MacArthur Park, Los Angeles, Sean Donahue, 2008.

Photo – Yee Chan

Fig. 8. LA Has Faults

Fig. 8. LA Has Faults, Communicative strategy, MacArthur Park, Los Angeles, Sean Donahue, 2008.

Photo – Yee Chan

The project became “a national and international example of the power of design thinking applied to disaster preparedness”.27 Using a multidisciplinary approach the project provoked conversation between all sectors of the community with regard to their combined safety efforts. It reaffirmed the urgent need for collaboration and innovation not only within the design practice but between communities and related stakeholders too.28 The result of the project also inspired “a blueprint for mitigation efforts that are also vitally needed beyond Los Angeles, and statewide in California and beyond”.29

Sean Donhue/Art Center's "LA HAS FAULTS"

Fig. 9. LA Has Faults exhibition, Cooper-Hewitt Triennial, Sean Donahue, 2010.

– Photographer unknown

Although the project encouraged the development of safety measures by the community, residents were initially apprehensive. When residents were made aware that the event would also involve government officials, they were reluctant to fully participate for fear that their relatives who were not documented would be deported.30 In this case, the residents trusted religious and cultural advocates over the government.

To gain trust, discussions were set up among the government, the designers and the residents. Donahue refers to the government as a medium that instills ideologies in its production systems which are then distributed within a community without room for question. To avoid a similar lack of trust, Donahue believes that designers should be aware of the limits of such messages. Donahue believes they should invite different point of view. In negotiating among different parties, designers must suspend all their assumptions before entering the design phase.

As with Touch Magazine, involving the community in the design process was not apparent in this case study. Though residents were encouraged to participate in communicative processes such as writing down their specific plan of action in the event of an earthquake, it was not their idea to use that method of communication. Providing collaboration beyond simply participating would do well to gain the trust of residents and stakeholders, who may be apprehensive about working with designers who are not familiar with their community.31 Donahue’s project is to give residents communication tools so they won’t be dependent on him or his colleagues whom then leave.

Donahue’s definition of design as research comes forth in both Touch Magazine and LA Has Faults. Using artifacts he formed conversations around issues that were given little attention before. It is through the initial reactions to these objects that discoveries are made. This is what Donahue sees the responsibility of design as a discipline to be. Communication and questioning is at the core of his work, leading to the construction of knowledge inherent in design research.

These projects may address a problem within a community but Donahue makes it clear that is it not about solving a problem. The aim of design research should be to design a language that, in the form of artifacts or literature, becomes integrated into a society. It is not to say that the community should become dependent on the designer who looks at the problem another way. The design should impart strategies that fit into existing frameworks so that there is very little intrusion felt by the members of that community.32

Donahue is able to use his knowledge of and skills in graphic design to make the results of his investigations visible. His methodologies place design in a realm of its own in the sense that design, as a method of research in itself, need not try to alter its inherent strategies of investigation, materialization, conversation and iteration in order to fit into another discipline. Design research as observed in the case studies above evolve within a critical and speculative environment, encouraging conversation in the first and communication in the second, which Donahue believes are the core elements in design.

His work creates an opportunity for other designers within the field to consider the strategies he deploys and adapt them to their own work so that the knowledge developed in design research may extend to other fields. However, for design research to be accepted as a discipline in its own right, certain prejudices need to be overcome, such as the notion that certain methodologies belong to certain modes of thought, i.e. observation anthropology. This is the difficulty of such a proposal. There is also the possibility of design research becoming a liability to the design field. If design research becomes a discipline, which only employs its own mechanisms in isolation from others, then it may have to face exclusion from other modes of thought.

The success of design research depends on trust. Donahue explains that, from his experience, other disciplines are looking for familiar methodologies used in design and when the frameworks do not look like their own they find difficulty in trusting the results of such methods. Existing disciplines need to be reassured that design’s methodologies are valid so that they may employ design strategies in their own field. Two questions can lead design to gaining trust; “firstly, what does design need its research to contain in order to advance it and secondly, what does it need to be in order to enter not as another but as a supplement to these external spaces?”33

These questions would address the central issues in design research today and through consistent efforts the validity of design research will serve as the stepping stone for alternative modes of thought to adopt qualities and modes of knowledge inherent in design.

Looking forward, the ideologies, mechanisms, systems and language provoked by Donahue’s work as a media designer serve as a model for the greater design community, be it in academia or business, to take design forward as a mode of thought that has earned its place in critical thinking. Donahue’s outlook has the potential to reaffirm that aesthetics, related to our five senses, in design do not only benefit the consumer but also the observer, the critique and the inquisitive.

Fig. Concept Map of Sean Donahue’s practice, Divia Padayachee, 2013.

–          Divia Padayachee


  1. Art Center College of Design, “Art, Broadcast Cinema, Industrial Design, Media Design,” Graduate Programs, 2009/10, 5.
  2. Magnus Ericson and Ramia Mazé, “Interview with Yanki Lee,” in Design Act: Socially and politically engaged design today – critical roles and emerging tactics, (Sternberg Press, 2011), 210.
  3. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, “Designer as Author,” in Design Noir: The Secretive Life of Electronic Objects, (London: August/Birkhauser, 2001), 58.
  4. Emmet Byrne, Alex DeArmond, and Jon Sueda, “All Possible Futures: (Un)Realized Projects,” Task Newsletter 2: Not What If What If Not, Summer 2009, 94.
  5. Sean Donahue, “Inclusive Design in Focus: debating the business benefits,” Innovation For All Conference, Norwegian Design Council,
  6. Sean Donahue, interview by Divia Padayachee, Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 1, February 23, 2013.
  7. Art Center, Graduate Programs, 2.
  8. Sean Donahue, interview by Divia Padayachee, Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 2, April 2, 2013.
  9. Sean Donahue, Interview 1.
  10. Sean Donahue, Interview 2.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Sean Donahue, interviewed by Eileen Hsu, An Interview with Sean Donahue, August 3, 2011.
  16. Sean Donahue, “Enabling Design,” in Design Research: Methods and Perspectives, ed. Brenda Laurel (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2004), 166.
  17. Sean Donahue, Interview 1.
  18. “Art Center Earthquake Project Showcased at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum,” Dotted Line Blog,
  19. Donahue, Enabling Design, 164.
  20. Donahue, Enabling Design, 169.
  21. Yolanda, Zappaterra, “Touch Sensitive,” Design Weekly, April 24, 2008, 2.
  22. Why Design Now?, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Triennial,
  23. Sean Donahue, interview by Divia Padayachee, Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 3, April 3, 2013.
  24. Mariana Amatullo and Sean Donahue, “”LA Has Faults”: Pilot Study and Public Awareness Campaign for Earthquake Preparedness,” The Los Angeles Earthquake: Get Ready Project, September, 2008, 3.
  25. Ibid., 4.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Art Center, Dotted Line Blog.
  28. Ericson, “Interview with Yanki Lee,” 211.
  29. “Los Angeles Earthquake: Get Ready,” Design Matters: Art Center College of Design,
  30. Amatullo, “LA Has Faults,” 5.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Sean Donahue, Rama Gheerawo and Anne-Marie Willis, “Beyond Progressive Design,” Design Philosophy Papers 3 (2011): 2.
  33. Sean Donahue, Interview 2.


Amatullo, Mariana and Sean Donahue. ““LA HAS FAULTS”: Pilot Study and Public Awareness Campaign for Earthquake Preparedness.” The Los Angeles Earthquake: Get Ready Project. September, 2008. Accessed February 2, 2013,

Art Center College of Design. “Art, Broadcast Cinema, Industrial Design, Media Design.” Graduate Programs, 2009/10.

“Art Center Earthquake Project Showcased at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.” Dotted Line Blog.

Byrne, Emmet, Alex DeArmond, and Jon Sueda. “All Possible Truths: (Un)Realized Projects.” Task Newsletter 2: Not What If What If Not, Summer 2009, 72-99.

Donahue, Sean. “Enabling Design.” In Design Research: Methods and Perspectives, edited by Brenda Laurel, 164 – 171. Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2004.

Donahue, Sean. “Inclusive Design in Focus: debating the business benefits.” Innovation For All Conference, Norwegian Design Council.

Donahue, Sean. Interview by Divia Padayachee. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 1, February 23, 2013.

Donahue, Sean. Interview by Divia Padayachee. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 2, April 2, 2013.

Donahue, Sean. Interview by Divia Padayachee. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 3, April 3, 2013.

Donahue, Sean. Interviewed by Eileen Hsu. An Interview with Sean Donahue. August 3, 2011.

Donahue, Sean, Rama Gheerawo and Anne-Marie Willis. “Beyond Progressive Design.” Design Philosophy Papers 3 (2011) 1 – 5. Accessed February 3, 2013

Dunne, Anthony and Fiona Raby. “Designer as Author.” In Design Noir: The Secretive Life of Electronic Objects, 58-65. London: August/Birkhauser, 2001.

Ericson, Magnus and Ramia Mazé. “Interview with Yanki Lee.” In Design Act: Socially and politically engaged design today – critical roles and emerging tactics, 208-226. Sternberg Press, 2011.

Gonzales Crisp, Denise. “Toward Definition of the Deco-Rational.” In Design Research: Methods and Perspectives, edited by Brenda Laurel, 94 – 100. Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2004.

“Los Angeles Earthquake: Get Ready.” Design Matters: Art Center College of Design.

Why Design Now?. Cooper Hewitt National Design Triennial.

Zappaterra, Yolanda. “Touch Sensitive.” Design Weekly, April 24, 2008.

Otto Von Busch: Remaking Roads To Agency


In a fashionable world that reserves being fashionable for the few lucky ones, Otto Von Busch is pushing the envelope of design from within, and from the bottom-up, to firmly ask that the privilege of being fashion-able be taken back. There is an optimistic quality to his practice that sees design as having innumerous possibilities, and fashion as having room enough to allow him to critically examine its political nature. The same expansiveness is reflected in his persona, for Otto Von Busch is many things — fashion artist, designer, crafter, theorist, post-doctoral researcher at the Business and Design Lab at the School of Design & Craft at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, as well as Assistant Professor in Integrated Design at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.

That said von Busch has chosen to situate his practice very much in the midst of fashion. His research approaches fashion from a myriad of perspectives — some which grew out of personal experiences, and others that expose fashion and its practices for having the potential to expand and incorporate a sense of the everyday. His work stems from a critical engagement and questioning of current fashion practices, delving into fashion’s close proximity to the political. There is an underlying thread that runs through von Busch’s design practice that is crucial for what design’s role can be for the future and this is it: to fight for some, and in his case, many kinds of social justice. The themes he traverses through in his doctoral thesis, his research and his projects speak of fashion design’s ability to be critical, to be political, to be accessible to everyone, to be hack-able, to make people able, to be situated in the everyday and to be just.

This paper explores von Busch’s framing of his design practice as an open, explorative platform that rearranges relations of power between those that produce and those that consume within the field of fashion, allowing fashion to remain a celebration of identity yet be generous enough to include the abilities of individuals in shaping their identity on their own terms. His practice can be seen as facilitating instances of “dissensus,” as defined by Keshavarz and Maze, within the fashion realm that open up spaces in which individuals can reclaim their sense of agency.1. Thus, his practice can be regarded as a precedent in the emerging understanding of design as a practice that shapes the future of human relationships, for its engagement with social injustices in the fashion realm is insightful, critical and more importantly, possible.

