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.


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