William Drenttel

The story of William Drenttel is best told by those who knew him and those who were influenced by his work within the design sphere. His passing in 2013 spurred his colleagues to memorialize his achievements and ethos to elegiac effect, praising the innovation of his craft as well as his character. One such tribute by Alissa Walker for Gizmodo described William (or “Bill” as she referred to him) as “the first and the last one on the dance floor,” and a presence whose intellect and passion for design did not waver, even in the wake of brain cancer (“How Design Observer Founder William Drenttel Changed the Conversation”). William was a practitioner of design thinking, a school of thought that applies the principles of design to problems within any discipline, as told by his friend Grant McCracken, who refers to the designer and editor as “citizens of several worlds, effortlessly mobile in passages between them” (CultureBy Grant McCracken). The common thread connecting Drenttel’s body of work is advocation, often communicated by way of his publication Design Observer. In one such piece, he wrote “Social design cannot be a subspecialty of the design profession…but is a larger activity that depends upon design in all its forms” (“Designing for Social Change”). Indeed, Design Observer, an overview of the design utilized by and gleaned from any conceivable source “from small town community meetings to Stanley Kubrick films” is what most people think of when they hear the name William Drenttel (Alissa Walker). It served as a platform to analyze design within any facet, and under the direction of William and his wife Jessica blossomed and achieved relevancy within the mainstream. “The site had a voice that was completely accessible and interesting to non-designers,” Walker claims. And this “voice” was William, and his overarching desire to connect design with contemporary issues and move the people within and without the design world to create, discuss, deconstruct. Grant McCracken, upon learning of Drenttels passing touches on the innovatory quality of his friend’s work, citing his unique thinking as an inspiration for his own method of addressing modern dilemmas (“Bosco and the memory of William Drenttel”). It is in the event of a loss such as this that people often realize the extent of a person’s influence, and come to fully appreciate the nuances of their work. Another mark of Drenttels singularity was his ability to not only take criticism but celebrate it. The Gizmodo piece makes mention of the designer’s unprecedented response to appraisal, good or bad, saying “He loved the criticism, the chatter, and the controversy, but, most of all, he loved the community,” (Alissa Walker). It is rare to find someone whose excitement for design and the conversation around it trumps the self-conscious leanings often experienced when sharing one’s work with the world. But this fearlessness is likely what allowed for Drenttels publication to reach an audience beyond the design world. It is something that we could all aspire to emulate, starting a conversation with our craft, and reveling in the stir.


Drenttel, William. “Designing for Social Change: A Personal Introduction.” Design Observer, 20 Mar. 2012, designobserver.com/feature/designing-for-social-change/33188/.

McCracken, Grant. “William Drenttel – CultureBy – Grant McCracken.” CultureBy, 24 Apr. 2014, cultureby.com/tag/william-drenttel.

Walker, Alissa. “How Design Observer Founder William Drenttel Changed the Conversation.” Gizmodo, 23 Dec. 2013, gizmodo.com/how-design-observer-founder-william-drenttel-changed-th-1488495994.