The Emergence of a Practice

Possibly as a first encounter with injustice on a small scale, von Busch learnt that sewing his own clothes gave him a sense of personal identity in school. He quickly learnt that what one wore could solicit judgment from peers. The experience of using his abilities to create something that had meaning in his world grew out of his inability to purchase clothing. He saw that in his ability to make his own clothing lay the power to create a position in the world of his own making. Yet that authentic world can be established through a variety of approaches to fashion, something he describes in his appraisal of ‘punk’:

“What makes punk ‘punk’? Perhaps it is that you are a poor twenty-year old teenager who has all the time to hang out at these kinds of concerts or these kinds of things. And you invest your time on this authentic scene. And that’s the authenticity of punk. And then you have other designers who say, I sell punk for you who don’t have the time for this but actually work. So you actually bypass, you buy the Vivienne Westwood and you feel you are punk even though you didn’t spend all the time that the real punks did who didn’t have any money. I think the interesting part is [to ask:] what is this negotiation about? … I don’t think I will have an answer about it. I think it is more about what different ways we could employ designers to talk about exclusivity while still being inclusive. How do we negotiate there?”2.

At every turn, his research underlines the ability to negotiate the power relations that exist within the fashion system to create a little room for self-expression. This self-expression articulates itself through harnessing individuals’ capabilities to position themselves in the world on their own making. This call for grass-roots agency challenges the institutions of power that dictate fashion from the top down.

During his time in the military service that came right after school, von Busch became engaged with the writings and political work of Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The civil disobedience movements that Gandhi led in India and Martin Luther King led in the United States as facets of their political practices helped to shape von Busch’s idea of acting in design, as opposed to on or about design.3. Gandhi’s salt march in 1930 in India underlined the value of creating change from within to gain independence under imperialist rule by practicing one’s own production of salt. In addition to this, Gandhi also advocated spinning cotton and weaving one’s own clothes. King’s sit-ins at luncheonettes, protesting against apartheid in the southern states of the United States also taught von Busch the implications and potential of civil disobedience and its functions as a tactic of resistance.

The political movements of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught von Busch that here was an approach that could facilitate a dialogue that would enable this negotiation between the power relations in fashion to take place. Challenging the constructs of fashion from within was a way to go beyond undermining the hierarchies of power, to open up a debate that stemmed from the bottom up, and from within. The civil disobedience movements in various parts of the world informed von Busch that fashion design, being a hierarchical entity did indeed have a political side that was worth engaging in to protest social injustices as manifested in the politics of identity.

In addition to studying civil disobedience, studying craft taught von Busch of an individualistic nature of making — one largely limited to the domestic environment within the everyday. A year of carpentry followed by textile design came after his stint with craft production. Years later at university, he found that this understanding of craft as being linked to the everyday would clash with his study of art history that focused on the larger contexts of art. This duality between the everyday and the larger realm would then present themselves as two opposites.

While these ideas about civil disobedience and the value of the everyday were formulating in his mind, his first encounter with new media would spark off what would come to form the basis of his practice.4. During the dot-com boom in 1999, von Busch began a Bachelors degree in programming. He speaks of a particular course that introduced him to the Internet, open-source programming and information sharing; it was called “physical and virtual design.”5. At the same time, he was also sewing and remaking his own clothes, which drew interest from people. Suddenly, he was able to translate the concept of information sharing into his idea about how to share remaking ways of clothes. And so around 2000, he started to compile a series of PDFs on how to transform, step by step, a pair of pants. He recounts, “I think that was my craft encounter with new media…[that] opened up exactly what I wanted to do with civil disobedience. This was the tool for me to educate my user. And that was really [when] the hacktivist framing… just came together.”6.

As his microcosm of craft and fashion remaking met the possibilities within the macrocosm information sharing, and combined with civil disobedience as a tactic of political protest against injustice, his ideas of being inside design emerged. His questioning of the passive nature of consumers of fashion led him to explore the idea of independence in a world that dictates fashion rather than encourage appropriations of it. Otto von Busch began to ask: what does it mean for a designer to empower their user rather than disenfranchise them by dictating fashion?

This led his research to focus on the abilities and skills of fashion consumers that could enable them to become “fashion-able.”7. Acting in design then refers to the idea of tapping into the stream of fashion, using one’s abilities to craft and make one’s own fashion, thus fostering independence of the self. He also refers to this as ‘hacktivism.’ Acting in design or being fashion-able allows for you to construct your everyday by doing something using your abilities, which will further enrich your world.

“…what is design that is in the everyday? Design is not about making grand connections but what does it mean for you to be able to do something? And especially in my research I look at abilities, skills and I look at what it means not to buy fashionable clothes but to be fashion-able.8.

On Hacktivism

In von Busch’s thesis, “Fashion-able: Hacktivism and Engaged Fashion Design,” a prism becomes emblematic of his research practice.9. (See fig. 1). He outlines this prismatic model of research as underlining the collections of approaches that can enable fashion consumers to adopt an active role within the realm of fashion. While the concept of hacktivism exists at the center of the prism, the approaches to it are open, allowing access to it through many ways. Just as a ray of light that hits a prism is refracted in numerous directions, a single approach to “hacking” into the fashion system can also project a variety of possibilities. This is also what makes the idea of hacktivism appropriate as a tool for activism within fashion as it allows for active interpretation and transformation according to the participant. There is never a right answer.10.    


Image 1 Image 2

Fig. 1 The Prism Model, in Fashion-able: Hacktivism and Engaged Fashion Design, Otto Von Busch, 2008. p28.

How does design activism differ from von Busch’s hacktivism? In Abstract Hacktivism, he explores the politics of emergent computer network technologies and its relation to contemporary strategies of activism. He defines hacktivism, in the context of fashion as concerning “construction rather than deconstruction or destruction.”11. On the other hand, “design activism” as Markussen writes  “has a political potential to disrupt or subvert existing systems of power and authority, thereby raising critical awareness of ways of living, working and consuming.”12. The two are complementary but different. While design activism rests on the act of disruption, von Busch’s hacktivism takes the opposite course, which is that it does not undermine the system but constructively challenges it from within.

In his research on design, von Busch emphasizes wanting to deepen design through engagement and participation, discarding the academic tradition that encourages “detached criticality” and “analytical distance.”13. In terms of re-contextualizing the power relations in fashion, his research enables new possibilities for engaging with fashion design on a local, self-driven scale. It encourages the nurturing of one’s own capability within fashion that further emancipates the individual from top-down institutions of power.

Current deconstruction practices within fashion, such as ‘reuse’ or ‘recycle’ practices by fashion designer Maison Martin Margiela and others remain enclosed within the realm belonging to the high-end designer.14. The reconfigured garments are turned into objects of high status, to be sold as ‘upcycle’ products. By contrast, fashion hacking attempts to deconstruct the code of fashion and make it accessible to anyone interested in reappropriating it for themselves by re-engineering the design process. Distinct in method and outcome, fashion hacking distances itself from the current deconstruction practice that remains an “in-house” process (which von Busch likens to a secret laboratory).15. In this manner, the systemic reappraisal of the process of fashion designing into a process that creates a non-linear, open source method allows for empowerment, allowing participants of fashion to create their own fashion instead of being dictated by high-end brands and top designers.

Von Busch explains the idea of fashion hacking as “shapeshifting” the codes of fashion.16. He speaks of fashion as a medium that exists in the passage between the imagination and the real, the former dealing with the possible and the latter reflecting the actual.17. The imagination is an extension of reality. In order to operate within the reality of the fashion industry, hacking provides tools to aid in the manipulation of the system in order to tap what von Busch calls the spiritual technologies of fashion. In other words, the imagination draws a parallel to the spiritual shaman’s animal attire as transformative of his abilities to transcend one world for another, von Busch says of fashion that it is forever shapeshifting, allowing us to transform from one reality to another by discarding the skin that separates us from the world.18. He reasons that the process of shapeshifting reveals the mythic properties of fashion, bringing out fashion’s ability to be social. Here is where the idea of fashion as integral to one’s social identity plays a key role in its facility of allowing one to shapeshift. He calls on “fashionistas” to shapeshift between the realms of the imagination and the real so as to empower the self.19.

In relation to the passive consumer, von Busch’s research too investigates a self-instituting approach in order to question how autonomous one can be within fashion. He builds on philosopher Cornelius Castoriadi’s concepts of “autonomy” and “heteronomy” as ideas that can be applied to this approach to fashion.20. Castoriadis relates fashion to a regime of “instituted heteronomy” in which consumers attribute “imaginaries to some extra-social authority” (such as God, tradition, ancestors).21. In contrast, “autonomy is the act of explicit self-institution.”22. As this concept underlies the practicing of democracy, von Busch calls for fashion to be democratically autonomous as well, producing a break with the established “dictations” of the industry, allowing fashion to be an effective freedom that results in self-reflection. 23.

The economist Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach” provides the framework through which von Busch constructs the possibility of allowing a consumer to go beyond the commodity and look at what he or she can do or be.24. Sen argues that we ourselves are commodities because of our belief that commodities transfer their meanings onto us, allowing us to be fashionable. Yet, what is of more interest, he argues, is “what the person succeeds in doing with the commodities and characteristics at his or her command.”25. This creates a fashion-ability that opens up possibilities to be self-reflective and socially engaged giving the user the freedom and capability “to do and be something.”26. It also faces social injustices of the fashion system by undermining its undemocratic character and allowing autonomy from within.

Von Busch’s “Fashion Fianchettos” project in 2010 used the idea of the “code” as a means of facilitating consumer autonomy through the dissemination of fashion knowledge.27. (see fig. 2). Von Busch explains that ‘fianchettos’ (flanking) refers to a move in hypermodern chess games in which the player uses the flanks of the board as a tactic to control the center.28. In this project, the 64 squares on a chessboard served as a grid that was projected onto large t-shirts that allowed participants to drape fabric in the manner in which chess pieces are played during the game. The code followed the mathematical structuring of chess, but more importantly, was used as a way for participants to create their own fashion and disseminate it through social media. The code then embodies the methods and flows of producing and consuming fashion. It draws on the ways in which fashion comes into being and materializes as a construct of the self. As von Busch writes on his website, “The project was in itself a code, a praxis, a shapeshifting formula of distributed magic, a spell of transformation, a journey of draping through social media.”29.

Image 3 Image 4

Image 5 Image 6

Fig. 2 Fashion Fianchettos, Otto Von Busch and others, 2009. Photographs: Otto Von Busch’s Website.

In April 2006, von Busch began another hacktivist project in a local shoe factory called Dale Skofabrikk in Dale, Norway. The Dale Sko Shoe Hack project was an experiment to negotiate new processes and relationships through the exploration of collaborative interventions, or hacks, into the post-industrial processes of shoe production. The aim of the project was to open up the linear machine processes of production, thus “hacking the “software” of the production line through choice of designs, materials, processes, methods.”30. The participants included the factory craftsmen and women and six Norwegian fashion designers who created new dialogues within design that were spontaneous and explorative. The idea of the shoe hack was to “challenge the technical innovation through operational misuse.” 31. (see fig.3).

Image 7 Image 8

Image 9 Image 10 Image 11

Fig. 3 The Dale Sko Hack, Otto Von Busch and others, 2006. Photographs: Otto Von Busch & Bent Rene Synnevåg

In the Dale Sko Hack Booklet, produced as a result of the workshop, von Busch asks if the role of the designer can be reorganized so as to enable them to work with production at the local scale. This could “outline the foundation for social change in production.” 32. He argues that this reorganization could result in a new mode of production for fashion that enables designers to exist within their global markets yet utilize the crafts skills at the local level in collaboration with producers.

The reappropriation of the fashion process through hacking created new ways of production and new social relations that reversed the role of the designer from creator to facilitator. It brought the local producer, the factory craftspersons closer to their consumer. In addition to facilitating new interactions through hacking into the production process, it is also important to note that this project focused on the spontaneous development of a new aesthetic within fashion — a renewed sense of autonomy that reexamines the idea of time involved in production. This project showed that self-production could result in greater agency and this has the potential to be a new aesthetic of fashion.

