Brain Pickings

Design, Knowledge, and Human Intelligence: RIP Bill Moggridge, Designer of the First Laptop

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“You can’t really, truly expect to explain design unless you explain intelligence.”

Sad days for the design world: We’ve lost Bill Moggridge (1943-2012) — visionary pioneer, designer of the world’s first laptop, director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and one infinitely kind man. No attempt to capture the full scope of his legacy and cultural imprint would be remotely adequate, but revisiting his inimitable insight into the essence, purpose, and sociocultural capacity of design is a poignant reminder of just what we’ve lost with his passing — and how much we’ve gained through his timeless wisdom.

In 2007, shortly after the publication of his now-iconic Designing Interactions, Moggridge gave an interview for Ambidextrous Magazine, in which he articulates with his signature blend of insight and irreverence some of the most critical issues that still keep design a culturally misunderstood discipline and design education a broken model.

One of the paradoxes Moggridge addresses is that of the usefulness of “useless” knowledge and the fetishizing of factual knowledge:

[Academia is] all about explicit knowledge. And design, by definition — along with the other arts like poetry or writing — is mostly not so explicit. It’s mostly tacit knowledge. It has to do with people’s intuitions and harnessing the subconscious part of the mind rather than just the conscious. And the result is if you try and couch the respectability of a professor or some form of research grant in terms that are normal for science, then it looks very weak. And so you have to have a different attitude, really, in order to see the strength that it could offer or the value that it could offer. And that’s a big difficulty both in academia and in terms of foundations.

[…]

If you think about the structure of the mind, there just seems to be a small amount that is above the water—equivalent to an iceberg—which is the explicit part…And most academic subjects are designed to live in that explicit part that sticks out of the water. If you can find a way to harness, towards a productive goal, the rest of it, the subconscious [understanding], the tacit knowledge, the behavior — just doing it and the intuition — all those, then you can bring in the rest of the iceberg. And that is hugely valuable.

NASA astronaut using the first notebook computer, Moggridge's GRiD Compass, on a space shuttle flight.

Moggridge draws a fascinating parallel between design and science, echoing the idea that intuition is essential to both scientific discovery and creativity:

Every scientist is an intuitive person, and most ‘ahas’ come from intuition anyway. And we all know that we fall in love with things and that we’re interested in subjective qualitative values. It’s just whether you recognize it as having something that you can use in a respective environment or a respectable sense.

Ultimately, and perhaps precisely because it requires this kind of abstract knowledge and combinatorial creativity, Moggridge frames design as a form of intelligence:

I really don’t think you’re going to understand design and art until you understand intelligence [and how the brain works]. So you can dent it, you can sort of make things so there are interesting insights and will help people, and you can explain process, but you can’t really, truly expect to explain design unless you explain intelligence.

He leaves us with a seemingly simple but infinitely important reminder, wrapped in a hope for better design writing and education:

So few people seem to realize that everything’s designed. And until we get some good people telling the story, that’s probably going to continue to be the case. So I’d love it if there was a consciousness in the public mind that mathematics and reading and writing is not enough — you also need to learn how to do design. Because everything is designed, and the way our world exists around us depends on how well it’s designed.

Fortunately, we’ve had some really good people telling design’s story. But what tragedy to lose one of the best of them — Bill Moggridge, you will be missed.

In 2010, Moggridge followed up with Designing Media — a modern treasure.

Images via Smithsonian courtesy IDEO, Associated Press

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