Renowned human-centered design and content analytics expert Klaus Krippendorf, Penn professor emeritus, dies at 90


Klaus Krippendorf, 90, from Philadelphia, renowned expert in human-centered design and content analysis, Gregory Bateson professor emeritus of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, lecturer, author, builder, sculptor and activist, died Monday, October 10 of lymphoma at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.

Broad-minded, prolific as a researcher and author, and diverse in his many accomplishments, Dr. Krippendorf advanced the idea that communication, especially language, shapes reality. He connected theories of communication, design, and cybernetics, and his work has influenced the way countless psychologists, social scientists, designers, and advertisers communicate and create.

“Because I could jump from one to the other [discipline], it made me a productive contributor to all,” he said in an oral history video for Penn. In a tribute, his family said: “He sought to create beauty through chance and find symmetry in chaos.”

He created Krippendorff’s alpha in the late 1960s, a complex mathematical formula that measures the agreement between observers or instruments during statistical analysis and has become the standard for ensuring reliable research.

He joined Penn in 1964 as a predoctoral researcher, became an associate professor in 1970, and a full professor in 1980. He was named the Gregory Bateson Professor of Cybernetics, Language, and Culture in 2000 and Professor Emeritus in 2010.

He was the first Penn faculty member to hold a Ph.D. in communication and, with 58 years at the Annenberg School for Communication, is the longest-serving faculty member in the school’s history. He has created new grassroots classes, led countless workshops and symposia, lectured and taught around the world and is featured in several YouTube videos.

He has reviewed publications and published hundreds of his own books, chapters, articles and articles, including the famous The semantic turn: a new foundation for design in 2005. He won the 2004 International Communications Association Fellows Book Award for Content analysis: an introduction to its methodologyand the ICA Information Systems Division presents the Klaus Krippendorff Book Award in his honor.

He was President of the ICA in the 1980s and a founder and member of numerous organizations, associations, academies, councils and societies. He has earned honorary degrees and fellowships, and won numerous awards, including the 2001 Norbert Wiener Medal in Cybernetics from the American Society for Cybernetics.

In a tribute, a former student said Dr. Krippendorf “called himself an emancipatory scholar. He wanted everyone to live their best life.

Born March 21, 1932, in Frankfurt, Germany, Dr. Krippendorf moved to Halberstadt when he was 8, and the family was on the move for much of World War II. They eventually made it to West Germany after the war, and he worked, traveled across Europe, and developed a passion for social and political philosophy.

In a detailed unpublished memoir he was working on when he died, Dr. Krippendorf wrote at length about his life during the war. He said, “I think I know more stories about Halberstadt than about Philadelphia, and I’ve lived in Philadelphia for over 50 years. Halberstadt was my city.

He graduated from the State Engineering School in Hannover, Germany in 1954 and from the Ulm School of Design in Ulm, Germany in 1961. He came to the United States through scholarships to study at Princeton, traveled the country, got a job at Penn, and earned his doctorate in communications from the University of Illinois, now Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in 1967. Penn awarded him a honorary master’s degree in 1971.

“We have to be open to differences. For me, this is essential to the design. Making contributions anywhere is essential.

Dr. Krippendorf in Penn video

He met fellow student Sultana Alam while in Illinois, and they married and had a son Kaihan and a daughter Heike. After a divorce, he married Margaret Thorell in 1998.

Dr. Krippendorf liked to discuss and debate. He lived in West Philadelphia and in Rittenhouse Square, and many of his homes featured what he called a “conversation pit” that was usually filled with other scholars, artists, and philosophers. He joined a non-violent protest against Pakistan’s occupation of Bangladesh in 1971 and created furniture, sculptures and inventions throughout his life.

He was a handyman and completely renovated several of his houses himself. In a tribute, his family said: “He lived for almost 91 years as a curious child, on the beach of life, building the perfect sandcastle, pushing the boundaries of knowledge of science and art.”

In addition to his children, wife and ex-wife, Dr. Krippendorf is survived by seven grandchildren, a sister, a brother and other relatives. A brother died earlier.

A celebration of his life is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Friday, October 28, in room 110 of the Annenberg School of Communication, 3620 Walnut St., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104. Family services are to be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, October 29 at the same location.

Donations in his name may be made to the Klaus Krippendorff Memorial Fund of the University of Pennsylvania, Office of the Treasurer, PO Box 71332, Philadelphia, PA 19176.

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Jenny T. Curlee