In light of von Busch’s idea of hacktivism, both the Fashion Fianchettos and the Dale Sko Hack projects argued for a re-negotiation of the aesthetics of fashion production and consumption that is new, exciting and intended to make one self-aware. In this manner, von Busch’s work seeks to negotiate these power relations so as to empower the user, designer and consumer through ways that create new exclusivities. He asks: “…how do we plug into the aesthetics of our time and make that type of aesthetic accessible, or possible for people, participants to engage with in a sense, except buying?”33.

Von Busch subscribes to Ranciere’s view of aesthetics as “what is sensible to our senses, what our senses are trained to perceive.”34. This then is political as aesthetics is determined by class structure. For example, the bourgeoisie are trained aesthetically to opera while the lower classes are not. The idea of aesthetics is located very much in the political and social milieu, exactly where fashion itself plays out. Hacktivism is then a political intervention into the existing system of fashion in order to create new exclusivities, new relations for allowing fashion and design to be socially inclusive and politically just.

There is a specific emphasis on identity politics in von Busch’s project titled “Neighborhoodies – Courageous Community Colours, Blazing Bling and Defiant Delight.” (see Fig.4). This was a collaborative student project done at the London School of Fashion at the Center for Sustainable Fashion. The project explored the neighborhood in relation to identity through the expression of a wearable garment, the hoodie. The hoodie has both a global reach but is also very much an expression of local culture. As von Busch puts it, the hoodie has been “caught in the line of fire of identity politics…an average street-style garment, the canvas on which social conflicts and criminal stigmata are drawn, but also where local pride and reconciliation can be brought about…”35. The project sought to investigate fashion as a local experience, asking who one is in relation to their habitat. The students were asked to reflect on their neighborhoods through the design of a hoodie.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” features in Busch’s writing on this project.36.  The habitus is in constant interconnection with the environment, placing the individual in relations to other individuals, social groups and cultures, and in close relation to the material surroundings, as a structure of the mind, a “matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions.”37. In relation to this project, he writes that the “habitus seems to frame a problematic identity.

The hoodie has emerged from its days of representing a “sports team or even sub-cultural pride” to being a garment associated with crime. 39. In linking the hoodie to one’s habitus, von Busch explores the idea of Bauman’s “liquid modernity” and it’s influence on global fashion.40. He writes that we live in liquid fear of trying to keep up with constant change; and in the context of globalization, some localities are beginning to resist the tides of consumerism. The habitus then emerges as having a sense of local pride. In the same light, the project sought to ponder about whether a sense of dress, or of fashion, that was once local, could be reclaimed from the flood of globalization.

The hoodie project can be seen to fit under the category of political design which is an emerging paradigm of design. Markussen writes that political design happens when the object and processes of design activism are used to create “spaces of contest.”41. The project, in its use of the hoodie as an object opened up spaces that allowed the students to confront their neighborhoods and discover their own pride of place. It created the setting for such an interaction that resulted in changing the relationships of the students to their local

Image 12  Image 13

Image 14

Fig. 4 Neighborhoodies – Courageous Community Colours, Blazing Bling and Defiant Delight, London College of Fashion, CSA, and Otto von Busch, 2010. Photographs: Shiba, Matthew J Humphries & Nicol Viziolo

neighborhoods. In this manner, the hoodie revealed new information as well as contested “existing configurations and conditions of society and urban space.”42.

In von Busch’s design practice, the ideas of dissensus and of the political are very much apparent. Keshavarz and Maze’s definition of dissensus is that “dissensus is not the opposite of consensus, but, rather, a process concerned with the potential emergence of new political formations.”43. There is a touch of optimism in this definition that is perceptible in von Busch’s practice that must be addressed. It lies in the following part of their definition – “[Dissensus] …is a process concerned with the potential emergence of new political formations.”44.

The potential for new political formations within fashion resurfaces in von Busch’s projects, whether in his engagement with an object (the hoodie) or a process (shoe production) in fashion. Otto von Busch is building a new politics of fashion at the very heart of his practice, in keeping with the ideas of political theorist Chantal Mouffe. She writes, “the political cannot be restricted to a certain type of institution, or envisaged as constituting a specific sphere or level of society. It must be conceived as a dimension that is inherent to every human society that determines our very ontological condition. Such a view of the political is profoundly at odds with liberal thought…this is particularly evident in its incomprehension of political movements, which is seen as the expression of the so-called ‘masses’. Since they cannot be apprehended in individualistic terms, these movements are usually relegated to the pathological or deemed to be the expression of irrational forces.”45.

This idea of the individual as a political entity within fashion is an interesting approach to take to challenge social injustice. His workshops and research stem from the understanding that the way forward for a just society is through the creation of spaces in which voices of dissensus are aired and become valuable opportunities to challenge social inequity in fashion. Not only does von Busch address fashion’s proximity to the self, but he also re-examines the passivity that disallows fashion to be a vehicle of social change. Otto von Busch is in accord with Keshavarz and Maze, who explain dissensus as “allow[ing] for “actively redistributing the sensible order, those participating in dissensus-oriented design could thereby also intervene in the political order. An intervention, interruption or break in the realm of materiality and sensibility can thus institute a new aesthetical regime, other forms of politics to come.”46. By contrast, disenfranchisement as voices that speak out against the conformed order are deemed antagonistic. In Markussen’s interview with Mouffe, she says, “For me, there is democracy as long as there is conflict, and if existing arrangements can be contested.”47.

Hacktivism is articulated through spaces that contest the hierarchical systems of power in fashion. Although advocating that these spaces have the potential to make one fashion-able, they also promote the idea that dissensus can foster the creation of new ways of making, living and consuming. In explaining hacktivism, von Busch says “To me, I think the important thing is…to use the energy within the system. So that’s what I think hacking is all about…you reconnect the powers that are in there and you are not trying to stop the power.”48. He supports the notion that situating oneself within a system to change it is beneficial to bringing fashion closer to society instead of it being locked into the “funnel of consumerism.”49. As Keshavarz and Maze argue, “…other approaches, such as those oriented around dissensus, could intervene within an existing or established sensible order.”50. Von Busch says:

“If power in fashion is still powerful in our society how can it address injustices? Or how can it address issues of power or exclusion? And the intervention itself is about finding the power of fashion and then re-circuiting it to address issues about society, about politics, about justice…critical issues of our time.”51.

Design As…

What then does von Busch advocate as the role of the designer? He sees designers as expanding their roles within the fashion discipline. He argues for an abandonment of the traditional method of fashion design that positions the designer as creator only for the elite circles. He asks designers to act as translators who disseminate design knowledge to consumers, facilitate workshops and events that remodel the social and political relations as well as reappropriate systems of fashion production through making. He believes that traditional practice of fashion has to be changed to make for new ways for fashion to interact with all levels of society. He says of traditional design that,

“It is extremely narrow. I think we really need to challenge that and find other ways for fashion designers to help people with their dressed identity than what we are doing right now. To me, design then is an expansion of what traditional fashion design is and how it can be applied in other things and what we can learn from other design disciplines in that sense.”52.


The beauty of von Busch’s practice is that it explores various ideas, disciplines and experiences and thus remains open ended. It can be approached from a variety of different angles, and read in different lights. It picks up sociological ideas and drops them into the sphere of fashion practices. It highlights ideas of social sustainability and filters them through the gaps of consumerism. It delves into the realm of the mythical to extract ideas on materiality. It even resurfaces ideas on craft and making and posits them into the contemporary scene of production and consumption. In this manner, he builds his practice from a critical engagement and questioning of the dynamics of fashion, informing the current stream of its practices through non-traditional approaches to fashion such as his idea of hacktivism. The emphasis is a re-examination of how we can start to be socially, ethically and humanely just, for he writes, “Turn passive believers into engaged users; leave no hands idle.”53.




1.Keshavarz, Mahmoud and Ramia Maze. “Design and Dissensus: framing and staging participation in design research.” 3.

2. Otto Von Busch, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 1, March 7, 2013.

3. Otto Von Busch, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 1, March 7, 2013.

4. Otto Von Busch, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 1, March 7, 2013.

5. Otto. Von Busch, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 1, March 7, 2013.

6. Otto Von Busch, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 1, March 7, 2013.

7. Von Busch, Otto. “FASHION- able – Hacktivism and Engaged Fashion Design.” Doctor of Philosophy in Design Thesis. School of Design and Crafts (HDK), University of Gothenburg. 2008. 33.

8. Von Busch, Otto. interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 1, March 7, 2013.

9. Von Busch, Otto. “FASHION- able.” 28.

10. Von Busch, Otto, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 2, April 13, 2013.

11. Von Busch, Otto and Karl Palmås. “Abstract Hacktivism – the making of a hacker culture.” (London; Instanbul, 2006) 17.

12. Markussen, Thomas. “The Disruptive Aesthetics of Design Activism: Enacting Design Between Art and Politics.” Design Issues: Volume 29, Number 1 Winter 2013. 39.

13. Von Busch, Otto. “Post-Script to Fashion-Able – or a methodological appendix to activist design research.” 2008. 19.

14. Von Busch, Otto. “Engaged Design and the Practice of Fashion Hacking: The Examples of Giana Gonzalez and Dale Sko.” Fashion Practice. 2009. 1 (2): 170.

15. Von Busch, Otto. “Engaged Design and the Practice of Fashion Hacking: The Examples of Giana Gonzalez and Dale Sko.” Fashion Practice. 1 (2009) 2:163-186.

16. Von Busch, Otto. “Fashion Hacking as Shapeshifting.”

Paper for the International Symposium on Electronic Art [ISEA], Istanbul. 19 September 2011. 2.

17. Von Busch, Otto. “Fashion Hacking as Shapeshifting.” 1.

18. Von Busch, Otto. “Fashion Hacking as Shapeshifting.” 2.

19. Von Busch, Otto. “Fashion Hacking as Shapeshifting.” 6.

20. Von Busch, Otto. “Self-reliant fashion: autonomy, capabilities and the “laws of  fashion.” In Dialoghi Internazionali. 18 (New York, 2012). 3.

21. Von Busch, Otto. “Self-reliant fashion.”  3.

22. Von Busch, Otto. “Self-reliant fashion.” 3.

23. Von Busch, Otto. “Self-reliant fashion.” 4.

24. Von Busch, Otto. “Self-reliant fashion.” 4.

25. Sen, Amartya. “Commodities and capabilities.” In. “Busch, Otto Von. “Self-reliant fashion: autonomy, capabilities and the “laws of  fashion.” In Dialoghi Internazionali. 18 (New York, 2012). 5.

26. Otto Von Busch, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 2, April 13, 2013.

27. Von Busch, Otto. “Fashion Fianchettos.”

28. Von Busch, Otto. “Fashion Fianchettos.”

29. Von Busch, Otto. “Fashion Fianchettos.”

30. Von Busch, Otto. “the Dale Sko Hack” Website – Self_Passage.

31. Von Busch, Otto. “The Dale Sko Hack – a project exploring modes of production and reform tactics.” 2006. 22.

32. Von Busch, Otto. “The Dale Sko Hack – a project exploring modes of production and reform tactics.” 2006. 30.

33. Otto Von Busch, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 3, April 26, 2013.

34. Otto Von Busch, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 3, April 26, 2013.

35. Von Busch, Otto. “Neighbourhoodies – Courageous Community Colours, Blazing Bling, and Defiant Delight.” Paper for Cumulus Conference, (Tongji University, Shanghai 2010). 1.

36. Von Busch, Otto. “Neighbourhoodies.” 22.

37. Von Busch, Otto. “Neighbourhoodies.”  23.

38. Von Busch, Otto. “Neighbourhoodies.” 23.

39. Von Busch, Otto. “Neighbourhoodies.” 21.

40. Von Busch, Otto. “Neighbourhoodies.” 2.

41. Markussen, Thomas. “The Disruptive Aesthetics of Design Activism.” 41.

42. Markussen, Thomas. “The Disruptive Aesthetics of Design Activism.” 43.

43. Keshavarz, Mahmoud and Ramia Maze. “Design and Dissensus.” 7.

44. Keshavarz, Mahmoud and Ramia Maze. “Design and Dissensus.” 7.

45. Mouffe, Chantal. “Introduction: For an Antagonistic Pluralism.” In. “The Return of the Political.” (London, New York, 2005). 3.

