What is Systems Design?

The following text is the pre-edited version of an interview of Hugh Dubberly by Dan Saffer. The interview was performed via email in February of 2006, and was later published in Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices.

What is systems design?

Systems design is simply the design of systems. It implies a systematic and rigorous approach to design—an approach demanded by the scale and complexity of many systems problems.

Where did it come from?

Systems design first appeared shortly before World War II as engineers grappled with complex communications and control problems. They formalized their work in the new disciplines of information theory, operations research, and cybernetics. In the 1960s, members of the design methods movement (especially Horst Rittel and others at Ulm and Berkeley) transferred this knowledge to the design world. Systems design continues to flourish at schools interested in design planning and within the world of computer science. Among its most important legacies is a research field known as design rationale, which concerns systems for making and documenting design decisions.


Navigating Dynamic Databases

Navigating Dynamic Databases

This article introduces several issues related to the problem of navigating multi-dimensional data spaces—large databases. It examines problems with trying to conform data to a single taxonomy and the limits of tree structures as navigational devices. It offers several alternative devices, and it notes the need to enable random, multi-variate filtering so that users may narrow and expand at will. It also introduces the concept of pivoting: narrowing along one path and turning (or pivoting) to expand along another path.


Becoming a Digital Designer

The following text is the pre-edited version of an interview of Hugh Dubberly by Steven Heller. The interview was performed via email in April of 2006, and was later published in book form in 2007.

You were a true pioneer in the digital world, when we just called it “computers,” what made you jump into the breach so early?

When I was an undergraduate at RISD, Chuck Bigelow introduced me to digital type design. Dutch type designer Gerard Unger was also teaching at RISD. They encouraged students to focus on low resolution type. For me, that led to a summer job with Xerox working on type for some of the first laser printers. Chuck also introduced me to Don Knuth’s work on Metafont, a programming language for describing typefaces. As a grad student at Yale, I designed a typeface using Metafont. Several of my classmates from RISD also got involved in font design.


Middle-Out Design

Middle-Out Design

Nearly a year after the project had begun, Dubberly Design Office was brought on board to complete the design for a handheld medical order-entry system. By applying software engineering practices to interaction design, DDO resolved critical issues—from the large and conceptual to the detailed and screen-level—and discovered a new approach to design: Middle-Out.


[Beta] How do you design?

This book is not finished. We’ve been developing it over the past few years. It began as a manilla folder with copies of different process models. We completed the first “book” version as part of a project undertaken for Elaine Coleman and Sun’s Virtual Center for Innovation. We present this version for educational purposes only. We have obtained no permissions to reproduce any of the models. Copyrights remain with their owners.

If you know of any models which are not featured in this book, please feel free to share them with us.


The Information Loop

Written for CIO Insight Magazine magazine by Hugh Dubberly.

Industrial age companies increased efficiency through mass production. They also used the tools of mass production to talk to their customers, sending the same message to as many people as possible. But mass communication isn’t uniformly efficient. As John Wanamaker quipped, “I know half of my advertising is wasted; I just don’t know which half.”


Notes on the Role of Leadership and Language in Regenerating Organizations

Sun Booklet: Notes on the Role of Leadership and Language...

We collaborated with Michael Geoghegan, Paul Pangaro, and Peter Esmonde to produce a booklet for Sun about leadership and language.

Below are a few interior spreads. You can also download a PDF of the entire booklet.


Alan Cooper and the Goal Directed Design Process

Originally published in Gain AIGA Journal of Design for the Network Economy Volume 1, Number 2, 2001.

Alan Cooper is not your typical graphic designer—he’s an engineer and a card-carrying member of the AIGA. He inhabits both worlds and has something important to say to designers and other engineers.

Cooper is not one to say things softly. He’s outgoing, quick to offer an opinion or an aphorism, and seems to like nothing better than a healthy debate. His favorite topic: what’s wrong with the software that increasingly fills our lives.


The Next Web

The following is an interview of Hugh Dubberly by Ken Coupland in 2000. Originally published in Critique magazine, number 14 and 15, Winter and Spring 2000.

What impact is the Web having on graphic design now? Is there anything about all of this that’s truly new?

The Web is an interesting medium that has great influence, but the profession is in the midst of a tremendous change that has to do with far more than just computing. It goes back to the beginnings of professional design at the turn of the century, when mass production—particularly printing—separated the making of a thing from the planning of making a thing. When you plan how something will be made from the beginning, as when the Industrial Revolution moved us into mass production, you make objects which are generally the same. Now, at the end of the industrial era, we’re manufacturing things that can account for a lot of variation—custom PCs are a perfect example—and we’re designing systems with their future permutations in mind. Customization is even more of an influence when you begin to design online communications. No one’s experience is the same as someone else’s, and everyone’s experience changes over time. You have to ask what effect those differences will have on design.


The Baseball Projects: A Step-by-step Approach to Introducing Information Architecture

First published in Adobe Art Line, Issue 8, June 1997.

Also published in LOOP: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education, Number 1, November 2000.

Later Published in The Education of an E-Designer, Steven Heller, Allworth Press, 2001.

Over the last five years, the rapid growth in the number and complexity of Internet Web sites has created a demand for designers with skills and experience in Web site design and Web application design. The increased demand has bid up designers’ salaries. The public spotlight on the Internet, and the job opportunities it presents, has increased demand from students for classes that will prepare them for the Web-design market.