In Remembrance Of Bill Moggridge, 1943-2012

We remember Bill Moggridge, the director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; cofounder of Ideo; and designer of the world’s first laptop computer.

In 2010, as the new director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Bill Moggridge rode into New York from California with a formidable resume: cofounder of Ideo, inventor of the first laptop computer, author of the seminal work on interaction design, educator, and winner of a slew of international design awards.


But as a city full of designers and design-lovers was quick to discover, rarely has such an illustrious bio been animated by such a delightful person.

Bill, who passed away from cancer last Saturday, September 8th, embraced the city with the enthusiasm of a kid from the boonies, fresh off the bus. He was everywhere: hosting design breakfasts with business leaders, leading panels with design luminaries, throwing parties at the Cooper-Hewitt’s grand mansion on Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile, presiding over National Design Awards luncheons at the White House with Michelle Obama and the head of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough.

Moggridge’s most influential piece of design: The GRiD Compass computer (1981), which was the world’s first laptop and the beginning of the now-ubiquitous clamshell typology.

He was determined to bring his love and understanding of design to a wider audience, and to re-make the Cooper-Hewitt, an under-recognized cog of the Smithsonian fleet of museums, into a world leader in design education and appreciation.


Last year, we named him one of 2011’s Masters of Design. In that story, “Mister Moggridge Has Mad Ambition” writer Jessica Lustig wrote of Bill’s daunting task, to reconcile the museum’s historical focus on textiles and jewelry with its aspiration to be the center of a national design conversation: “The prospect of balancing these yin-yangy realities, anchored in the past but reaching toward the future, is a little like trying to remake an Edwardian costume drama as The Matrix.”

But, as the story goes on to say, nobody was better equipped for the task, and nobody doubted that if anybody could do it, it was Moggridge. As Bill himself admitted, “I don’t know about museums, but at least I know design.”

In the two years that Bill was head of the museum, he set the venerable institution well on the road to success. By 2011, Phase One of the museum’s Renovation Project was completed, with new offices and a National Design Library, and Phase Two, the renovation of the Carnegie Mansion, had begun. What’s more, he had brought his boundless energy and enthusiasm for design to the project, and it radiated out from Fifth Avenue across the city and beyond.

One of Moggridge’s highly influential books, Designing Interactions, which featured interviews with seminal thinkers in interaction design.

At Fast Company, we were honored to work with Bill and the Cooper-Hewitt as partners on a number of projects. As Fast Company editor Robert Safian recalls, “What always struck me was Bill’s broad respect for different ways of approaching challenges, his embrace of wide-open thinking and his authentic human warmth. He brought a new energy to Cooper-Hewitt, an encouragement of possibilities that opened everyone’s eyes to new opportunities.

“For someone with so many accomplishments, he was always gracious and respectful–a real model for modern leadership. Most of all, he was a natural partner to all kinds of people and organizations. He had a vision for how design could change the world and advance the arts, business, culture, education, national policy, and so many other areas. I know his example will live on for me, and within Fast Company. The power of his legacy will motivate designers and design enthusiasts for years to come.”

As part of our remembrance of Moggridge, we asked some of his colleagues and friends to share their memories of him:


The Saddest Story Ever

Several years ago, after an IDSA summit/event, Bill Moggridge told me what he called his “Saddest Story Ever.” It was during an evening out with a number of other designers–Bob Brunner, Tucker Vermeister, and Bill, of course–at a pool hall somewhere in the outskirts of Seattle.

As luck would have it, the juke box had a number of vintage Deep Purple tracks on it. I surprised everyone with my knowledge of each, owing to a misspent youth playing electric guitar, and I inserted many quarters lining them up, one after another.

This reverent tribute to English rock and roll prompted Bill to come up and, in that gentle and meaningful way that he had, put an arm around my shoulders.


“Mark,” he said, “let me tell you my ‘Saddest Story Ever.’ It’s about a choice I made many years ago–possibly my worst decision to date. You see, I was a design student at the RCA in London in the mid ’60s and I was in charge of the student mixer. I had the job of picking the band. It had come down to two bands and I chose a very popular London-based group called The Pretty Things. He looked down at the floor and I could still feel his disappointment some 40 years later.

“What happened?” I asked. Deep Purple blared from somewhere behind us. “Did they do a bad job?” I expected a story of disaster on stage.

“No, no, they were quite good,” Bill replied, “but the other band, which I didn’t choose because no one had heard of them, was made up of four skinny young guys in tight jeans who called themselves … The Rolling Stones.”


With that, he lifted his beer glass and, twinkle in his eye, clinked it against mine and toasted, “To choices! And the Saddest Story Ever!”