46. Keshavarz, Mahmoud and Ramia Maze. “Design and Dissensus.” 9.

47. Meissen, Marcus. “Democracy Revisited (In Conversation with Chantal Mouffe).” In. “The Nightmare of Participation.” (Sternberg Press, 2011) 112.

48. Otto Von Busch, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 3, April 26, 2013.

49. Otto Von Busch, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 3, April 26, 2013.

50. Keshavarz, Mahmoud and Ramia Maze. “Design and Dissensus.” 9.

51. Von Busch, Otto. interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 3, April 26, 2013.

52. Von Busch, Otto, interview by Kamala Murali. Design Practices and Paradigms Interview 3, April 26, 2013.

53. Von Busch, Otto. “Fashion Hacking as Shapeshifting.” 6.



Keshavarz, Mahmoud and Mazé, Ramia. “Design and Dissensus: Framing and staging participation in design research. Design Philosophy Papers (2013)


Markussen, Thomas. “The Disruptive Aesthetics of Design Activism: Enacting Design Between Art and Politics.” Design Issues: Volume 29, Number 1 Winter 2013. 39.


Meissen, Marcus. “Democracy Revisited (In Conversation with Chantal Mouffe).” In. “The Nightmare of Participation.” (Sternberg Press, 2011) 112.


Sen, Amartya. “Commodities and capabilities.” In. “Busch, Otto Von. “Self-reliant fashion: autonomy, capabilities and the “laws of  fashion.” In Dialoghi Internazionali. 18 (New York, 2012).


Von Busch, Otto and Karl Palmås. “Abstract Hacktivism – the making of a hacker culture.” (London; Instanbul, 2006) 17.

Retrieved through Google Search. Accessed on 17 March 2013.


Von Busch, Otto. “Engaged Design and the Practice of Fashion Hacking: The Examples of Giana Gonzalez and Dale Sko.” Fashion Practice. 1 (2009) 2:163-186. Retrieved through Graduate Global Issues Blog. Accessed on 9 March 2013.


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Retrieved through Google Search. Accessed on 25 February, 2013.


Von Busch, Otto. “FASHION- able – Hacktivism and Engaged Fashion Design.”    Doctor of Philosophy in Design Thesis, School of Design and Crafts (HDK), University of Gothenburg. 2008.


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Von Busch, Otto. “Post-Script to Fashion-Able – or a methodological appendix to activist design research.” 2008. 19.


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Von Busch, Otto. “the Dale Sko Hack” Website – Self_Passage.                             

Retrieved through Accessed on 2 May, 2013.


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Retrieved through Website Accessed on 8 March 2013.












































Wild Design

The Balkans have always held an ambiguous position on the map of the world. They have been considered liminal spaces, constantly in transition between the past and future, but truly belonging to neither. The West has often thought of the Balkans as an exotic Other. The German expressionists travelled there in search of the untainted  primitive while contemporary Hollywood movies search for the primitive in the present. For their part, the people in the Balkans have always tried to smooth out these differences, always yearning for something, erasing some of their own idiosyncrasies in order to appear less like the Other and more like the One. At different times, and sometimes even at the same time, the Balkans have strived for the East and the West, rarely proud of what was already there. This path, hardly sustainable in the long run led to the question whether Balkan could ever learn from itself.
The Balkan and its surrounding myths have left a mark on all those who were brought up in this region. Ivan Kucina is a part of a new generation of architects, designers and activists who are trying to reconcile these different ideas and histories that have left an imprint on this region. They are trying to understand the environment they were brought up in and frame it in a meaningful context. A part of this process is coming to terms with the multiplicity of meanings that are attached to these spaces and the impossibility of creating a unified definition. Kucina’s practice is not bounded either, not by scope or discipline. He moves seamlessly between architecture, design, art, education and activism in order to tap into the past and present and come up with design strategies that could be useful in the future.
Ivan Kucina was born in Belgrade in 1961. He spent his childhood in what was then Yugoslavia, on the surface a unified country with strong aspirations of greatness. He enrolled in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Belgrade, a very rigorous and rigid program, which was focused on perfecting technical responses to ideal situations. What was evident to him was that there was a discord between the harmonious imagined and the chaotic real. The problems encountered in his own educational context were supplanted by studies abroad, particularly a summer program in Delft, the Netherlands. These programs helped Kucina understand architecture not as a finished product but as a process that takes place in a complex environment. He started engaging with current political and social issues, looking at the already existing solutions and working with other agents involved in these processes in trying to come up with strategies that could lead to certain improvements on the scale of individual architecture as well as broader cityscapes. He graduated in 1988, around the time when seismic shifts were rocking Yugoslavia. The quick shift from socialism to capitalism made many established modes of acting and things obsolete. In this political situation, innovativeness rose as a crucial survival tactic. This forced many professionals, and Kucina among them, to adopt a Jack-of-all-trades attitude and not become tied to a single career path. Kucina has combined the rigor of traditional architectural training with the openness of contemporary approaches to architecture and design. This was concurrent with analogous developments in the cityscapes of Belgrade, Serbia, and the Balkans in general, where tradition started meshing with the flood of the new.
The first important idea that arises when looking at Kucina’s practice and his general approach to architecture, is his attempt to try to understand the world that he is a part of. This broad interest led to a realization that the similarities in architecture and cites move past the boundaries of countries. This insight was reflected in The School of Missing Studies, a project that he co-authored with Srdjan Jovanovic-Weiss from 2003 until 2007. The project, which included a workshop for Serbian and American students of architecture in New York City, was meant as an exchange between people from different countries in an attempt to understand how certain ideas permeate different contexts. For instance, it attempted to dispel the misconception that terms such as ‘transitional’ should only be relegated to places like the Balkans. This understanding of the area, which is thought to be liminal and constantly moving in-between extremes, applies to other contexts as well. In some way all cities can be seen as transitional.
However, this look at the broad scale means little if a critical eye is not cast on the immediate context as well. In his work Kucina has often probed into the uncomfortable aspects of Balkan history. The Lost Highway Expedition was a project, which took place from July 30 to August 24 in 2006, involving a group of over 200 artists, designers and activists, who retraced the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity. The highway, built as part of a volunteering campaign in the sixties was meant to physically connect different parts of the country as well as become a manifestation of the unity of the different nations that made up Yugoslavia. The fact that the highway remained unfinished symbolically marked the failed aspirations of socialism. The 2006 expedition began in Ljubljana and travelled through Zagreb, Novi Sad, Belgrade, Podgorica and ended in Sarajevo. It was meant to reestablish communication between different disciplines, points of view and nations. What was different from the way the highway was originally envisaged was that this particular communication was not forced. It did not base itself on idealistic notions of similarity between these nations, rather it promoted discussion and an understanding of diversity. Through its connection with a specific location the project put an emphasis on space. Through the historical significance of the highway it pointed to the importance of the past in thinking about the contemporary. But this symbolic action was in essence meant to map the contemporary spaces and processes of former Yugoslavia and pose questions about the future developments of this area.
 The same way it’s difficult to look at objects without taking into consideration the context in which they were made it is important to look at how a time and a place inscribed themselves on particular objects. In his practice Kucina remains sensitive to the ways in which political and economic issues are manifested in architecture and urban environments. He tackles the complexity of these issues, not by simplifying and forcing them into categories, but by working within this chaos, making connections and creating possible scenarios and strategies. In our contemporary world the crucial units for this complexity are cities, and this has been one of the arenas that Kucina has often come back to.
Post-socialist cities are great examples of the inherent contradictions found within contemporary urban environments. In what was then Yugoslavia, urbanism, and more particularly housing, were used to express the great ambitions of socialist ideology. They were supposed to foster a new society of equality and order, and at the same time promote it to the rest of the world. Stylistically it used modernist forms and ideas to express these ideals. New apartment buildings were usually built on large empty lots outside city centers. Although ambitious in scale, they were often constructed using cheap materials, without regard for certain basic needs. Frequently disconnected from the city center they functioned as islands onto themselves. They became deteriorating examples of a particular delusion of grandeur, especially following the quick and sweeping transition to capitalism. The wish to catch up to the rest of the world once more meant a disregard for the traditional in order to get to new goals quickly. New developments went uncontrolled on all levels.
This economic undercurrent played a crucial role in new urban developments. As wealth was distributed more and more unevenly, people, already used to finding ways around bureaucratic standstills, circumvented traditional flows of economy and started building alternative routes that functioned in the grey areas between the legal and illegal. As governments were inert and disinterested, the citizens took decision-making into their own hands by taking control of their immediate environment. This informal economy, which was based on practical decision-making, organized and regulated itself on the micro-scale. In method this approach drew from what was available and using common sense and ingenuity that are freed from established modes of thinking generated new solutions. This ingenuity reshaped the economic realm and concurrently the architectural and urban environments.
In architecture, as much as in economy, there was a need for a fast reaction to new conditions, allowed by the maneuvering space in the rupture between the two systems. This initiative to modify and create was taken by individual citizens. They adapted what was already there and created new forms in order to meet their current needs. They built, improved, and modified their living and working spaces in a way that wasn’t controlled and restricted by regulations, for the most part unheeded, especially during the conflict in the region, which lasted from 1991 to 1999.  These ideas spread quickly, and what began as simple modifications became a series of complex environments.
 Architecturally, some characteristics are pervasive in many of these buildings. Because they are built not as a result of long term savings but rather from day-to-day earnings, they are process-based and additive in nature. Precisely for this reason they are never finished but rather function in a constant state of flux. They often grow from already existing buildings and are seen as symbiotic organisms or viral growths depending on the perspective of the onlooker. Often, architectural elements and floors are added with little or no consideration for the original plans. If they are new buildings they frequently have no set plans but rather grow organically, starting from the basic infrastructure and leaving open the possibility for future expansion by new generations. These houses are often built by the owners themselves or their friends and acquaintances, using readily available materials. This gives them a particular do-it-yourself (DIY) quality that demystifies and deconstructs the idea of a single author, the consummate professional—the architect  They combine local practical knowledge of construction with newly available high-tech solutions. These processes can be summed up as “doing and making that intervenes in the general distribution of doing and making.”
Despite their creativity these developments are often criticized by both architects and governments. They are considered illegal, urban blight that spreads like a virus over regulated urban areas. These opinions are based on what now are understood to be misguided ideals of a unified, well-regulated urbanity that is meant to bring order intro the potential chaos of cities. Kucina has proposed taking a more fluid, organic approach to cities. His is an approach that accounts for the fact that urbanity has always been embedded in the everyday. He has tackled these issues as part of the Stealth Group, where along with Ana Dzokic, Marc Neelen and Milica Topalovic he conducted a series of research projects, workshops and actions that analyzed urban developments in Belgrade and the rising importance of this new vernacular of building that they termed wild architecture. Their goal was both to learn from these cases as well as help develop strategies that would make them more sustainable.
For instance, in wild architecture the notion of temporality is key. As there is no plan from which the project starts there is often little planning for the future as well. Other than a vague idea of expansion and the constant potential of upgrade there is no unifying vision to these projects. Since wild architecture can still be considered as a means of survival in a new social and economical order it exists in a state of constant present. This however means that there is no environmental awareness, no sense of the impact that these buildings are having on the environment. The role of the architect, according to Kucina, would be to bring in his own specialized knowledge to address these issues. By working as a group, the citizens, architects, professionals from different disciplines and the governments would be able to teach each other and learn from each other at the same time.
As a professionally trained architect Kucina has applied some of the lessons extracted from wild cities into his practice. Two projects in particular show how Kucina adapted these strategies: the Museum Macura and the Mancic House.
  In 2008 Vladimir Macura, wanting to display his extensive collection of neo-avant-garde art, opened a museum in Novi Banovci, Serbia. He employed Kucina and his partner Nenad Katic to come up with a plan for this building. The architects sent in the preliminary plans but then failed to hear back from Macura. A year later, a trip to Novi Banovci revealed that Macura had finished the project on his own. Drawing from fragments of the plans, Macura independently brought in changes and adapted the plans to suit his wants and needs. Although the architects weren’t consulted and weren’t satisfied with some of the decisions made, they had no objections to ceding power to the client. Their understanding of architecture as a process of communication where all parties are equal, made them recognize Macura as one of the authors of the building.
The museum was constructed using simple materials, such as brick and concrete, which are common building materials in the surrounding areas. The museum allows for a sense of the chaotic that permeates it, bringing it closer to wild building than an ordered museum space.
 The Mancic family house, begun in 2001, was designed with similar principles in mind. The work of Kucina and Katic, this project is done in phases, where building is concurrent with planning. The client is a crucial agent in this process, making important decisions as part of every phase of the project, responding to ideas proposed by the architects and coming up with ideas his own. The house is meant to function as a dialogue between the traditional and the contemporary, combining technology with local traditional knowledge in order to create a sustainable structure. This is another example of learning from wild buildings, seeing architecture as a process and not taking any value away from the unfinished state.
   This interest in learning from the everyday led Kucina to focus on bringing these lessons from the streets into the halls of architecture schools. Since 1997 he has been a professor at the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade, where working first with freshmen and later with graduate students, he tries to bring back an awareness of reality into otherwise abstract studies. He believes it’s important for students to understand that they are a part of the world that they are designing for and that they should be able to sense what is going on around them. Being attuned to the times has played a major role in Kucina’s practice and is a critical quality in the constantly changing environment architects are working in. According to Kucina architecture schools should provide students with knowledge on “how to research that, how to grab the information on what’s going on, how to organize the experience that [they] had and then how to intervene into that with the idea that [they’re] doing that for the good of all, not only for themselves.”  This educational approach therefore combines the practicality of the everyday with a particular mode of activist idealism.
However, Kucina believes this process of learning should not stop with architects. The next step, communication, helps all involved parties to learn from each other and use their combined strengths to improve current living conditions. At this point there are several distinct groups that all have an impact on these issues: citizens, architects and governments. Design programs often attempt to encourage citizen participation, but because there has been so much self-motivated building and so many citizen initiatives in Serbia and the Balkans, Kucina’s goal is somewhat different. He attempts to encourage understanding and communication in a situation where different groups have little contact but much to offer each other. This can best be achieved through discussions, workshops, seminars and performances that involve all the interested parties in an interdisciplinary process of creating strategies. Kucina believes that exchange is the crucial link that can hold this chain together. Through the projects and workshops he has organized, a network of interactions is created that works horizontally and not hierarchically. Out of increased understanding and communication arises the opportunity for change. Citizens work together with architects, designers, researchers, activists, administrators and artists in order to create a better urban environment for everyone involved. So in this equation, the architect plays only one of the main roles, but this involvement is still important. Architects and designers should be present in all phases of this process, they should catalogue the existing processes and strategies, help develop sustainable strategies for the future and help facilitate their implementation, or as architecture critic and theorist John Thackara phrases it, “help shape emergent processes.”
One of the methods that is particularly suited for these situations is the workshop, which is one of the main formats that Kucina employs. Being dynamic and flexible it easily adapts to the specific needs of different situations. In Kucina’s work we can see an approach to cities as organisms. The workshop, as a method of educating and bringing up discussions, has some of these aspects as well. In workshops the human factor is crucial, as well as the aspect of time. Although these aspects can be a great advantage in some instances, they can also be detrimental to the process in others. The human factor can be unpredictable and the usually time limited nature of workshops can lack the necessary follow-through. But looking at Kucina’s practice, from the Lost Highway Expedition to the Mancic House, it is often the experiment, the process and the spark of conversation that is more important than the end result. This can be related to his immediate context and wild cities once more, since the wildness is not merely a characteristic of architecture but a social process as well. All the elements of wild architecture: the fluidity, hybridity and inventiveness can also be seen in social circumstances, from street traders to amateur builders themselves. On the other hand Kucina’s interest in intangible processes could also be related to the work of John Cage which has influenced him, as well as his personal belief that the object is not necessarily important. More valuable is its ability to radiate and mediate understanding and communication.
His current project, the analysis and work in the Savamala neighborhood of Belgrade, is illustrative of this emphasis on establishing communication between different agents in urban processes. This project, part of Goethe Institute’s Urban Incubator, attempts to find alternative methods of urban development that do not necessarily rely on the actual process of building, but attempt to bring communities closer through dialogue in the form of workshops, events and actions. Kucina believes that “participatory processes are helping communities to identify themselves as communities and then with that, to also appropriate the space that is not just given to them, but is also made by them.”
Throughout this paper, Kucina as a person and architect has come through forcefully at some times and disappeared at others. This is the true nature of communication – taking turns to talk but also taking the time to hear what others have to say. This quality is crucial in Kucina’s practice, where understanding, communication and process take precedence over the importance of object authorship. Navigating in and between the boundaries of disciplines, both an educator, architect, artist and activist Kucina’s practice tackles many important contemporary issues and offers a new way of dealing with the complex realities of the Balkans.
Chasin, Noah. “Wild Style.”Artforum International 49.3 (2010): 135.
Cotter, Holland. “Adaptations.” The New York Times (Jan. 30, 2004).
Crowley, David, and Susan Reid. Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2002.
Dzokic, Ana, Milica Topalović, Marc Neelen and Ivan Kucina. “The Wild City: Genetics of Uncontrolled Urban Processes“ HUNCH 4 (2001).
ETH Studio Basel. Belgrade Formal/Informal: A Research on Urban Transformation. Scheidegger and Spiess, 2012.
Gardner, Corinna. “A Case for Alternative Treatment.” Blueprint 227 (2005): 17.
Jovanovic-Weiss, Srdjan. Almost Architecture. Akademie Solitude + kuda.NAO, 2007.
Kucina, Ivan. Lexicon for Provisional Future(s). Accessed: March 4, 2013.
Kucina, Ivan. “Participativni Projekt Peti Park = the Participatory Project for Peti Park.” Oris 13.67 (2011): 94-101.
Larson, Kay. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life or Artists. Penguin Press, 2012.
Markussen, Thomas. “The Disruptive Aesthetics of Design Activism: Enacting Design Between Art and Politics.” Design Issues, no. 29 (Winter 2013): 38-50.
Navarro, Marco. “Repairing Cities, 1, 2, 3, 4.”
Ratković, Ivan. Almost Architecture. Belgrade: Plato, 2009.
Todorova, Maria. Imagining the Balkans. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Urban Report. Accessed March 1, 2013.

