From static to adaptive

After a long career in systems engineering and design, John Rheinfrank died on July 4, 2004.

John’s Ph.D. dissertation explored what he called “organic systems theory,” or what’s now called “complex adaptive systems” - bridging multiple disciplines and theoretical frames (e.g., biology, computing, economics, psychology, and sociology). John spent most of his professional life applying principles derived from living systems to designing systems for people - from design languages that could serve as the foundation for a broad range of reprographic machines for Xerox, to personal information and communication appliances for Philips. In essence, he wanted us to design systems that are alive.

In the years since John’s death, complex systems have become deeply engrained in our everyday lives, from Facebook and Twitter to the interconnected financial systems that plunged us into the credit crisis. When John learned he was sick, he began working on a book on the relationship between design and systems. Sadly, he never finished, but some of his core ideas were preserved in a presentation on moving from static to adaptive worlds. John saw adaptive worlds as a new way to frame interaction design, which makes it an important topic for interactions. This presentation was his way of helping us make the leap from the present to the future he could already envision. Working from John’s presentation slides and a tape of his talk, we have summarized his ideas.

written by: Justin Rheinfrank, Shelley Evenson, Hugh Dubberly