–Mark Dziersk, Managing Director, LUNAR

My Wild Ride with Bill

Bill Moggridge was a great designer, but also secretly a member of Monty Python. One time he drove me in his vintage ’50s GMC pickup truck from his home on the ridge above Palo Alto to the local gas station. While careening around perilous curves in the redwoods with a loose steering wheel which just barely kept us on the mountain road, and futilely pumping the apparently non-functional brakes, Bill had this absolutely wild and crazy look on his face.


We ran out of gas just before the top of the hill above the gas station. I told Bill to crank the starter with the truck in gear, which slowly lurched the truck to the top of the hill, while I flagged speeding drivers around us. As we rolled silently down into the gas station, I was sweating and white as a sheet. Bill looked over at me with a huge smile and said, “What’s the matter Mike? You can’t handle a little Sunday drive?”

–Michael McCoy, Michael McCoy Design

Little Green Triangles

He probably never knew it, but Bill was very influential to me early in my career. Back when I first started, I was a designer with a firm in Palo Alto called GVO. We thought we were doing really great work back then, but in retrospect our sphere of influence and vision was actually very Silicon Valley-centric. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, these two guys from the UK, Mike Nuttall and Bill Moggridge, showed up with this company called ID Two. And their work absolutely knocked us on our asses. Their work for Grid (the Compass) and Convergent Technology defined the design of computing hardware in a way that was light years ahead of what we were doing, and jarred us out of our provincial view of product design. It inspired me, and made me fiercely competitive. I wanted to be that good. Things were never the same after that.


My most memorable moment with Bill was a year or so later. We had left GVO and been in business a year as Lunar, and we were looking for new space for our studio. Bill and his team had this quirky space on California Avenue in Palo Alto – actually above a mortuary, believe it our not. Bill had decided to move the Studio to North Beach in San Francisco and he called me to see if we were interested in taking over the space in Palo Alto. At the time I found this surprisingly generous. We were helping him out by taking over the lease, but Lunar was in effect a competitor, and he was giving us a new space all decked out and ready to go. This was Bill, though. Not overly concerned with such matters as local competitiveness.

So Bill invited me over to the Palo Alto studio to check it out and discuss terms. We went into the conference room and had a nice chat. Nothing about the lease, but mostly about what we were doing at Lunar and what we were interested in. After I described my passion for form, material and detail, he said something really interesting. He said: “I am pretty much done with little green triangles”. I understood that he meant that he was moving on from the more traditional aspects of product design to something else. I was happy to stay in that zone, so my thought was “Great! More for me”. But what I didn’t understand at that time (circa 1985) was where he was headed. Shortly after this meeting I saw Bill speak at a conference and he described this idea of his he called “Soft Face”. This was the beginning of interaction design. I began to understand what he had left the “little green triangles” behind for. And it turned out to be something that reshaped design.

–Robert Brunner, Founder/Partner, Ammunition


A Hero Who Never Disappointed

“There’s an adage that says, “You should never get to know your heroes, you’ll only be disappointed.” Bill was my hero from my days in college in seventies to the last time I saw him — and he proved that saying wrong.

I idolized the work that came from his firm, ID Two, and was able to be in Las Vegas when his design for the Grid computer (the first laptop) launched, with a circle of people swarming it 100 people deep. That was one example of Bill’s work and his amazing career.

As we got to know each other, Bill understood how much I respected his work and he never failed to say something encouraging and positive to me, always taking time to sit down and talk at a dinner or event, time and time again.


Our community was very blessed to have had a leader, contributor and innovator like Bill. My own thinking and work will continue in his spirit. Thank you Bill, we will miss you dearly.

–Ravi Sawhney, (Hon)Ph.D, President and CEO, RKS Design

Bill Moggridge: Music Man

Around five years ago I invited Bill to give a talk at the Media Lab. It was around the time that his book on interaction design had just come out. Most people who are fans of that book would be surprised to learn that all the videos for that book were shot by Bill himself. I recalled seeing Bill a few years prior when he interviewed me for that book. I asked him where his video crew was. He said, “It’s me. And I’m also the audio person and the makeup person. So can you please lean forward so I can work on the shine on your forehead with my makeup kit?”


I never expected the co-founder of Ideo and patriarch of the design field to be such an entourageless luminary. Bill’s unexpected humility and curiosity has stuck with me ever since.

So when, prior to his talk at MIT, Bill asked a question I didn’t expect, I knew it was for a good reason. With his knightly accented English, he said, “I’ll need an extra audio feed.”

How did Bill use it? To power his own dee-jaying of background music for the various parts of his lecture. It was elegant and awesome. I’d never seen anything like it before. And I am sad that I won’t see it again. Rest in peace, Bill. We’ll keep the music going.