Ivan Kucina_2

D: Wild cities are an issue in many countries. Do you maybe know of examples where intervention in these spaces was successful on a larger scale?

I: Yes, I think in Latin America, they have very successful projects and very good projects. I was recently watching the presentation of the Sao Paolo Municipality and the City Co. and the project they that did with Favelas and they issued many books on that, and they have a very very interesting approach. In Chile the projects like Elemental, Alejandro Aravena and these kinds of things. I think they are really doing well. Also in India they are doing very interesting projects; Slumdwellers International, and some things. And then in Africa they are starting, but they aren’t doing the whole settlement. They are doing these small interventions within the settlement creating these kind of public facilities for libraries or schools or something. There are several people who are also bringing students and staying like 6 weeks in some of the slums, to work with the locals on designing and building the small facility. And I had a chance to do, in South Africa, in Johannesburg, a similar thing, but with a friend who is working there. But we couldn’t gather the students because it’s too expensive for students here to go there. Only the plane ticket is €1000. They need some financing to stay, although they’ve managed to make some accommodations and food and everything, they need at least €2000 to invest. It’s too much money.

D: Architects are definitely important here, but what other disciplines do you think can help out? So architecture, urbanism, what else can be used to help these processes?

I: There has to be a transdisciplinary approach, any other discipline I would say. It’s very interesting, we need another type of school for that, like transdisciplinary schools, so they could have educated experts from different skills that could contribute to these things. Also, this semester, last semester and this semester I’ve started to work in one private university here in Belgrade on a Master’s course. It’s the Faculty of Media and Communications, so it has nothing to do with architecture and urbanism. It’s a Masters course on digital media. I created a course called “City Mapping” so in the first semester they do some kind of thematic mapping of one of the quarters of Belgrade and in the second they are doing mental maps of the same quarters and it was very interesting because the students were coming from incredibly different areas. Some were journalists, some were costume designers, Spanish majors, one was a judge. He’s already working as a judge. There were a few graphic designers, I don’t know what else…musicians. But what is interesting is, I had to start to explain to them the structure of the city. What is the city, you know? For people who aren’t really connected to it professionally, for people who are living in the city, for most of them, the city is just kind of like a supermarket. They are passing consumers and they are just taking what they need momentarily and they don’t think about it basically. It’s something that is just there and they don’t understand the structure of the city, how the city works, what you can do within the city. They aren’t thinking about that at all. It’s a background, like some kind of infrastructure of a computer that you don’t know how it works, you just use the monitor. So they’re, most of them, really just using the city as a surface with some kind of tools that they need to move and to work. And it was very kind of, for me, challenging to explain to them, or to drag them into the story of a city, the complexity, the dynamics that exist in a city, that makes a city itself. And how you actually, beside consuming, you can create anything, not really build something, but even if you walk through the city, you’re creating your personal world to it. That way you observe what the city could be, I mean it was with this situation, it was kind of almost an artistic experience or an artistic practice. I think they need some kind of education before they could help in the process, but I also think this process needs these kinds of people. Because they would try to bring their own point of view into the development, which I think when the architects and urban planners are doing it, it becomes too much technically defined by the instruments they are using in that. And sometimes these instruments make deformations also, in the way you see the things and how you see things can be developed. So you need everyone, like the people who are living there can participate in the process to create their own space, anybody can participate.

D: So you would say that now there are these developments, different programs, projects, workshops, so it is an environment that can be beneficial for future development. You feel that in the Balkans, there are many different steps leading towards this?

I: Yeah, you need, I mean, I know a lot of people from the Balkan area who are working on that and they are working in an individual way, but I wouldn’t say that there is kind of a global Balkan awareness of these things.

D: What I think is interesting is that, I feel there is a bigger awareness of these projects outside of the Balkans than in actual countries in the Balkans.

I: I completely agree with you. And these things that I was doing were initiated from the outside, not from the inside. And then I was also curious, why is it happening like that? And I had my small explanation with that, but there is a problem with the Balkans and I think the book, Maria Todorova – Imagining the Balkans, is very important to understand this kind of view of the Balkans, which is accepted by both sides, also by the outside world, the more developed world than the Balkan world, is that the Balkan is always kind of wild and irregular, and the West, I mean, for us it is the West, which is more organized and progressive and the whole knowledge is coming from there, so the West was always the role model for the Balkans and the Balkans was always kind of divided between these kind of orientations towards these modernization processes which were coming from the West and very kind of, traditional things that were tying it to the past. Which was mythologized. It was not the real past, it was the idea of what was happening in the past. And so it was never enough orientated to what was already happening in the reality today, in every day reality. It was always between the future that you have to reach, and the past that was not real. It was just used as a kind of anchor so as not to fly away because Balkan is too crazy, so the past was something that was giving it a kind of foundation for what was going on. But it was an invented foundation. It was not a real one. And then the future was always coming from the West in Europe, so you actually lose the contact with the everyday, you know, with reality. And all the tools that you were using, it was used to create some kind of illusionary things, so the progress or the traditions and I think it was accepted in the West and it was accepted in the Balkans as such, so nobody tried to develop the Balkans with its own identity, which is turbulent, you have to accept the chaos as such, as an identity, and to create the tools within such conditions that you have. I think now, these people that I know, I am also trying to initiate this kind of new awareness – “Okay, now we have the Balkans, let’s try to do with it what we can do.” And there is a specific identity, a specific knowledge that we need to have to improve it. Not just to import the things from the outside. So it’s not a nationalistic ideology, it’s a kind of you can say, regional kind of idea. That this region has a specific way of modernization, a specific way of tradition, and that we need to study to understand and how to deal with it. Which is interesting because it’s more connected to Latin America than to Europe actually.

