Remembering Bill Moggridge

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Bill Moggridge at CIID

Bill Moggridge, director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, has died. He was 69.

Moggridge, who designed the first laptop computer and was the co-founder of the design firm IDEO, was an enormously influential figure in the worlds of design and technology, beloved by all who knew him. In fact, what’s most noticeable about the legions of tributes that have poured forth since the announcement of his death, on Saturday evening, is that pretty much anyone who ever met him thought of him as a friend.

I know I did, and I was only fortunate enough to know Bill in the latter part of his life, when he moved on from pioneering the interaction design field to becoming a fervent advocate of the power of design to make a difference in the lives of all. I first spotted him looming over the proceedings of Connecting ’07, a conference he curated for the Industrial Designers Society of America in San Francisco in 2007. A beaming giant of a man, Bill managed the event with obvious paternal pride for every speaker, quietly and gently introducing every one with a grace, humility and generosity of spirit that entirely downplayed his own status and influence.

So it always was with Bill, who later moved from San Francisco to New York to act as the director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Almost immediately, he made his presence felt on the city’s design scene, clearly reveling in the discussion prompted by the industry he loved so much. I remember appearing on a panel with him to discuss “design thinking,” the much-debated, often-disparaged focus of so much attention in the press in recent years. As the other panelists and I flapped around the topic, adding noise but little substance, Bill cut through it—and us—all by beautifully pinpointing precisely why design matters and why anyone connected with the field should rejoice in its increased stature in the world at large. I don’t remember precisely what he said, but I do remember marveling at his insight and his gracious, witty and utterly lucid way of laying out the facts of the matter. “We are all not worthy,” I thought at the time. Typically, when I told him as much after the event, he brushed aside the compliment with his usual humility. He may have lived in the United States for many years, but nothing could make Bill anything less than a true British gent.

I last saw him at the opening for the Graphic Design—Now in Production show, held on Governors Island in New York. It was a perfect evening, with a jazz band playing as guests drank wine and frolicked on the man-made beach as the sun set behind Manhattan. Bill was there with his family and we sat together at a picnic table, quietly taking in the scene, burrowing our bare feet into the sand and rejoicing at the small, delightful things in life. He was clearly so proud of the installation that all these people had come to see, so happy to be guiding the Cooper-Hewitt in a bold new direction. The mischievous twinkle in his eye, that this whole life business was so exciting and brilliant and full of opportunity, was there in full force. I can’t believe that was the last time I got to see him.

Bill Moggridge was a powerhouse of grace, kindness and generosity. I feel self-conscious for writing an obituary of him when so many others knew him so much better than I did. But I think he’d have loved the fact that everyone who met him loved to call him a friend. He will certainly be missed by all. Rest in peace, Bill, and sincere condolences to his family.

Photo: Bill Moggridge giving an open lecture at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, June 2010. Mayo Nissen / CC BY-NC 2.0