The man who designed the present
Clive Grinyer FRSA explores the life of Bill Moggridge RDI (1943–2012) who made an immeasurable contribution to design, including the first laptop
Bill Moggridge, who died in September 2012 in San Francisco, was one of the most important designers the UK has ever produced. As the designer of the first laptop computer, co-founder of the hugely successful design company IDEO, inventor of new design disciplines and a fearless evangelist for design and the humanising of technology, Bill was an exemplary RSA Royal Designer for Industry (RDI).
Compared to household names and fellow RDIs Sir James Dyson and Sir Jonathan Ive, Bill was not well known in the UK. For the past 30 years he lived in California, where he set up his Silicon Valley design company in 1979 and where IDEO, the company he co-founded with Stanford professor of engineering David Kelley and fellow British designer Mike Nuttall, has its headquarters. But across the global design and innovation community and the generations of designers he nurtured and inspired, he was a legend.
Bill studied industrial design at the Central School of Art and Design, where he won an RSA Student Design Award. By 1969, he had set up his own business at home in Tufnell Park, London. It was here that he met John Ellenby, who was developing a new breed of portable computer with his California-based company GRiD. Bill’s design work helped attract venture capital funding to the company and, while working on the project, he developed the ‘clamshell’ concept of a screen that folded over the keyboard.
It was a eureka moment from which the modern laptop was born, but it wasn’t long before Bill realised that it was the software on the screen that had a greater impact on how we use technology. As a result, Bill created the discipline of interaction design, applying the methodology of design to create technology experiences that were attractive and easy to use.
By the 1990s, Bill had design offices in London and San Francisco, with an exceptional team of international designers creating iconic technology products. The newly named IDEO was the world’s most successful and respected design and innovation company, one based firmly on the core design philosophies and generous, relaxed culture that Bill created.
Bill became an evangelist for the humanising of technology, railing against the complexity of everyday experiences, such as changing the time on a digital watch. "He wanted to build empathy for the consumer into the product," David Kelley said in the New York Times’ obituary of Bill. "At the time he started, it was very innovative, but now it is the dead centre of the profession."
Bill inspired generations of designers who worked for him, myself included, or were tutored by him at the Royal College of Art, the Ivrea design school in Italy and Stanford in California.
In 2010, he surprised many by moving from San Francisco to lead the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York. Bill threw himself into this new role with ambitious plans for the museum and beyond. He wanted to ensure that every American child experienced designing something by the age of 12, for example. He organised the US National Design Awards, and Michelle Obama joined Bill for 2011's awards ceremony.
Bill was a new type of design leader, generous with credit for his design team. Encouraging and liberating the people he employed, he attracted the best and they thrived under his patronage.
In light of his achievements as a designer, he received many awards during his career. These included the RSA's Royal Designer for Industry in 1988, the Prince Philip Designers Prize in 2010 and the Cooper-Hewitt lifetime achievement award.
"Few people think about it or are aware of it," Bill once said, "but there is nothing made by human beings that does not involve a design decision somewhere."
The RSA can be proud of its long association with Bill Moggridge, a man who represented everything the RSA and the Royal Designers for Industry stand for.
Clive Grinyer is an RSA Trustee.