D: How would you explain these interests from outside? Why are others so interested in the Balkans?

I: It’s also explained by this Maria Todorova division, this organized world needs some kind of illusion of freedom, and for them, the Balkans is this illusion of craziness and wildness, freedom, irrationality. And it’s also the place where you, because of this system of repression, they call this psychogeographical therapy, you know, when you have to accept some rules, you are also in the same way suppressing into your own subconscious all the conflicts with the rules that you have. So your subconscious becomes a conflicted area, and for most of Europe, the Balkans is that conflicted area. It’s the subconscious of Europe. This is Maria Todorova, it’s not mine. So, as such, as a subconscious, it is always the place of craziness, and in the same way how you’re interested in your subconscious sometimes in your life, in the Western world, you become interested in the subconscious of the whole Western world, which is the Balkans. But the Balkans is not only that, this is important to say, that’s why it’s important to create some kind of Balkan identity to get into dialogue with what’s coming from Europe, not to accept that role as a subconscious only. And I think in my power that I have, again, I’m limited, I’m just an academic and a designer and trying to learn something, so I have friends and we are trying to build up the network and one of them is this urban report that we were publishing the last three years trying to work on this identity, this transformation that we were living in all these countries. And there are other things, I’m organizing a Balkan architecture conference in April, which is a very official event. Part of the Union International of Architects, which is the highest institutional organization in the world of architecture, so it’s situated in Paris, but it has this regional division, so we have region 2, which is Eastern Europe and the Middle East, so we had that meeting in Belgrade and within that we had, under the patronage of that, we have the Balkan architecture conference that I wrote the program for. It’s a one day conference where we will have some people from the Balkans and then I was insisting in the program that they should speak about the actual condition, you know, to meet the reality, the complex reality of the Balkan, and to create some kind of attitude towards it. And then I had this idea about Balkan architecture network, so I started a Facebook group first, because I was traveling last year and I was invited for Architecture Week, to give a lecture and also, one of the organizers of the architecture week in Belgrade, so somehow I was connecting all these things and last December, we were speaking, you know we didn’t know what was happening, we don’t have any information on what is happening in these countries, you know, we aren’t exchanging anything. So I said okay, I’ll make a Facebook group, it doesn’t cost anything, it’s easy, I don’t want to supervise it, I will not edit it, just let the information flow. And from December, it grew up to 560 people without any promotion, it was just growing by itself, you know how these Facebook groups work. For me, it was the basis now, for this conference I want to initiate, to create the real platform which would be the Balkan architecture network, like an internet hub that we can really put all these connections into more serious communication and collaboration, you know. Not only information in the posts. So it’s something that I can work on. It’s not a lot, but I’m trying to understand this because I feel it is very important. It’s important not in the sense of getting the power, but in the sense of identifying your own potential.

D: Absolutely and processes like these can only happen if you have people coming from their disciplines and working on what they can do. Because just looking at, there’s the government and no one is powerful enough to do anything, that would just get you nowhere. But through these projects I feel it’s the best way to actually achieve something. Hopefully.

I: This is why I understood the power of the project and collaboration with my friends who went during the nineties. Now I’m just trying to progress it, create a bigger space for it, to create a whole network out of that. It’s not only mine, I want to involve all these people that I know and people that would eventually come into that. I don’t want it to be mine. Just in this situation, that I can initiate something, you know, so, but there should be more parallel initiatives.

D: I also just wanted to ask, in your email you talked about the book about John Cage, so I wanted to ask how that relates in any way to your practice and way of thinking.

I: That book, I mean, we are talking about research and urban transformation and teaching, but I am also a practicing architect, designer, whatever, and sometimes I feel like I have parallel lives, although everyday I am doing different things, you know. Today I had to deal with design as well because I will be exhibiting in Milan Design Week in April, there is a kind of Serbian Governmental project called Creative Space of Serbia where they wanted to promote furniture designers and I was doing furniture design 20 years ago and then I had the big break and last year I started to do it again because I was committed and after this, first they invited me, they put me in immediately. So they sponsored that and now I’m doing one, I mean the theme that we got from the curator was a storage box, so I mean, I was dealing with that, very practical things. I’m also trying to understand how this connection that I have from these kinds of product design that I do from the furniture design, architecture design, even graphic design, exhibition design, because these are all the jobs that I used to do and they are coming because in the nineties here, you had to accept any kind of offer to earn the money basically. It was a matter of survival. The nineties were very difficult in Belgrade because we, the whole country was under economic sanctions, so there was nothing in the shops, nothing in the banks, nothing in the, I don’t know, there were people who were just building. But actually it was a completely austerity time. But there was a parallel grey economy, so if you had an offer from that grey economy which actually made possible all this illegal building, you had to take it. You had to live on something. Because the salaries were so low, you couldn’t survive on it. Basically that was the age when I finished the faculty work, in the beginning of the nineties. I learned all these things by doing them for money. And at the same time, I had this commercial architectural approach, so I had to do product design also. It’s not an excuse, it’s something also that I like to do, but sometimes I feel it like a part of the thing. And when I see my name in these kind of selections of Serbian designers, and at the same time completely alternative urban research, or on this project that we do in Savamala, like NGO School of Urban Practice, it seemed like two different people. Actually, you know, for me, it’s very easy to move from one thing to another. I don’t feel this division at all in my head. Because for me it’s just a matter of scale because I think in these relational systems, so it’s always the structure which is incomplete that has to work somehow, that has some kind of dynamic and it’s always the necessity of the others to be there, to be able to finish something, and to tell me what they want. I don’t imagine in my head. I only imagine when I have the order to do. I can imagine a lot of things, but I’m not this kind of dreamy architecture that can have, you know, the whole world in my head and just project them into reality. I’m doing it in the reality. And what is important you know, through the time I have developed some kind of criteria for creating designs and the way I’m doing it and this book is more related to that. To these kind of criteria I have in doing designs, which is also the same criteria for doing this urban research. Although it’s not so visible in a way. It’s not so obvious. It’s something about non-importance of the object for example, so I’m in product design, but for me, the object is not important. It’s the radiation of the object which I’m trying to, you know, but in order to get radiation, the object needs to be present. But it’s not important that it’s present. The more important thing is its power to radiate. So how do you create something that will radiate? And this is what John Cage did a lot. That’s these experiments. I also did study very early, all the ideas about Zen because my own sensibility took me into that. And I don’t find it too much different than working with the people. It’s the same thing. I mean, whatever you do, you are just kind of, communicating in a certain way with the environment. And the environment is consisting of people, of things, of senses, of thoughts, the things that you’d imagine you can make, so it’s all one thing. And I think in this book, somehow it’s, you know, everything of this is compressed in where the heart beats. This is the thing.

Ivan Kucina_1

D: So to begin I wanted to ask what was your education like, how did the environment shape you as an educator and architect, designer?

I: I am, I could say a classically educated architect in the sense how it was in the old Yugoslavian time. So Technical University, I mean Belgrade University, technical department and it’s a technical architecture school. And before I started to study I was not so much interested in architecture as such, as a discipline. It became interesting in the moment when I saw, when I went inside the school and I saw the drawings on the walls and I went to the amphitheater, the auditorium which was kind of specially designed. It was different then other auditoriums in the same building. And then I liked the atmosphere, about the studying. And another thing was important that I felt at that time when I was very young, I need some field where I can be creative, where I could express myself. And it was very important. So at that moment this combination I think of real space and this very big ideas about your creativity was the main trigger that put me into architecture. And because I didn’t know much about architecture when I started to study I became very curious and I really liked studying it. Especially in this designing studio programs like design of architecture, so at the beginning I was really trying to… because I wanted to create something, so I was really trying to understand the process of designing, how it goes and I wanted to make progress in that somehow. But what happened… our school, I was good in design studio, it was no problem, but I had… in my second year I went for the summer school in Delft, in the Netherlands. And there were some Swedes who were running this summer school for two weeks, some professors from Sweden and then I realized a completely different approach to design studies. Not design studies, to the process of designing. And somehow I liked it very much, it was more about environment, about people, relations, about the atmosphere of architecture and about how the architecture object communicates with the people. All these things which in our technical school we didn’t have to do much. So after that moment, I was going every summer outside of Yugoslavia and I was trying to go to workshops and to summer school and I think it influenced me more than my school.

D: And so students at your school, your peers, did they feel the same way. Did they feel that the education there was too traditional and they tried to find the same thing in other countries?

I: At that time, our school today is very much different than when I was studying because in 2003 we started a big reform so we changed the school a lot and also during these 30 years the school was changing itself so what I’m trying to do at least in my studio that I run in the school is to use this experience. I create programs in such a way that it could absorb these workshop elements into education. So it’s not the conventional education that I had, at least in my studio. Some people are different, so they have different studios. What I did I wrote the program for the first semester in architecture and design. And I wrote a book on that afterwards. And this program I wrote in 2005 so it’s still going on although I’m not teaching the first year anymore but I was teaching for three years at the beginning. Now they’re using my program and my book that I wrote. That, it is one semester, the first semester for the people who don’t know anything about architecture. Now I’m working only in the master studio, where the tasks are more complex but here I really… for the first year I completely changed the program from the way I was taught. The first semester before we were learning very abstract universal notions about humanity and some kind of abstract geometry of architecture. And something about function. And here they don’t do it like that at all. I’m trying to make them compare their real experience of place with the things that they do. So they could feel that when they’re doing something they’re not doing it from the abstract level but from the level of reality. This is very different from how we were taught. I need to make a lot of effort to understand how to bring back the abstraction to reality.

D: And do you think that was successful, talking to students do you think that they can in the first semester make that shift and go into the real world?

I: When you look at the results, their designs, what they do, they have three tasks so they have three designs and they… because in the first semester they don’t know computers yet so that’s a problem, and I want to avoid architecture drawing as a kind of way of creating architecture. So they make a lot of models, they have exercises for which they make fifteen models and three projects within one semester. And the results are great, even after five weeks you get amazing amazingly good designs, which they didn’t have before. What is the problem, then after this first and second semester which are somehow connected when they start to enter the older years they meet these old conventional programs, which are more technical, functional. So because of the pressure of the professors and the studios which they have, they start to treat this first year as a game. So they don’t take it seriously. So all this creativity which they used to have in the first year they start to use it as a kind of… they start to understand it as a warm-up for the more serious things that they do afterwards, which are actually more rigid. But they’re not more serious, they’re just more rigid, more technical. So when they come again to the Master, they almost lost this experience from the first year. So you have to reset them again. So that’s why this kind of workshop is really important. And beside the school, I do a lot of workshops outside the school. Abroad. Now I’m tutoring, I always have three or four workshops a year somewhere outside Belgrade. The last one was in Stockholm, in September last year.

D: I also wanted to ask what is your connection to the School of Missing Studies and what was the project there? That’s something that I found when researching your practice.