–John Maeda, President, Rhode Island School of Design

The Wisdom of Bill

Over the course of our many conversations and interviews, Bill said some wonderfully memorable and inspiring things to me. I thought I would share some of my favorite quotes; frankly no one–no one–spoke more eloquently and passionately about design and design’s possibilities than Bill. Thank you, dear friend.

On Design:
“I don’t think that anyone has really told (people) what design is. It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed–that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed. Even foods are designed now. So in the process of helping people understand this, making them more aware of the fact that the world around us is something that somebody has control of, perhaps they can feel some sense of control, too. I think that’s a nice ambition.”

On People:
“I’m interested in why people like things and what gives them long-term rewards, what gives them pleasure, what excites them. Ultimately, it is about the effect that design has on anybody or somebody.”

On Technology:
“It’s interesting that as so many things change around us, the evolution of technologies and social relationships and so on seem to change so fast. But that principle, start with people, you can rely on it.”

On Globalization:
“Globalization has shown us the effect of industrialization on the world is a planetary affair. We can’t just think about designing materials, we have to include the entire planet.”

On His Work:
“If there is a simple, easy principle that binds everything I have done together, it is my interest in people and their relationship to things.”

–Debbie Millman, President, Design Group, Sterling Brands

A Random Sampling of My Great Memories of Bill

There are just so many of them.

Saturday morning, when he walked into the graduate degree program at the Royal College of Art, saw me standing there and started quizzing me about my work. I don’t know that I did a very good job of defending it, but he somehow saw beyond that and ended up hiring me.

Or being in downtown Detroit one night and going to get dinner after a workshop and he spotted this interesting looking abandoned factory and hopped over the fence to go exploring it, leaving the rest of us wondering if we’d ever see him again.

Or this magical ability he had to synthesize a long day’s conversation in a workshop, often in places like Tokyo, where people didn’t really understand all that had been said, but he would draw it all out immaculately, make wonderful notes, and at the end of the day we’d all know exactly what we were doing.

Or this amazing spirit and interest he had in the human being and what made human beings tick and how that drove him to make the amazing contributions to design that he did. It also led him to introduce human factors into design, and develop a human-centered design process, and, of course, coin the term interaction design.

Or all the great beach parties we went to on the California coast, at San Gregorio Beach, where we all had to wade through this freezing water, wondering why we were doing it, but knowing that when we got to the other side, we’d have some of Bill and Karen’s wonderful soup. And we’d spend the day celebrating that we lived in this wonderful part of the world and watching the waves and enjoying the beach.

–Tim Brown, president, Ideo

The Immortal “Willie”

Bill was such a giant. It just doesn’t seem right that he’s no longer with us. The description that comes most immediately to mind is “gentleman,” in every good sense of that word. Mike McCoy has been known to claim that Bill changed the design world three times, and that was before he went to the Cooper-Hewitt. Alas, Bill was doing great things there as well, but he won’t be here to see the fruits of his labor.

I’m sure lots of people will have things to say about Bill’s many great contributions. Perhaps less well known was Bill’s early life in Kent working in the summer as a field hand. I love the image of him working in the hops fields. He told me the “lifers” he worked with called him “Willie,” modified by a not-so-flattering adjective that I won’t repeat here. It’s hard to put that together with the great design leader and gentleman that I knew.

I also think of Bill’s relationship with Eric, his son, the heavy metal guitarist with the long red beard and the Doc Martens. Eric went in a direction that couldn’t be more different from Bill’s, but Bill was always so supportive and so proud of him. I remember the time that Bill couldn’t wait to play Eric’s latest CD for me. He was also quick to praise the latest exploits of his other son, Alex, the actor.

Finally, perhaps most remarkable, was one of the things Bill said to me close to the end. I told Bill that he had always seemed immortal to me. Bill, with his wry sense of humor to the end, said “Steve, I sincerely hope that your perception is accurate.” Well, anyway, Bill will always be immortal to me.

My thoughts are with Bill’s wonderful wife, Karin, and his son’s Eric and Alex. I haven’t met Alex but I feel like I know him from hearing Bill sing his praises.

–Steve Wilcox, Founder, Design Science

His Health was Failing, but the Twinkle Never Stopped

Even at the end of his career, Bill Moggridge’s curiosity and joy with design inspired his lateral thinking, and allowed him to engage familiar problems with new solutions. At the last meeting I had with him for the redesign of Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, even as his health was challenged, he had this great insight into communicating design to our visitors. “Everything is designed,” he said, but communicating that can be about what’s not obvious. “Objects seen as visual can often act on another level. There is the sound of the espresso cup, the sound of cars, the smell and feel of designed things that can add to their value.” In a room filled with top designers, it took Bill to make us stop and think about how design engages all five senses. Even at the end of his life, that twinkle in his eye still drove him to be creative and to engage the world.

