One of the great product designers of our generation passed away earlier this month. Bill Moggridge was the designer of the GRID computer (the first true laptop with a "clamshell" design), the founder of both ID Two and IDEO, and most recently, the director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. Bill was an icon in the design world and will be greatly missed. He was also my thesis advisor when I was a Product Design student at Stanford University and his teaching and guidance changed my life.
I would like to share one Bill Moggridge story with you.
This particular story involved the written proposal for my product design Master's thesis in which I identified a need in the marketplace and outlined the project that I intended to pursue to address this need. My project was to be a computerized device to help stroke patients recover their lost bilateral perception. I worked closely with rehabilitation specialists at a local hospital, and felt that I had a very worthwhile and exciting idea. This was the 1980's and microprocessors were just starting to come on the market. I felt that by using this new technology, I could invent a novel approach to stroke rehabilitation.
I collected my data and wrote up my idea. The culmination of the semester's work would be the written proposal submitted to my thesis advisor, Bill Moggridge. I knew that Bill had very high standards for design, so I went to great lengths to make my proposal stand out. I purchased a new ribbon for my electric typewriter (yes, this was way back then…), and purchased a box of the most expensive vellum typing paper at the school bookstore. I typed up my proposal – letter perfect – and then took the extra step of having the entire document professionally bound at a local print shop. All in all, I felt that the proposal was both well researched and beautifully presented — a sure winner in anybody's eyes.
I submitted the proposal on time to Bill and anxiously awaited its review and the anticipated praise. The proposals were returned to us at the end of the semester, and mine had a single short comment penned on the cover. It read, "Good content, ratty presentation."
What did this mean! He must have mixed up my work with someone else's and mistakenly wrote that comment on mine. I made an appointment to see him in his office as soon as I could.
When we met, I couldn't contain myself. "What do you mean by 'ratty presentation'. I bought the best quality vellum, a new typewriter ribbon, and retyped any page that had an error instead of using white-out. And I had it professionally bound!
Bill looked at me and smiled. "Why did you pick that ugly font," he asked. "And that paper looks like you bought it in a local stationery store. Why didn't you use an offset printer to prepare this? Do you really think this looks like the work of a designer?"
I was flabbergasted. "Why would I go to an offset printer? Nobody would do that for a school paper. That would be above and beyond consideration, not to mention expensive. And my typewriter only comes with one font — the keys are attached…"
Bill smiled again.
"So this is the best you can possibly do?" he asked. "What if your life depended on it?" Is this really the best you could do if everything hung in the balance?"
I left his office both downcast and thinking. No, if my life depended on it, I could do better. I could have had it offset printed and thought more about the font choice and design presentation on the page. But this was just a paper for school. I didn't even think in terms of offset printing and the like. And yet…
It was only later that I realized the crucial lesson that Bill had taught me. Yes, you can do better. You have a choice: you can be pretty much like everyone else – maybe toward the top end – or you could go above and beyond. You could strive for a level that was outside the norm – a level that was not required or absolutely necessary, but would place you in a whole different class; a level that would be truly extraordinary; a level you would strive for if your life depended on it.
It's been 30 years since that encounter. And of the many things I learned in graduate school, that lesson stands out. Bill taught me something incredibly important that I can honestly say was a key to success in all of my professional endeavors. His question became my touchstone for every challenge and project. Is this really the best that I could possibly do?