I: It was a workshop project that was done in 2003 until 2007 I think. The grant was from the Trust for Mutual Understanding from New York. I was doing that with a friend who had emigrated from here, Srdjan Jovanovic, who was in New York at that time. He actually initiated the whole program, and then we discussed different series of workshops that we’d have. And the name came out from Bik Van der Pol, and him, I like it also, it didn’t make it at the beginning, but he made his other partners. But then the workshop program created all together, there was several of them. What is important is I involved my students from here, from Belgrade, into that program so they had a chance to travel to New York and also to participate in workshops here which we brought some New York artists and architects to Belgrade also to work with them. So it was kind of an exchange between Belgrade and New York between different students, and also at one moment there were students from Pratt working with them, so there were several, kind of, levels of the projects. One is important, this collaboration between, and possibilities especially in 2003 and 2004 for the students to be part of this moment in New York, which is not often… And then, the themes were very interesting because the School of Missing Studies from the beginning, the definition was to try to understand the processes of transformation of the cities in transition. That’s why we are called that today. We realized very soon that everything is in transition, there is no special territory, that Belgrade is transition, but also New York is also in transition. So actually, it was just another way of looking at the environment, I think, anywhere in the world. They’re explaining the environment in the permanent dynamic, or permanent changes that is never stable. And then we thought that there is not enough studies on that, and these studies are always missing because the changes are happening all the time, but you are always late, always missing to understand the changes. And we wanted somehow to make students to become able to somehow to get awareness of the changing, and be able to, not really to monitor until the end, but to be able to notify some kind of, in a special way to intervene into flows, maybe to change the direction of the flows.

D: So you would say that the role and responsibility of architects in this transitional world would be to, to make an intervention in this? What would be some of their other responsibilities as professional architects?

I: I think they have many responsibilities. Of course, one of the responsibilities would be to try to understand the world itself, because the environment is in the process of changing. Because I believe that this is some kind of permanency, the changes are permanent basically, and not some kind of universalities. So you have to be able, you have to learn all the time. You have to be able to research the world in front of yourself which is changing. You are not an outsider. You’re inside that world, so you have to develop certain kinds of receptors that you can become able to sense what is going on around yourself. And then to know how to study that, how to research that, how to grab the information on what’s going on, how to organize this experience that you had, and then how to intervene into that, with the idea that you’re doing that for the good for all, not only for yourself. So there is some kind of, I think almost utopian, background of that, that I believe that architects should do something to improve what’s going on to create some kind of positive dynamic within the system. So in order to do that, you have to intervene, especially in those areas which has conflicts and which are problematic in a way, to try to improve that.

D: And what would be the role of the public? Because I, what I found very interesting in a lot of your writing is that you wrote about the uncontrolled building activities in Belgrade and how does that come to terms with the professional architects?

I: This is a big subject, which we started to study at the end of the nineties, and it started as a personal relationship to the transformation we were facing. My environment was changing. And what was kind of specific in that moment was that I stayed here and most of my friends went away and started working in different schools or to study but they wanted to keep in touch with Belgrade. So I became their point of reference, connection to Belgrade, and then I used that connection to transfer the experience that I got from them to my school environment, to involve students into this process. So at one moment we had a large number of students and we started a research project trying to understand personally how our city transformed. And from that point it became a very big issue because then we were also learning through that research. And we had different projects and a lot of lectures abroad about that and we were understanding more and more the whole new discourse that we set up with this, which we didn’t have in the beginning. And what came out of that… I mean it’s still going on is that this kind of wild building, how we call it here or you can say informal architecture or self-made cities that are not… one of the things is that are not typical only for Belgrade but for the Balkans but they’re everywhere in the world and in very near future they’ll become a major way of habitation. So it means the majority of people will live in that kind of environment. So in this sense it became a very big issue for architects because more than half of the population will live in these kinds of conditions which if you’re an architect that wants to make something you have to deal with this. So this kind of environment is automatically part of your interest because it should be part of your interest because you’re an architect but it’s also a different environment that you need to know a specific way how to learn it and how it works and what are the rules because there’s not only chaos behind it. Chaos is if you look at it from the outside, from a plane but if you get in and if you start to study you start to understand all the rules which are happening behind that so by knowing these rules it’s helping you to create instruments for you to improve it. This is the thing. So it becomes a really important issue for the architect. In that sense maybe it should become a normal part of architecture, because it’s present everywhere in a way. That’s one of the things so it’s not only that it’s like an everyday practice but it’s also for me… it has the potential to be avant-garde for architecture, because these rules of self-organization and self-building and the way you can participate in creating your own environment and the quality that you can get out of this participation and of your self-creation and the freedom that you can feel within this environment I think it’s something that’s very essential for architecture. It could shift the values of architecture into new dimensions which I think is very necessary in today’s world. I mean there were several reasons, it started as a curiosity because of the changes that we were facing but very soon it grew to a new avant-garde instrument of the architecture.

D: But how does this communication between the architect and the people who are doing this, how does that come into being? Do you think that future developments in this will be on the level of government? Which maybe doesn’t make sense, because it is an informal type of architecture. Or, how do architects and people meet and create something new?

I: I want to first say, architects can, there are different ways how they meet people. Some architects are illegally involved in this process. Sometimes they are present, most of the time they are not present, and most of the time I, especially in this last text I sent to Susan for her next book, I selected these three new buildings that happened in the last three years, which are illegal, and one of them, the architect who was part of the project in a way, for the museum, it was very interesting, you know, this personal experience I had within that project helped me a lot to understand how the whole process could become articulated. So, what is the problem with these settlements is that the people who are building them are practically just solving their problem that they have at the moment. Very opportunistic. And they don’t have any environmental awareness, so neither socially, or ecologically, these settlements, or these buildings work. So they have, I mean, they have a quality which is more in the potential than what is made. And I think the architects are able to recognize the potentials, and to help in the improvement of that, and so their goal would be to work with the people and to add this social and ecological awareness into these kinds of things. So they can bring, by working with the people, so the idea is to, somehow join the potency of self built workers, or self made houses, and the knowledge of architects, who are able to articulate this quality which is lacking at the moment. That’s on the level of the building. But also, on the level of public space, it’s a very important role because this participatory processes are helping communities to identify themselves as a community and then with that, to also appropriate the space that is not just given to them, but is also made by them. So in a sense, they become a community in the process of making the building, and then in the process of appropriation of that space; in the process of using that space. So it is a completely different kind of ethic to what it is today. So what can the government help in this, is really to enable this process to happen. To create regulation for these participatory models, and also to promote them as a kind of thing that can really believe in this moment of crisis, a kind of saving belt in a way.

D: And looking at, for instance, how this type of building evolved in Belgrade, so you said that you started really looking at it after the nineties. So what would you say are some changes that happened in these 20 years and where do you see it going in the future? Do you think that there is a potential for this positive communication between people, architects, and maybe the government?

I: I think that this is my program. What is really happening is really a complete misunderstanding from all the sides. But before that, I want to say that it’s not only Belgrade involved. In Serbia, more than a million buildings are built, in Belgrade, it’s 250,000. And in the whole Balkans, because this process, although the countries were not connected, you know, they were divided by wars, they were enemies, they were in conflict, there was the same process going on in all of these countries, also in Croatia. And also in Albania especially, in Bulgaria, in Romania, I mean it was going everywhere in the Balkans, and I think the number is at the end, more than 3 or 5 million new houses built in the 15 years. Something which is almost ignored by most of the architects and planners and is not treated as such. Only in 2003, just to return to Belgrade because this is a case I was studying the most, in 2003 the new master plan for Belgrade, the first version actually completely ignored the illegal settlements in the periphery of the city, and then because they brought, after the master plan, they brought the first legalization law. They had to put it into the master plan, so they just changed the colors of the zones that they had previously marked as a kind of housing, they had to invent a new color for illegal housing. In order for them to be legalized, but since 2003, which is 10 years ago, they had three laws of legalization. In each law, they were trying to minimize the demand that they had, and the last law from 2009, you don’t need an architecture project anymore, the project that was done on the building, making plans of it. So you just need some kind of geometer who will mark the position of the house within your registered plot, and some kind of property lease, and to register it. And pay 100 euros, at this moment in Serbia, to be put into a list saying that you are legal. Practically the government is not doing anything to improve the condition of the illegal settlements, and they stopped, since 2009, there is no more because they put back, it’s become a criminal act again, so people are not doing it anymore. In 1993 it stopped being a criminal act, so this is very important. In 2009, it’s now back to being a criminal act, and the only thing the government is interested in really is to create this lease so these people can start paying taxes because they are not paying taxes for the building. So they can get more money for their budget. And not really, this money they won’t put back into improving the infrastructure of these settlements, not at all. So people know that, and they aren’t interested in paying taxes. What they are interested in is that they could have a legal property so that this property could become the basis for some kind of loans. But, since there is an economic crisis and nobody takes any more loans, they are too expensive, and most of the people actually have satisfied their need for houses. They don’t need anymore houses. They need to maybe to finish them, but since the crisis, they don’t have money to do that. So everything is postponed basically, and nobody has yet legalized. So at this moment, and in the last, I mean 20 years, it’s all about technical issues and financial issues. It’s not about really making something quality there. And I think people continue because there is no political awareness of these things. Most of the politicians, or most of the people in the government are aware of this living spaces as a resource. They are treating that as a commodity, and with that thinking, they are putting that only in this kind of financial questions and transactions.

D: So would you say that then the responsibility…where would you put the responsibility for the next step? Is it the role of the architects to figure out strategies?

I: Yeah, I think I mean, the improvement will not come from the governmental side, It will not come from the side of the people who are living there because they like the knowledge, so it has to come from the expert side. And I think, but the problem is most of the architects here are not interested in that and they don’t know how to do that, so, it’s somehow, I think in the end it will stay unanswered. What I want to do is really to, in this field that I can, I mean I have very limited power, I am working in the school, I don’t have this political power, but in the moment where I can act, I want to use this possibility to do some improvement and I am doing that. Now we are working on this project for 7 months since last year, where I managed to connect several workshops and different students from different schools with the big urban festival that we have there. We started to do some activities in the public space and this year we are starting, just in two weeks, we are starting a project which is financed by Goethe Institute, which is in Belgrade, which is called Urban Incubator, which is also focused on this territory in Savamala they will bring some residential projects, like people from Berlin or Zurich, or Hamburg, to work with the people of Savamala, artists and architects, and I am doing also, my project there which is called School of Urban Practices with my students. I am taking them out of school, we will have a workshops space there in one of the buildings and we will work with the tenants from that building on creating their common spaces, in the courtyard and also in the basement. This is the project we are going to proceed. So this is how I can see a kind of, a way how you can improve. I tried also, to create possibility to work in these illegal settlements, but I couldn’t get any kind of logistic for that. I need some financing to be able to do that.

Hugh Dubberly Interview 3

Interviewer: How would you describe your research, in other words, if you were to associate your design practice with any particular movements or design ideologies, what would they be?

Hugh Dubberly: My practice and research are related but separate. My practice began in graphic design (with an early focus on digital type design, followed by a shift to corporate communications and branding). At Apple, I learned how to use computers in the practice of traditional graphic design, and that led quickly to involvement in communicating about multi-media and new media tools to designers, which led to experimenting with those tools and then using them for Apple, which led into interaction design. After establishing my office, our work in interaction design led also to work in service design and systems design.

There’s an important change that I want to underscore. As a graphic designer, my work focused on communicating ABOUT products and services; as an interaction designer, my work focuses on the design OF products and services.

Regarding movements are ideologies: My early design training was at the very end of the original design methods movement. I later discovered Horst Rittel and his notion of design methods of the second generation. These ideas are core to my approach to design. Perhaps the biggest philosophical change is moving from the stance learned in school (design as “scientific” problem solving) to a stance learned through practice (design as politics, a branch of rhetoric). [The frame of design as politics holds for product design as well as architecture, graphic design, interaction design, and service design.]

My research focuses on design methods and their history with a special interest in users’ conceptual models, particularly their models of complex systems or ecologies, and how we might model them. This interest influences my approach to systems design, which is also influenced by cybernetics and semiotics.

Interviewer: How do your design strategies change for different client outcomes?