–Jake Barton, Principal, Localprojects

Bill: Willing to Make Your Head Hurt for the Sake of Better Design

I was very sad to hear of Bill’s passing. I worked closely with Bill when he chaired the ICSID / IDSA (International Congress of Societies of Industrial Design / Industrial Designers Society of America) World Design Congress in San Francisco in 2007 and I was the temporary Executive Director of IDSA, the event’s sponsor. It was reported to be the largest gathering of industrial designers ever, including people from design organizations, academics, practitioners, and experts from around the world. Bill was quoted, “We are planning the design event of a lifetime. I promise you a program that will be lively and fun, as well as make your head hurt some of the time.” It lived up to Bill’s expectations.

–Cooper C. Woodring, FIDSA

Design Thinking at Work at the Cooper-Hewitt

Bill arrived at Cooper-Hewitt in the midst of phase one of our renovation – the conversion of two townhouses on 90th Street into the new National Design Library, improved facilities for our MA Program, and a true hub for staff. It would be the first time our history that everyone was working in the same location. Bill had very clear ideas about how the work spaces should function to create more collaboration and conversation across our departments, which, like most organizations, tended to be very siloed. The move to the townhouses also saw a shift to open plan seating, a revolutionary move for Cooper-Hewitt. Great care went into the design of every element, from the tech to the furniture, and staff participated in fieldtrips to the Steelcase showroom to test drive various furniture options.

In this new space, Bill was the driving force behind a new centralized project planning area on the fourth floor, which invited people to engage in planned and spontaneous discourse. He strategically located everyone’s mailboxes there to create unexpected moments of collaboration and collegiality. And of course it had all the critical equipment – massive white board, colorful markers and loads of post-it notes — to enable great design thinking.

Karin Moggridge donated most of Bill’s books to Cooper-Hewitt, and we plan to construct a lending library for staff in this fourth floor area. Bill’s books will inspire us while celebrating Bill simultaneously. A stamp has been designed that will be added to each book citing Bill’s ownership and tenure at Cooper-Hewitt.

–Caroline Baumann, Associate Director, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Park-gazing with Bill

My fondest memories of Bill have to do with sharing the wonder that is New York City. When I left the Bay Area in 2007, I was sorry to have to give up a great design community there, and sad that I’d lose contact with Bill, who was such central part of it. Shortly afterwards, it was an amazing surprise to discover that he and Karin would be moving to NYC, and I relished the thought of introducing him to the hidden and not-so-hidden secrets of my home town. In his typical adventurous way, Bill dove head-first into his new surroundings, taking lengthy walks and expansive bike rides through neighborhoods in all boroughs. (He knew the bike routes in the Bronx better than I did –how was that possible!?)

When it came to New York, we shared a particular passion for Central Park. For me, it was a playground of memories from my urban childhood weekend afternoons. For him, it was a new backyard, full of places to explore. When I visited their Central Park West apartment, Bill and I would stare out the window, taking in the lush greenery, and marveling at the skyscrapers peering up past the trees.

When I learned about Bill’s battle with cancer, I looked for something that would be an appropriate present. Rather than deliver a “get well” bouquet or some kind of “sorry you’re sick” gesture, I wanted to find something that would have a “Get back out there in your park!” message. I got him a giant umbrella from Myxplyzyk with a chunky, orange rubber handle, knowing that as a designer he would implicitly get the intention of gift– It was a talisman to thwart unwanted elements. He emerged valiant after his first cancer treatments and was back to his park walks, and every time I saw him about town in the rain, he would point at his trusty umbrella and give me a nod and a smile.

One day this past summer I biked uptown and stopped by Bill and Karin’s for an afternoon visit. It was one of those bizarre, balmy days where the sky opened suddenly with an unexpected deluge of heavy rain, so I overstayed my welcome a bit just chatting and waiting for the weather to let up. When the rain had stopped, we all turned our heads out the window to assess the state of things outside and saw this spectacular rainbow forming a semicircular frame over our beloved park. I felt so lucky to be there sharing such an extraordinary moment with them.

I had no idea that this was actually the last time I would see Bill, but I’m sad to say that it was. He will be sorely missed, but I take solace in the belief that our Central Park will always be there, and in my mind, it will be punctuated by that amazing rainbow and the brilliant memory of a dear friend and inspiring mentor.

–Carla Diana, SMART DESIGN


About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.