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A Tribute to Chuck Owen

By Kristin Gecan

October 22, 2019

Chuck Owen
Distinguished Professor Emeritus Charles L. Owen, a systems design pioneer

Charles L. (Chuck) Owen, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Design (ID), passed away on October 17, 2019. Chuck—who began teaching at ID in 1965 and retired in 2010—was a pioneer in the area of systems design, and dedicated his life to understanding and designing large-scale systems. His holistic approach to influencing systemic transformations have inspired generations of designers around the world.

Chuck Owen Memorial

Chuck’s impact on ID was profound. He was the driving force behind the founding of the school’s PhD program, the first program of its kind in the United States. He directed the product design program for more than 20 years, founded the Design Processes Laboratory, and worked and taught in the fields of design planning, computer-supported design, design methodology, and design theory. He created the Structured Planning methodology, a rigorous system for solving exceedingly complex problems used by such organizations as the National Parks Service and NASA.

A designer and researcher in academia and industry, Chuck collaborated with organizations as varied as Doblin, Steelcase, Kohler Company, the U.S. Air Force, and the New Zealand Government, while also advising several universities in the US and abroad. His commitment to solving society’s ills through design was evident in the projects he led at ID. Project Phoenix, for example, proposed a system to fight greenhouse gases, and Future Living proposed new systems that could transform housing in Chicago.

He was very optimistic about everything. He was a curious person always looking toward the future.
—Carlos Teixeira, ID associate professor

A beloved teacher, Chuck mentored his students to success and international acclaim. In 1991, Project Phoenix received Popular Science’s Grand Prize for Environmental Technology in the magazine’s “Best of What’s New” issue. Likewise, his students won grand prizes in the Japan Design Foundation’s International Design Competition and honors in the International Design Excellence Awards.

In 1990 he was the recipient of the American Center for Design’s Education Award for his contributions to design history, theory, and practice; five years later, he was awarded the title of Distinguished Professor.

The world we live in is full of complicated problems that seem to get worse, not easier, but the only way they will give up their secrets is if we learn to take them seriously, to tackle them with courage and confidence and endless curiosity. Chuck set us all on that path four decades ago, long before most of us thought it was a reasonable or possible thing to achieve.
—Larry Keeley, ID adjunct professor and president of Doblin Inc.

A tribute to Chuck was planned for October 18, 2019, as part of RSD8: The Eighth Annual Symposium of Relating Systems Thinking and Design and was recorded.

You can also view some of his lectures below, courtesy of ID alum Marc Fleischmann (BS 1976).

Visitation was Thursday, October 24, 2019, 4–9pm at HABEN Funeral Home & Crematory, 8057 Niles Center Road in Skokie, Illinois. Details here.

Structured Planning Lesson (Part 1)