Hugh Dubberly: Practice has at least two main dimensions:

– Scope (individual software app vs service ecology)

– Level of engagement (form vs structure vs context)

Two other dimensions are also important

– Delivery platforms (desktop, web, mobile, TV, kiosk)

– Client size (small, start-up, vs large, corporation

Our bread-and-butter work is the design of software applications primarily delivered over the web or on mobile devices. This work focuses primarily on the structure of systems, but it almost always also involves form and context – and these systems are almost always embedded in complex ecologies, which we need understand in order to be effective.

If we are successful with an engagement, clients come back. At that point the conversation turns to how to improve working processes, which often involves the client organization. Thus we become involved in management discussions.

Interviewer: Could you compare the approaches, for example, your work with zume life health management service and the avaya call center reporter?

Hugh Dubberly: Zume-Life was a small start-up run out of a bedroom in Los Altos. They needed an interface to a very simple device and a web-based app to go with it. We also provide “identity” design and marketing help as well as systems recommendations. When iPhone was released, we designed an app for it. Our interaction was directly with the founders.

Avaya is a giant multinational spun off of AT&T with offices in New Jersey, Santa Clara, India, etc. We worked with an international team to develop very detailed UI specs. We were recommended by the design manager based in Santa Clara. We were engaged by engineering managers (who held the budgets), and we worked directly with engineering leads and product managers.

Interviewer: How do you conduct research within your organization?

Hugh Dubberly: We do not focus on pioneering research methods. As I mentioned previously, we do some ethnographic research and some usability studies – as a part of our practice. I also do some research on systems, design methods, design history, etc – as part of my “academic” interests.

Interviewer: Why do your clients typically reach out to your organization?

Hugh Dubberly: We provide a rare service. We have deep experience in branding AND interaction design AND application development. We’ve worked inside large organizations, and so understand those issues. And our modest size means clients work directly with principals, and we are able to move quickly.

Interviewer: How would you describe your typical client or stakeholder?

Hugh Dubberly: Typically clients are very busy managers, who trained as engineers. They face a challenge of too few resources to improve a product, many unknowns, rapidly changing technology, and rapidly developing competitors.

Interviewer: Are their any stakeholders you might leave out of the design process?

Hugh Dubberly: We try not to leave out stakeholders. It’s common to discover previously undisclosed client stakeholders several weeks into a project. The biggest challenge remains adequately involving users.

Interviewer: Could you walk us through a specific incident where there was a conflict over the research process? What methods do you employ to resolve it?

Hugh Dubberly: I can’t think of a conflict over research process. Frankly, we are pretty agnostic about methods. We are happy to use methods clients might prefer; though most clients defer to designers about methods.

Where negotiation happens is around the scope of work. Do we HAVE to do ethnography? When do we HAVE to do a usability study? These discussions come down to two things: budget and trust.

Interviewer: How often is the outcome of your work an object? A map? A system analysis?

Hugh Dubberly: The outcome of our work is typically a software application or a service. What we deliver is either working code (rarely), a working prototype (often), or a specification (which can take many forms, including maps, storyboards, requirements lists). Where we really add value is by facilitating a process through which a group of constituents come to agreement about what the product or service should be.

We almost never produce “things” — print brochures or posters or packages or books – except for ourselves or as gifts.

Interviewer: How does the fact and idea of making factor into your work?

Hugh Dubberly: Clearly, our work is both enabled by and constrained by software tools. The process of making products is not well understood; the process of making software is even less understood; and the process of creating situations in which complex ecologies can flourish has hardly been examined. We are working hard to understand these things.

Interviewer: Has there ever been an instance in which a project did not meet the client’s expectations? Can you tell us why you think that happened?

Hugh Dubberly: If a client is not completely happy with something, we work very hard to remake it so that the client is happy. We typically meet with each client at least once each week; so: we rarely get too far “out-of-sync” with a client.

Occasionally, a client may be out of sync with parts of his or her company. We try to facilitate agreement; indeed part of our work is providing arguments for clients about why a particular course of action should be chosen.

Interviewer: How does the idea of failure affect your design practice?

Hugh Dubberly: A great characteristic of software is that it’s “soft”; that is, you can easily change it. (The softness of software is also a major constraint – it can be TOO easy to change.)

We don’t worry about failure. We do look for feedback and respond as quickly as we can. A greater worry is designing software that doesn’t get built or building software that doesn’t get released.



Hugh Dubberly Interview 2

Interviewer: We seem to have limited information prior to your work at Apple. If possible, could we navigate through some of your earlier experiences?

Hugh Dubberly: OK. Rereading this, I see that I might mention working for Benno Wissing and Malcolm Greer for a summer – a real treat. And then working at Wang Laboratories, as design director, when I finished grad school. It was a lot of fun. I hired many of my classmates as well as Michael Rock and Kyle Cooper (his first real job).

Interviewer: For starters can we just have an idea of when and where you grew up?

Hugh Dubberly: I was born in Kansas City in 1958. I lived for a couple of years in Washington DC and Ft Hood, Ft Belvoir, and Ft Carson (when my dad was in the army). When I was about 3, we moved to Denver.

Interviewer: What neighborhood did you live in?

Hugh Dubberly: I grew up first in a suburb north of Denver. When I was 13, we moved to a suburb south of Denver. I graduated from Cherry Creek High School in 1976.

Interviewer: Was there any film, books, comics, tv shows etc. that you always found yourself returning to?

Hugh Dubberly: My parents read to me a lot when I was very little – Dr. Seuss. As I grew, I was fond of books with lots of detailed drawings. Paddle to the Sea was especially important. (Chris Pullman has remarked about this book as well.)

Interviewer: What were some of your earliest interactions with technology?

Hugh Dubberly: My dad taught me to use a slide-rule when I was in elementary school. When I was about 10, I visited the museum at the Los Alamos National Lab. It featured a very early computer on which you could do binary addition. That was a lot of fun. In 8th grade my school had a time-sharing teletype terminal. That was my first introduction to cellular automata (the game of life). I did a tiny amount of basic programming in high school. In college I met Tom Banchoff who was doing 4D animations at Brown on an early Apple II. Chuck Bigelow introduced me to Tek and Metafont, and I walked down to the American Mathematical Society and purchased a copy of the book just after it was released. In grad school, I took an intro programming class and then did some “independent study” work creating a font using Metafont.

Interviewer: We found out that your parents were both engineers, how central were the hard sciences to your development?

Hugh Dubberly: My dad would bring home rolls of blue-prints from his work designing electricity generating stations. My sisters and I would turn them over and draw on the back, creating roads and city maps. When I was very young I would sometimes get to go with my dad to his office on Saturdays. I was fascinated by the huge drafting tables. (Remember this is the 1960s; so engineering is still done by hand.) I also loved playing with the quarter-rule non-repro blue grid paper and spent hours with it. I still use it.

More important than science probably were wooden blocks, tinker toys, an erector set, and most important, legos.

Interviewer: Given your extensive interest in systems design, what led you to choose graphic design as the platform for that work?

Hugh Dubberly: I didn’t understand what systems were until much later. Gerstner’s Designing Programmes was a revelation as a college freshman.

I started college studying environmental design at the University of Colorado. Two years in, I transferred to RISD to study graphic design. After RISD, I went directly to Yale for my MFA. Graphic design grew out of my work in high school on the yearbook (editor senior year). I also worked at a small graphic design firm my senior year and in a print shop one summer.

The CU program was built on a Berkeley program, which was built on an Ulm program: Scientific Problem Solving Design. This process focus has been fundamental.

Interviewer: What skills did you think were missing from other forms of education?

Hugh Dubberly: My dad didn’t seem very happy as an engineer. So, despite much prompting I tried to avoid that path. If I had been more aware, I would have explored computers more. I was just a little too early.

Interviewer: Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

Hugh Dubberly: I had an offer from Xerox for a very nice job right out of RISD. It seemed to me that I would never go back to grad school if I started working. Many of my teachers at RISD were from Yale. I suspected that I had missed something at RISD and could find “truth” from the original sources in New Haven.

Interviewer: When were you first exposed to Vannevar Bush’s work?

Hugh Dubberly: In 1987 during our preparation for the release of HyperCard. I’m proud to say that we mentioned “As We May Think” and Bush in our promotional materials.

Interviewer: Could you say more about your interest in Nicholas Negroponte work?

Hugh Dubberly: In 1980, Chuck Bigelow introduced me to Wendy Richmond, who was working in the Architecture Machine Group (which eventually became the Media Lab). She was designing low-res anti-aliased fonts for a DARPA project to create an interactive jeep repair manual. It blew me away. About the same time, I first heard Nicholas speak at an early talk on convergence. This was also formative. Later, I picked up his books on the Soft Architecture Machine, which are still quite useful. I also began to learn a little about Muriel Cooper’s Visible Language Workshop, which was also at MIT and helped form the Media Lab.

Interviewer: Austin Henderson’s work seems to be a significant within your research interests. How has his work influenced you and how do you incorporate his research in to your own?

Hugh Dubberly: Austin Henderson, Paul Pangaro, and Shelley Evenson are longtime collaborators. Austin is particularly interested in conversation and construction sets. Paul is interested in cybernetics and conversation. Shelley is interested in service design. They’ve taught me a lot. Paul and I co-taught a systems design and cybernetics course at Stanford for 5 or 6 years.

Interviewer: You often reference ecology and ecosystems in your work; what is your reasoning for drawing that particular parallel?

Hugh Dubberly: Traditionally, design has focused on the form of objects. Today systems are increasingly important. But systems cannot be seen in isolation. They need to be seen as interacting in communities – in ecosystems.

Interviewer: What are some of the more formative things you learned from experience?

Hugh Dubberly: I’m not sure how you mean this. This list could be quite long. How to write. How to make a film. How to use sound. How to manage. Typography. Interaction design. And much much more.

Interviewer: Could you discuss more about your work at Time Mirror, it seems that Apple and Netscape are well documented?

Hugh Dubberly: I was at Times Mirror for about a year as Director of Interaction Design. Times Mirror was a large publishing conglomerate. I worked in the M&A/Strategic Planning department vetting acquisitions and consulting with our properties on their digital strategies. This meant I spent a lot of time in New York and at Microsoft. I’d like to think that I helped some of these publications move on line a little faster than they might have otherwise.

Interviewer: You’re concerned with what technology will look like in the future, but are you concerned with any of the ways technology has been presented in the past?

Hugh Dubberly: The history of the future always provides a sort of perverse pleasure. How new technologies have been developed and adopted may help us deal with current issues, too.

Interviewer: How has your previous work and research influenced the mission of DDO?

Hugh Dubberly: At Wang and Apple, I learned to manage and to work in large corporations. At Apple and Netscape, I learned about brand and marketing. My work at Wang and Apple was largely creating communications ABOUT products that someone else made. At Netscape, we began to make products. At Netscape, I hired and managed engineers and QA people and learned what’s involved in making software.

Interviewer: How would you describe a typical client experience when formulating plans for new clients?

Hugh Dubberly: I’m not sure how you mean this. We spend a lot of time talking to our clients, asking a lot of questions. We like our clients to be very involved in the work. Ideally we see them at least once a week.

Interviewer: Could you elaborate in the role of participation within your research?

Hugh Dubberly: We have to keep up on new technologies and new applications. We have to learn about our clients, their businesses, and their environments. We do some ethnographic research and some usability studies. I also do some research on systems, design methods, design history, etc.

Interviewer: What book is currently on your nightstand?

Hugh Dubberly: Books are piled everywhere at home. A couple at the top of the list are Trillions by the guys who run Maya and The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

Interviewer: Who is some of your favorite science-fiction?

Hugh Dubberly: I once had the great opportunity to interview Ray Bradbury. He turned out to be fascinating and a sweetheart. So I have to say I love his work. Also William Gibson, especially his early work. Bruce Sterling, partly because of his interest in design. Douglas Coupland. And of course Philip K Dick.