Bill Moggridge’s passing on September 8 at age 69 wasn’t totally unexpected–he had been battling cancer–but it was nevertheless a shock to the system. In the latest incarnation of his design life, Bill had taken the helm of the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Design Museum housed in the former mansion of industrialist Andrew Carnegie on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This assignment came as a delightful surprise to many in the design and museum worlds. The choice of placing a designer at the head of this museum was not only a bold one but also surprising and yet reassuring. It would be as if an art museum would choose an artist as its leader—something of a rarity and quite implausible in this age of museum management courses and arts administration degrees, and despite the assumed logical connection it might present at first glance. Of course, Bill was not just any designer to assume such a role and brought with him a passion for the subject that he had in fact been embodying his entire life.
While much of the memories about his life will undoubtedly reference his inventive work on the first laptop computer, as he himself has stated, all that industrial design work of shaping the package “melted away” when he turned on the machine and was drawn into the experience of interacting with the device. This was not just a personal epiphany for Bill but a paradigm shift for his chosen field of practice. The notion of ergonomics, or how humans interact with the world and use its manufactured objects and systems, had been part of the discipline for decades—a path paved by the likes of iconic figures such as Henry Dreyfus and Niels Diffrient. What Bill discovered was not just the relationship of humans to objects, no matter how dematerialized the product became, but rather a much more holistic anthropocentric universe that would eventually unfold as a world of human-centered design. In fact, his greatest legacy will be his contributions to this now-dominant approach to design. As one of the cofounders of IDEO, Bill was instrumental in bringing this philosophy and its working methods and strategies to the field largely on the strength of numerous and successful new consumer products, services, and experiences.
In many ways Bill was the perfect spokesperson for such an approach: an affable demeanor, truly engaged and curious about the world around him and the people in it, an avuncular figure capable of providing true insights through years of experience. This was a unique set of traits totally in keeping with a philosophy that claims to be as much about the humane and humanity as it is about human factors. Indeed, too many proponents of this approach come off more as human engineers than humane designers: a place where users are always right in the same way that customers are always right (despite the fact that anybody who has worked retail long enough has experienced otherwise).
This very human package is what gave me hope when I first met Bill at our annual low-key and lo-fi gatherings with other designers in the high altitudes of Colorado’s “Collegiate Peaks.” I felt hopelessly unfit and sedentary as I drove past Bill as he bicycled up the mountain each morning to our gathering. His physical stamina contrasted his rather matter-of-fact analysis and the inevitability of his logic, all delivered in that delightful English accent that is so convincing to American ears.
I had developed a rather skeptical disposition to the notion of so-called human factors design, fearing that it was less about design and that many of its proponents had succumbed to the allure of whatever new business strategy was in vogue and could be sold—belief without lasting conviction. It was also rather disconcerting to see so many Post-It notes stuck to the wall and so few drawings or sketches being produced. However, it was Bill’s very humanity that was in the end the best case that could be made for adopting a more human-centered approach to design. It was also the fact that Bill was a designer at heart that gave credence to the argument to rethink design itself beyond just objects. This was an expansive kind of thinking, one that quickly took hold at IDEO as it moved from developing new consumer products, both hardware and software, to retail experiences and customer services.
I believe that Bill also helped shape the future direction of the Cooper-Hewitt in both message and as messenger. After all, it’s a small step to rethink things such as the design museum and education when the business you helped found is trying to solve challenging or “wicked” problems, including reinventing government or re-imagining healthcare. At the Cooper-Hewitt museum he was once again surrounded by objects and artifacts, but also by people, ideas, and the desire to explain the power and potential of design to the audience that probably matters the most, the public.