Brain Pickings

Bill Moggridge, Designer of the First Laptop, on Human-Centered Design

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“It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed — that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed.”

Legendary British industrial designer and educator Bill Moggridge, who championed interaction design, co-founded IDEO, served as Director the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and designed the very first laptop, and whom we lost last fall, would’ve been 70 today. In Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (public library) — the same compendium of fascinating interviews on life in a material world with such celebrated thinkers as Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, and Wally OlinsDebbie Millman sat down with Moggridge in 2010 to peel the curtain on the extraordinary mind that heralded the modern movement of human-centered design and brought into focus the relationship between people and objects.

Of his fascination with what people want from everyday things, Moggridge says:

If there is a simple, easy principle that binds together everything I’ve done, it’s my interest in people and their relationship to things. … I’m interested in why people like things, and what gives them a feeling of long-term reward, what gives them pleasure, and what excites them. Ultimately, my interest centers on the effect that design has on someone.

Brands, Moggridge argues, are the vehicle for precisely those relationships:

DM: Why do you think people like certain brands or certain things? What is the primary reason someone will choose one thing over another?

BM: I think you build a relationship with something that you know and use. At the moment you buy it, you may not be quite certain about it. But as you get to know it better, if your relationship gets better, then you enjoy it more. You may not notice the change, but after a time, a sort of satisfactory relationship between you and that thing emerges. That is the foundation for a brand relationship.

More than a mere relationship, however, Moggridge sees the brand as a sensemaking and navigation tool that eases our cognitive load amidst the paradox of choice that is modern life:

DM: I recently read that the average supermarket has about thirty-five thousand different products in it, and that— believe it or not— there are over one hundred brands of nationally advertised water.

BM: When you do a Google search, it’s very tempting to go for the “I’m feeling lucky” option, so you get the single page that comes up. Similarly, the brand is the thing that allows you to recognize that particular kind of water that you had before, and that you probably don’t mind having again.

So it simplifies your relationship to this confusing morass of possibilities. And although I wish that water wasn’t bottled, the fact that there’s a choice of brand helps us get through that confusion.

Turning to the heart of his philosophy, Moggridge defines what he means by “human-centered design”:

If you think of innovation as being depicted by a Venn diagram, human- centered design is the overlap between technology, business, and people. If you look at people who are going to business schools, they tend to start with a business proposition, but in order to innovate successfully, they have to find the right technology and the right customers. If you look at people in science and technology, they tend to start with a new technology, which is true of many Silicon Valley companies. Then they go to a venture capitalist and try to get some money, and they think about what kind of customer is right for the product. We were interested in the “people first” point of view.

In fact, one of the greatest affronts to the social value of design is the solipsism with which many of its practitioners approach it, placing ego over empathy:

[A]s designers and engineers in general, we’re guilty of designing for ourselves too often. One of the things that we have to be careful to remember is the very simple principle that not everybody is like us. For example, if you’re designing something like a chair, you’re not going to design the height of the seat only for the average person, are you? You’re going to design it for an adjustment, so that it can accommodate the smallest person that might sit in it, or the tallest, as well as the heaviest person and the lightest person. So, we’re always looking at a range that accommodates extremes, and for that reason, looking at the extremes is usually very useful.

One of Moggridge’s most timeless and timely insights has to do with that peculiar way in which new technology can flounder, only to flourish once reintroduced at a later time — proof that “successful innovation requires the meeting of the right people at the right place with just the right problem.” He observes:

This is often the case with new technologies. They seem as if they’re about to work, and somebody creates an experimental version that looks great. But then nothing happens. And then the right time comes along, and the right set of attributes come together, and suddenly the new technology flourishes.

Among Moggridge’s greatest accomplishments, however, is his remarkable legacy as an educator and the persistence with which he invited the general public to understand the profound value of design as a cross-pollinator of art, science, and everyday life. He tells Millman:

The important characteristic of design is that it creates a bridge between the sciences and the arts. People understand the necessity of education for the sciences, and there is a renewed movement to bring that back into education. They understand something about the arts. But I don’t think many people understand the power of design to join these two things together. Why do you think that there is such a barrier to the public’s understanding of design? I don’t think that anyone has really told them 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. That’s a nice ambition.

At the crux of interaction design, which Moggridge helped pioneer, lies a deep understanding how necessary cross-disciplinary collaboration is to innovation and creative progress. Moggridge reflects on the crucial role of leadership in fostering that:

I’d like everyone to have the mind-set that whenever you have a challenging, seemingly intractable problem, then you need to solve that problem with an interdisciplinary team. No individual can succeed alone. In order to help business leaders succeed, we need to put together those interdisciplinary teams, and they need to use design processes. We can help explain that and help make leadership aware of it.

Referencing Moggridge’s oft-cited assertion from his groundbreaking Design Interactions“What makes humans special first and foremost is that we can model the world, and we can predict the future. Then we can imagine the future.” — Millman inquires about his own vision for the future, to which he responds with a beautiful model for design’s concentric circles of cultural relevance:

I think the context of design is changing and expanding. And you can think of that in three concentric circles.

Think of the inside circle as the individual. The second circle is the built environment, and the one around that is the overall, holistic environment. Each concentric circle is changing and moving in a design context that is itself expanding.

In the past, we thought about designing things for the circle at the center. So your PDA, for example, is something that you use as an individual.

The slightly more expansive context is to think about the health and well-being of the individual, rather than the specific things the individual uses. This more comprehensive view requires broader thinking about people. Rather than thinking about the things in isolation, we’re thinking about the whole person.

Similarly, when you think about the built environment, we historically have thought about architecture. But as we move towards an expanding context for design, we find that we’re thinking more about social interactions and innovations as well as buildings. It’s not that one is replacing the other — it’s that the context is simply expanding. Now we’re thinking about social connections as well as the built environment we’re living in.

And then when we think about the larger circle, sustainability is the big issue. In the past, we thought of sustainability as being about materials: choosing the best material and designing for disassembly. But now it’s absolutely clear that a sustainable planet is one that’s completely connected.

Globalization has shown us that the effect of industrialization on the world is of planetary concern. We can’t just think about designing materials, we have to include a consideration of the entire planet. And that, again, is an expansion of context.

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, the follow-up to the equally fantastic 2007 anthology How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, is indispensable in its entirety. Pair it with Moggridge on design, knowledge, and human intelligence and his fantastic final book, Designing Media.

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