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Bill Moggridge, pioneer of empathic design, dies at 69

I was deeply saddened to learn that Bill Moggridge died of cancer yesterday at the age of 69. I will always regret that I never got to shake his hand.

Those hands probably sketched hundreds of thousands if not millions of iterations of interaction design ideas throughout his career. In fact, it was Moggridge who coined the term interaction design in the first place — in the mid-1980s! — about 10 years before it became commonly used in industry, 10 years before household access to the Internet, and 20 years before the iPhone would illustrate its meaning to the masses. Without him there could very well be no field of interaction design. He is quite literally the first person who took industrial design practices and applied them to the design of hardware and software. Moggridge gave the world human-centered design.

His book Designing Interactions is a veritable bible on the history, evolution and process of interaction design, told through the eyes of the greatest inventors of our time. It’s almost 800 pages and there isn’t a single dull word in it. A coworker lent it to me when it was released in 2006 and I never gave it back.

Moggridge invented the clamshell laptop design in 1982, the year I was born. In 30 years, the design has barely changed at all — a sign that it is a perfect solution. Short of the toilet paper roll and the bicycle pedal, I can’t think of any other more pervasive or enduring piece of interaction design. It just works. It solves a problem. It’s so obvious a 2-year-old without fine motor skills can manipulate it.

He was the co-founder of IDEO, the design think tank every designer aspires to work for at some point in their career. He ran the place for 20 years before becoming the director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, what every designer imagines heaven looks like and hands-down my favorite museum in NYC. He took the museum through its largest capital improvement project in its 116-year history, having had no previous experience in museums.

In reflection, Moggridge said that his career has had three phases: “first as designer, then as a manager of design teams, and now as a storyteller.” It’s no secret to me that he did this by design. He saw everything as a process, saw the value in the short cycles with a vision of the long ones, and iterated his way towards solving the world’s biggest problems. And he did so with humility and patience and focus. He embodied what it means to have empathy and applied it to all of his work.

“If there’s a simple, easy principle that binds everything together, it’s probably about starting with the people.” — Bill Moggridge

I never knew him and yet I owe him so much. You do too, whether you know it or not. He will be truly missed by all the lives he touched. Bill, your imprint on the world is set in stone.

[Bill Moggridge's obituary in The Washington Post]

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  • Brian

    I got the pleasure of hearing him talk and he was a brilliant and truly empathetic human just trying to make everyone’s lives better. I have similar goals so I understood where he was coming from.