Speak UpA Former Division of UnderConsideration
The Archives, August 2002 – April 2009
advertise @ underconsideration
---Click here for full archive list or browse below
In Memoriam: John Rheinfrank
Guest Editorial by Hugh Dubberly

On July 4, John Rheinfrank passed away after a long battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife, designer Shelley Evanson and their two sons.

John was the kind of designer I would like to be: Thoughtful in every sense of the word—full of ideas, a critical thinker, kind and generous. He had a remarkable ability to see the forest and the trees, to find patterns in complexity.

A bit of background: In 1973, John received a Ph.D. in Industrial and Systems Engineering from The Ohio State University. He worked at Fitch, Doblin, and Scient. He and Shelley had their own design firm, seeSpace. He was founding editor of the ACM SIG CHI journal, Interactions. He taught in the Kellog School of Management. (Yes. A designer teaching in a business school.) He was also a great cook.

I last saw John in April. He gave me a ride from CMU back to my hotel after a lecture. I had agreed to give the lecture in large part because I knew I’d learn from John and Shelley’s kind feedback.

And I did. The goal of my talk was to share my excitement about cybernetics and introduce the students to the ways it applies to design. John had joined the American Society of Cybernetics many years ago, presented papers there, and even been one of its trustees. Nevertheless, he sat patiently through a talk he was more qualified to give. And then he politely asked if I might have forgotten to mention 3rd-order feedback loops in relation to the design process (where first-order feedback is how you’re doing on the problem at hand, and second-order is how the process itself is working, and third-order is how the process of improving your process is working). This is where cybernetics and design meet quality management and what Douglas Englebart (another hero) calls bootstrapping. John’s comments made my trip.

Talking with John was always like that. Whether it was dinner, a ride from the airport, or just a phone call, he always gave me a new way to look at things. He introduced me to backcasting, feed-forward, design probes, and the idea of designing for emergent systems. For these and many other things, I am grateful. I regret not having spent more time with him. And I will miss him.

We invite you to contribute thoughts or anecdotes about John.

Hugh Dubberly is a design planner and teacher. At Apple Computer in the late 80s and early 90s, Hugh managed cross-functional design teams and later managed creative services for the entire company. He served at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena as the first and founding chairman of the computer graphics department and now teaches a systems design class at Stanford. In 1995, he moved to Netscape where he became Vice President of Design and managed groups responsible for the design, engineering, and production of Netscape’s Web services. In 2000, he started an interaction design firm with friends from Apple and Netscape.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
ARCHIVE ID 2009 FILED UNDER Miscellaneous
PUBLISHED ON Jul.09.2004 BY Speak Up
ps’s comment is:

this throws me off.

this post shows up in SU but...

i've never heard of John Rheinfrank. looking at the company's website i feel like i should know him. like so many others that i should know, or at least have heard of. i feel sad for his family, but hope they have spent some good times together.

not knowing him and no anecdotes to contribute, i'm not sure if it makes sense to post, but then at the same time i feel like i have to.

another reminder that life is short.

make sure to enjoy it as much as you can. remember there is more than logos and taglines. good weekend everone.

On Jul.09.2004 at 04:43 PM
John Zapolski’s comment is:

Though I didn't know John personally very well (I had a few brief conversations with him at conferences), his work was extrememly influential on my own thinking about design. In fact, if not for John, I may never have returned to calling myself a designer.

Though I studied graphic design and filmmaking while a student, for several years I considered the work I was doing professionally -- consulting to companies about how to create and use software and multimedia systems to accomplish strategic and operational objectives -- to be something like "technology strategy", or even engineering or systems development. The work of a few people, John prominently among them, helped me consider my work in a new context (for example, through his chapter on design languages in Terry Winograd's Bringing Design to Software), and to reconnect it with the career I first imagined for myself at ten years old.

John helped me see that what I was doing was designing, expanding and at the same time clarifying what I understood about design, about dealing creatively with problem situations, about form and language. So, in that way, I owe much of my still-evolving career in design to him.

It is truly a great loss that John has passed from this world. Thankfully, at least a small part of his spirit, his wisdom, and his passion for the life- and world-changing power of design will live on in the remarkably large number of us that he influenced. It's a legacy I aspire to live up to.

