Bill Moggridge, Stanford Professor & Developer Of Laptop, Dies At 69

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Bill Moggridge made our world function a little more smoothly and beautifully. He has many credits to his name: Developer of the laptop computer design. Director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Co-founder of IDEO, a world-leading design firm. A member of the design faculty at Stanford for nearly 30 years.

He found delight in the design of everyday objects; the smallest details made the biggest difference to him.


In addition to teaching undergraduate courses in the Mechanical Engineering Department's Design Division, Bill Moggridge was a popular mentor and adviser to graduate students. (Photo: Mayo Nissen / Creative Commons)

"I've always been interested in the perfect spoon. It is delectable in a multisensory way: the appearance, the balance and feeling as you pick it up off the table, then the sensation as it touches your lips and you taste the contents," Moggridge said in an interview with Smithsonian magazine last year.

He died in San Francisco on Sept. 8 after a battle with lung cancer. He was 69 years old. He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Karin; his sons, Alex and Erik; and his brother, Hal.

The first laptop

Moggridge was born in London on June 25, 1943; his father was a civil servant, his mother an artist. He studied industrial design at London's Central School of Art and Design (now the Central St. Martins College of Art and Design) in London, and in 1969, opened his own design firm, Moggridge and Associates, in the top floor of his London home.

Some of his first commercial designs were for Hoover UK, the household appliance company, and they provided a glimpse of things to come: a toaster that could have passed for a "Star Wars" droid, and a scarlet space heater that looked like a candle flame frozen mid-flicker. He turned ordinary household products into desirable works of art.

In 1979, he made a prescient move to Palo Alto, Calif., where he set up his new design group, ID Two, in the heart of innovation and high-tech design.

The venture paid off almost immediately when, through a chance encounter, Moggridge met John Ellenby, an engineer who had just founded GRiD Systems Corp. Personal computers were still bulky devices, and Ellenby was interested in developing something more portable. He needed someone to design it, and Moggridge jumped at the opportunity.

One of Moggridge's design philosophies was to ask people what they wanted in an object, and then design something that fit those desires, rather than the other way around. The computer needed to fit in a briefcase, so Moggridge would have people carry around objects of different sizes and weights to gauge what was an acceptable load to bear over the course of a day.

He would eventually produce a form so perceptive to users' needs that computer makers have yet to truly expand beyond its central elements. The GRiD Compass 1100 was a slim, matte black rectangle, made of a lightweight but sturdy magnesium alloy, that featured an electroluminescent display that folded down over a low-profile keyboard - all original concepts, and central to the now ubiquitous "clamshell" laptop design.

"In the early days, we were designing computers without computers, on drawing boards. [Personal computers] didn't really exist yet for most people," said Dennis Boyle, a close friend and an early partner at IDEO. "Having a screen that would fold down on the keyboard - it's almost like having a door on the side of a car now."

The father of interaction design

By all accounts, Moggridge was delighted with his precedent-setting design - it contained more than 40 patentable features - but he didn't have much time to bask in its success. A new challenge quickly presented itself.

"My role at the beginning was to design the physical form of the product. But when I had an actual prototype and I took it home, I was amazed that really everything I'd done wasn't very interesting or important. And that the thing that was really important was what was happening between me and the software behind the screen," he said in a later interview.  

This realization sparked Moggridge to pioneer a design approach called interaction design - which he initially called "softface," for software interface. Though the inspiration took off from a need to create better ways to engage with the new digital world, the goal-oriented approach would become central to all his work - what do people need in a design, and how can we give that to them?

For example, when designing a product for the elderly, he would fog his team's vision by smearing Vaseline on their glasses, and have them wear gloves to give them the sense of arthritic hands. The motivation was clear: The best design required particular insight into how the person would use the product or service. Like the laptop design, this approach was as cutting edge then as it is standard practice today.

It was around this time that Moggridge visited Stanford and expressed an interest in working with students. "It was love at first sight," said Bernie Roth, who taught product design courses with Moggridge for years, and is now the academic director of Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the d.school.

In addition to teaching undergraduate courses in the Mechanical Engineering Department's Design Division, he was a popular mentor and adviser to graduate students. Moggridge applied the same thoughtful tenacity with which he approached his own work to his students' efforts. "[Bad design] hurt him viscerally. And so he would sit down and help work out how to make it better," Roth said.

"He was older than us, but he didn't seem older," said Bill Burnett, one of Moggridge's graduate students, and now executive director of Stanford's design program. "He was as curious and open to new ideas as anyone at any age."

Burnett recalls how Moggridge would bike to campus every Saturday morning and spend a couple of hours challenging him to improve his designs. "I imagine those two hours every week were worth thousands of consulting dollars, and yet he freely gave them," said Burnett. "He took teaching and advising to heart. I use Bill as my example of what you have to do to be a good teacher."

The diplomat of design

At Stanford, Moggridge met David Kelleya mechanical engineer teaching in the design program; in 1991, the two, along with Mike Nuttall, would found the Palo Alto-based IDEO, perhaps the world's foremost innovation and design firm. At IDEO, Moggridge began to focus on encouraging a design approach that revolved around interdisciplinary cooperation, and greater attention to the human experience of a product or brand.

That combination of creative and analytic thinking helped inspire the framework for Stanford's lauded d.school, created by David Kelley in 2004. Moggridge signed on as a consulting associate professor at the d.school in 2005, and although he continued his work at IDEO, he found time to write two seminal books, Designing Interactions (2006) and Designing Media (2010).

In 2010, he was named director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and left IDEO and Stanford to move to New York and help reinvent the museum. "It broke my heart. But they couldn't have made a finer choice," said Roth. "He was one of the foremost designers in the world, an elder statesman of design."

Moggridge would say that he devoted the first phase of his career to designing products, and the second phase to leading teams of designers. At Cooper-Hewitt he was embarking on the third phase, which he described as raising the profile of design, through education and communication.

He wanted every child in America to be exposed to design, and specifically design thinking, by the age of 12, and for students to have the option of taking higher-level design courses in high school. His goal was for design thinking to expand beyond commercial interests and to permeate all facets of life, so that leaders of corporations and nations would have better tools for innovation.

Master of simple pursuits

In 2009 Moggridge received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Design Awards. Friends and colleagues, however, remember his ever-present smile or his habit of presenting them with original poems. Or his general elegance and affability, a special charm that brought people together, and brought out the best in them.

"He would be in a meeting, and if the group seemed down, or if he thought the focus [of the design] was drifting too far from the needs of people, he would start singing - perhaps an old British drinking song - and that would cheer us up," Kelley said.

Chris Flink, a graduate of Stanford's product design program who now co-heads the consumer experience practice at IDEO, was also touched by his long friendship with Moggridge. Flink remains in awe of how someone as successful as Moggridge remained so grounded.

"Some of his career pursuits were focused on making more superficial things beautiful and better. But the things that matter most - that happened in the context of his life and home - were the things that he was even better at. He mastered those as well," said Flink, who is also a consulting associate professor at the d.school. "It's such a rare thing to have someone that was such a great contributor on the world stage, and a master of the lived life at home and the enjoyment of the simplest things, like picking mushrooms in the woods around his house, and relationships with the people who were closest to him. That's the kind of success that few can claim authentically."

Posted on September 17, 2012 07:11 am | Permalink 

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