Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action

Working for decades as both theorist and teacher, Ranulph Glanville came to believe that cybernetics and design are two sides of the same coin.

Working as both practitioners and teachers, the authors present their understanding of Glanville and the relationships between cybernetics and design.

We believe cybernetics offers a foundation for 21st-century design practice. We offer this rationale:

  • If design, then systems: Due in part to the rise of computing technology and its role in human communications, the domain of design has expanded from giving form to creating systems that support human interactions; thus, systems literacy becomes a necessary foundation for design.
  • If systems, then cybernetics: Interaction involves goals, feedback, and learning, the science of which is cybernetics.
  • If cybernetics, then second-order cybernetics: Framing wicked problems requires explicit values and viewpoints, accompanied by the responsibility to justify them with explicit arguments, thus incorporating subjectivity and the epistemology of second-order cybernetics.
  • If second-order cybernetics, then conversation: Design grounded in argumentation requires conversation so that participants may understand, agree, and collaborate on effective action. Second-order cybernetics frames design as conversation for learning together, and second-order design creates possibilities for others to have conversations, to learn, and to act.

— Hugh Dubberly[1] and Paul Pangaro[2]


How cybernetics connects computing, counterculture, and design


Written by Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro. Originally published by the Walker Art Center in the catalog for the exhibit Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.

“Man is always aiming to achieve some goal and he is always looking for new goals.”
— Gordon Pask[1]


A Systems Literacy Manifesto

In 1968, West Churchman wrote, “…there is a good deal of turmoil about the manner in which our society is run. …the citizen has begun to suspect that the people who make major decisions that affect our lives don’t know what they are doing.”[1] Churchman was writing at a time of growing concern about war, civil rights, and the environment. Almost fifty years later, these concerns remain, and we have more reason than ever “to suspect that the people who make major decisions that affect our lives don’t know what they are doing.” Examples abound.


VoteStream: Turning Elections Data into Open Data

Written for DMI magazine — Summer 2014.

US elections technology—the infrastructure on which democracy depends—is proprietary, locking up public data; unlocking that data is a design challenge on many levels.

— Hugh Dubberly


Systemic and meta-systemic laws

With the publication of The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Humberto Maturana established himself as an important figure in the history of systems thinking. His essay “Metadesign” is a strong argument against technological determinism and points to our responsibility for the world we create; it should be required reading for all design students.

Over the past several years, Maturana (now 84) has collaborated with Ximena Dávila to produce a set of essays on “human biological-cultural living,” which have not been translated into English. At the heart of the book are 30 “laws” that summarize much of their thinking about biological and cultural systems. These laws provide insights for managers, designers, teachers, and students grappling with challenges in a world in which all forms of design (and especially software and service design) increasingly require systems thinking. Everyone interested in systems thinking should study these laws.

As Maturana and Dávila have noted, their “systemic and meta-systemic laws are not definitions, ontological assumptions, or a priori principles, they are abstractions of the operation of systems in the different sensory-operational-relational domains in which we distinguish them.”

— Hugh Dubberly, Editor


The problem with transparency is that it’s not conspicuous enough

This article proposes a model of transparency, the idea that a good tool “disappears” in the hands of skilled users. The article then proposes a model of design as the management of a dynamic transparency. In use, we often want a tool to be transparent, but other times, in the show room or in front of guests for example, we may want the tool to call attention to itself. And finally, the article argues that design theory (and presumably design models) are best when they too are transparent.

— Hugh Dubberly, Editor


Coherence and responsiveness

This article presents a model of the trade-offs between responsiveness and coherence often found in designing and managing systems. The model also describes how both responsiveness and coherence often decline as a system grows. The authors argue that designers need not accept a zero-sum or least-bad choice but rather should seek platform improvements and collaboration tools that increase both responsiveness and coherence.

— Hugh Dubberly, Editor


What can Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive teach us about designing?

Written for Interactions Magazine

The day after Steve Jobs died, my friend Rich Binell, another Apple alum, asked, “Why did Steve Jobs’ passing affect us more than the passing of other notable people?” Of course, Jobs changed the world, and many of us were moved by his work.

How did he do it?


A taxonomy of models used in the design process

Models are increasingly important in design—as design, in collaboration with other disciplines, increasingly deals with systems and services. Many aspects of customer experience unfold over time and location, and thus are intangible. With their ability to visualize and abstract various aspects of a given situation, models become tools for exploring relationships in ways that aren’t otherwise possible. To this end, models are able to synthesize different types of data (qualitative and quantitative), as well as inputs from various perspectives to provide visibility into issues occurring at the boundaries of disciplines. Where differences in discipline language, practices, and approaches can get in the way of problem solving, models can provide insights and frame discussions that must take place.


A Proposal for the Future of Design Education

Submitted as input for the update of the Design Education Manifesto, ICOGRADA, March 28, 2011

In 2000, the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA) published their first “Design Education Manifesto,” noting “many changes” in design practice, defining “visual communication designer,” and suggesting “a future of design education.” The ICOGRADA manifesto marked a turning point—an international design body addressing change at the millennium. Publishing the manifesto was a significant accomplishment. A decade later, ICOGRADA are updating their manifesto. This essay responds to their request for input.