Bill Moggridge was a giant of a man in personality, accomplishment and stature. He is one of the first professionals to use ‘design thinking’ beyond the usual places and spaces. He was a founder of IDEO, arguably the organization most responsible for seeing design thinking move beyond the industrial laboratory and into public consciousness. He co-developed the first laptop. His influence on our everyday conceptualization of design and its possibility was everywhere. It was with a heavy heart that we learned of Bill Moggridge’s passing this weekend.
In the years before his untimely passing from cancer he sought to bring the passion and love he had for design to the world as the Director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. Through the museum, Bill sought to enhance the profile of design beyond its traditional borders and instill his passion for design into those young and old. He wanted to raise the profile of design and its power to shape our lives.
My DTF colleague Andrea Yip and I had the priviliedge of spending a lovely afternoon with Bill in March of this year as part of the research for the Design Thinking Foundations project. Bill was as warm and welcoming in person as his reputation had suggested as we sat down to meet in his office overlooking Central Park. Over cookies and cappuccinos we discussed the importance of design, the concept of design thinking, and how his role as a designer has evolved to bring both ideas together over his illustrious career.
During our interview Bill spoke of his work developing the first laptop, the importance of prototyping and how time and timing both play into the design process:
Well to expand a little bit on the story of my career development I mentioned that originally I was expecting to practise as a designer of everyday objects and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on the first laptop which came from GRiD computers and the interesting thing for me was you know having moved to California to put our second office and being in Silicon Valley that was an opportunity that fell into my lap and it was very exciting to have that opportunity to create this precedent, you know the first production laptop.
The thing that happened to me though was that I put a year and a half personally of very hard work into perfecting the physical design, working with a colleague engineer that I hired and together we made everything work for the case work. But we didn’t understand the technology inside, we didn’t understand the chips and the software and so we didn’t attribute to what happened on the screen and when I actually brought that laptop home, the first working prototype that I had and started trying to use it myself you know for the first five minutes I was really proud of my work because I was thinking oh great the hinge opens and you know I can put it up and it looks good etc. Well five minutes later I forgot all about it because I was so interested in what was happening with the interactive software and I found myself kind of being sucked down into the screen, into this digital virtual world and the next eight hours I was there and I only came back to thinking about my own design for the five minutes at the end of the day.
During our time together we spoke about the way design, thinking and design thinking has evolved, particularly in the context of efforts to educate people in what it means to be a ‘design thinker’. Bill was skeptical that design thinking could be something your could learn through reason alone and spoke to the imperative to practice design, not just preach its virtues, if one is to learn it:
I mean if you look at the way design and the arts have always been taught they’re always learning by doing process. I mean that’s what the whole concept of a studio is and every art department has a studio so you teach people by putting them through the process. You don’t say “do this and this in sequence, well listen to me describe a methodology”. You say “you do this, go and paint” or “make a drawing of that, write me a poem, make me a design”. I mean it’s all the studio idea, that harnesses all these intuitive and subjective skills that we have.
It was through his experiences in designing technologies and their applications that he began to see the power of design to shape things beyond tools and gadgets and impact the wider world. We also need to be mindful of how different disciplines contribute to the design and development of products and services beyond the traditional ones typically seen as part of “design”:
You know designing services, designing systems, designing holistic experiences all of those things emerged from that combination of physical then plus digital then plus connectivity. And I think that then means that the nature of design has had to change with it. That in order to do good interaction design we had to learn about cognitive psychology and all those things that are about the way your mind works. And then in order to learn how to do the connected stuff we had to learn more about sociology and anthropology, how people relate to each other in terms of human connections.
And so the context of design has really expanded because of those big changes in technology. And so you know instead of now feeling that the only thing I could do was a piece of plastic I now feel that design and Design Thinking can be applied to really difficult problems, how to design government, how to design a service, how to design for social impact in the third world or whatever it may be. So all those things are enabled by this context of expansion of the design operations, the place where we’re designing really.
As we spoke about the future of design thinking and design in general, Bill was optimistic. He believed that the students of today are better positioned for taking on the collaborative challenges that design requires and that the push to get education out of traditional silos is helping. For established professionals, it might take a while to get there.
So they (students) are absolutely interested in collaboration and they instantaneously collaborate and that’s amazing I mean young people are so good at that. They can just walk in, meet somebody the first time and a couple of weeks later they’re really working together in a way that they couldn’t imagine doing it before. If you try and do the same thing with people in mid career which is a lot what people like (University of Toronto’s Dean of Management at Rotman School of Business) Roger Martin are trying to do then of course the barriers are much greater because they’ve been siloed throughout their education, they’ve been siloed throughout their experience so far and then you say sit in this conference room and collaborate across disciplines, that’s a very hard thing to do when you’re in your mid career. So I’m doing it from the student level and making it advance from that forward and I have great hope that it’ll change the way that people use design to be much more broad, applied across disciplines, applied across problems, you know helping people to solve problems that are really challenging. I mean in future … although I think it’ll take a generation really to happen.
It’s hard to imagine that our discussions with Bill, which first started back when we met him at the DMI conference in New York last October, will not continue. He was a generous person and someone that we all owe a debt of gratitude for his contributions to design and the way we engage the world through tools and our minds.
Thanks for everything, Bill. The cookies, the coffee, and the conversation will forever sit warmly in our memory.
You will be missed.
Details about Bill and his life’s work is available from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
A video tribute to Bill is on YouTube and well worth a watch.