Celebrating the centennial of Doblin's founder

Jay Doblin was a designer, a design educator, and a design theorist. Jay worked tirelessly to help the field of design become more important, developing theories about product and communications design, the role of the designer, and how design could best become connected to other disciplines–especially social science and strategy–that serve customers and business.

As a designer, Jay worked with–and led–many of the most important designers of his day. As an educator, he served as the director of the Institute of Design (ID) in Chicago for 15 years and continued to teach there for many more years. He led numerous academic design programs in Europe, the United States, and Japan.

Jay was born on December 10, 1920, the third generation of his family to be born in Brooklyn, New York. His grandfather and father were tailors; his father became president of a clothing store and the head of New York’s clothing merchants society. Jay attended Pratt Institute, graduating with considerable distinction in 1942 with an emphasis on camouflage, the knowledge of which was among his contributions to a country at war. He joined the design profession right away, working with Raymond Loewy, Gordon Lippincott, and then back to Loewy, where he became chief of industrial design.

During his years at ID, he became a founding partner of Unimark international. Afterwards, he periodically ran projects using Jay Doblin & Associates. Jay knew that human-centered design could help solve large-scale business problems across a range of industries.

In 1981 he created Doblin, the first strategic design firm based on this idea and, along the way, established the principles innovators rely on today.

One thing that Jay naturally could not do was see the future, and while he knew the magnitude of the work would be difficult, he could not know what its vectors might be. If you are among the hundreds of colleagues who have worked with Doblin over the years, or among the thousands of clients who have, you know that the work always has moments with too many half-baked options or too much outright confusion. These come with the territory: life at the intersection of design, social science, and strategy can be messy. Even though the work can be hard, it can also be pleasant or even fun, with a spirit of optimism, a song in our hearts, and a few wry jokes near at hand. Jay would recognize that today. That’s how the firm was started.

In 2013, Doblin became Deloitte’s design-led innovation unit. Since then, the Doblin team continues to advance innovation, strategy, and human-centered design.

Jay left us in 1989. He had a sharp wit and a great laugh. He was quick to grouch at perceived flaws in the ways business served humanity. He was disappointed when he encountered a lack of rigorous thinking. He always had an open eye for ways to make things better. He frequently suggested that we might be taking ourselves just a little too seriously and often reminded us that life is short.

L to R, Top to Bottom:

Jay Doblin: The portrait dates back to the mid-Eighties. Probably his last formal portrait.

The Alcoa chair: Produced in association with a campaign to demonstrate the versatility of aluminum. Jay and his chairs appeared in several publications in the Spring of 1960.

The Electric car: A student project from the Institute of Design in the early 1960's.

Hotpoint demo: Jay building the prototype of the Hot Point stove, dating back before 1955, the year he left the Lowey office for Chicago.

Loft phone booth: The October 1953 issue of Esquire magazine featured Jay and his early adopter lifestyle of loft apartments in Greenwich Village.

Nutty professor: Jay felt that designers often take themselves too seriously. He found ways to discourage this.

Baby Carriage: Jay and colleagues gussied up a baby carriage for employer, Raymond Loewy, when his baby was born.

Jay with nose: Jay in clown nose with guitar underscores the deeply playful nature of a very thoughtful person.

Read "One hundred years of Jay Doblin: Celebrating the man who professionalized design" by IIT Institute of Design.