On Jul.09.2004 at 05:55 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Peter, yes, this is not a common post on Speak Up. Hugh was looking for an outlet to remember John Rheinfrank and through Design Observer we got in touch and I offered to post it. While I wasn't familiar with Rheinfrank either I was fascinated by all he has done. Which is why I thought that for those of us who did not know of him now would be a good time to do so — aside from the unfortunate circumstances.

Hopefully this will serve those who knew John as well as those who didn't.

On Jul.09.2004 at 06:08 PM
Rob’s comment is:

Having lost my own father in April to cancer, I can only imagine the pain and grief having lost a man who left such a legacy. I did not know John, nor his work until now, and in some ways I am very sorry for this.

Not that it was by any means done on purpose, but it's clear that the work of John and Shelley far surpasses anything I've done in my life (as a designer) but certainly intrigues and inspires me to look even further beyond that which I already know.

In a moment of selfishness, when I first read this post, I first thought of my own loss. Now that I know a little bit more about John and his work, I can at least feel a little of the loss his friends and family are feeling. My condolences on your loss but know that your lives have been touched in many special ways.

On Jul.09.2004 at 06:10 PM
Don Norman’s comment is:

Here is a tribute to John that I wrote for a design conference -- it may also get published. Hugh Dubberly suggested I share it with you.


John Rheinfrank. Blame him for inflicting me upon the world of design. John and Shelley: she doesn't get off lightly either. They first headed me off at the pass when I had finished the first draft of "The Design of Everyday Things," helping me transform it from an attack on design into a study of design. From then on, John seemed to show up whenever I was about to veer into an irresponsible direction, and I can remember many long discussions (even a published interview, that he conducted), often over food.

Food. He wielded a mean knife, and I still recall the wonderful duck that he and Shelley served Julie and me from their home in Evanston, the meat sliced thinly, on a diagonal, the duck meat rare and tasty. John proudly explaining that he would help out now and then at Trio, which for those of you not from Chicago, is one of that city's best restaurants, which makes it one of the nation's best restaurants. And when I was next at Trio, I asked about John. They seemed most impressed that I knew John. Name dropping in the restaurant business.)

Spirit. John's spirit lives on. My most recent encounter was just a few months ago when I acted as a juror for the product development class that he co-taught at Northwestern. But the strangest memory of all is when he learned that Julie and I had just purchased a new BMW station wagon, and after admiring it, he rushed off to buy the same model from the same salesperson. But, our salesperson later told us, he cancelled the order the day after that, changing it into an M3, BMW's most sporty, more powerful model. The station wagon? Well, sure, it was practical, but the M3 was something special. The M3 is a designer's car: power and acceleration of course, but more than that, a superb balance and feel, putting the driver in control. To me, it represents the qualities that John wanted in everything: autos, products, design, and for that matter, in life.

Don Norman

Palo Alto, CA

On Aug.03.2004 at 07:27 PM
nicole rheinfrank’s comment is:

If been searching for members of my family for a time and i think john rheinfrank could be my grand uncle or something like that. Now somebody if he had children? If anyone read that who can contact me please do that!

Thanks a lot nicole

On Jan.03.2005 at 12:41 PM
Stephen Stollmack’s comment is:

For some time I have been thinking about what happened to my old friend. I had been John's de facto adviser at The Ohio State University. He was still in the MS program at that time -- it was 1967 or 1968 and John was working for me on a project funded by the U S Army where we were building a systems model of tank-anti-tank combat so as to be able to evaluate various tank designs for the future.
The most outstanding interactions I had with him related to my evaluation of a paper he had done for me re work we were doing to design a visual detection model for the Computer simulation of tank combat. I had been very rough in my evaluation on a number of grounds including his use of terminology and logic as well as the utility of what his ideas. I was pleasantly surprised with his attitude. I remember to this day how he remained totally positive throughout our discussion. However, he blew me away the next day when he came to my office to thank me for being so honest in my evaluation of his work. I never had to repeat any criticism of his work, writing style, or thought processes ever again. I could see then that he was a purest and over the years I quietly watched from the sidelines as he went far beyond me in his professional career. I was very sad to hear that he passed. The world needs more caring and carefully intelligent people like John.
Stephen Stollmack, PHD October 2008

On Oct.25.2008 at 10:08 AM