Remembering Bill Moggridge, 1943-2012

I was saddened this morning to hear of the death of Bill Moggridge, at age 69, after what I understand was a fight with lung cancer. Details are scant, but the Cooper Hewitt, where he had been serving as director since 2010, has a memorium.

It’s truly a shame that Bill’s tenure at Cooper Hewitt only lasted two years. There are few people who have had such a profound effect on the field of design, combined with his graceful and generous personality that made him one of its premier ambassadors.

I was fortunate to have met Bill a number of times, and he was unfailingly gracious, kind, and generous with his time, even to people that he barely knew. I also interned at the San Francisco-based forerunner of IDEO, ID-Two, when Bill was still actively engaged with projects.

Bill was a true pioneer in the field of design. He created the first laptop computer, the GRiD Compass, the first portable to use the notebook architecture that we now take for granted. But beyond individual products I see Bill’s real legacy as the growth of the sphere of design, encompassing interaction design, user research, and design strategy.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, design for screen-based interfaces was in a nascent state (interactive CD-ROMs anyone?), and physical and digital design were largely treated as separate activities. Bill was one of the first to treat them as different aspects of the same fundamental activity and end-goal. He also saw the role of user research at the front end of the design process, as a complement to the more narrowly focused ergonomics and usability testing that existed at the time.

This growth in scope necessitated different skills, larger teams, and by extension larger firms. IDEO was the first of the super-sized design firms. In 1990 when I was interning at ID Two in San Francisco, it had less than 20 people, and it was considered a large firm at the time. Most design firms of that era were small boutique operations, sometimes just a couple of people, for example Taylor and Chu (two ex ID-Two guys who I also interned with) and Montgomery-Pfeifer (two ex-frog guys). In those days, industrial design could be done as a relatively specialty, though there were tides forcing even the small firms to grow in breadth of capabilities.

When I was there, the merger of Moggridge Associates in London, ID Two, David Kelley Design, and Matrix Design was starting to happen. IDEO had been proposed as the name, not to universal acclaim as I recall, and famed graphic designer Paul Rand had been hired to create the identity. I recall a fax (this was pre email days) sent by a mischevious anonymous person at Mogg Assoc to ID Two pretending to be from Rand. It showed several napkin sketches of Rand’s “proposed” logos, each re-treading one of Rand’s iconic older designs - IDEO has AT&T death star, IDEO with IBM stripes… It was furtively passed around with chuckles.

While the merger seemed a bit of a longshot at the time, clearly IDEO has become one of the largest and most prominent design firms in the world. And of course it is a fierce competitor of my former firm, frog design. The two firms have evolved in somewhat different directions, but continue to compete strongly and share a good mutual respect.

No firm grows without talent, and Bill had a great eye for it. In that small group of people at ID Two were:

  • Tim Brown, now IDEO’s CEO. At the time he was on a year exchange from Mogg Assoc (as it was often shortened to) in London. Tim was also a teacher of mine at CCA when I was an ID student there (when it was still called CCAC).
  • Naoto Fukasawa, the celebrated industrial designer, now on his own. Naoto at the time had just moved to the US from Japan and barely spoke English, but was clearly a naturally very gifted designer.
  • Bill Verplank, one of the pioneers of design research and usability testing
  • Jane Fulton Suri, another pioneer of design research, and still with IDEO.
  • Tim Parsey, erstwhile design leader at Motorola, Mattel and now at Yahoo!

There were probably others too, I just didn’t cross paths with them.

At this time, Bill was transitioning from his role of being a designer to a builder of design teams, as he describes in the Cooper Hewitt piece. There’s one example of this that remains particularly vivid for me. A major project had just wrapped up and at the weekly staff meeting Bill talked about it with the rest of the staff. As I recall, it was one of ID Two’s first project in the emerging world of user interface design (rather than industrial design), and as such represented shift in emphasis, and was clearly in line with Bill’s broader view of design. In particular, he lauded the work of the woman (unfortunately I can’t remember her name) who had done much of the design work in ways that were authentic, heartfelt, and emphatic.

As a young person new to the work world, I had a startling realization that this was how to effectively praise people and help move them along their careers, and how to help build a team in a time of change.

Closer to home, he also wrote a very nice letter of recommendation for my wife, Leslie Speer, for her tenure application in the industrial design program at San Jose State.

My condolences to his family, and to everyone who knew and worked with him much more than I did.