Obituary: William Moggridge / Designed first laptop computer

June 25, 1943 - Sept. 8, 2012


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Just after he had presciently opened a product design business in Silicon Valley in 1979, William Moggridge was hired by a startup firm, Grid Systems, to design a new type of computer -- one that could fit into a briefcase.

Mr. Moggridge's ingenious solution was a clamshell case, roughly 15 by 12 inches, which popped open to reveal a luminous screen on top that folded over the keyboard on bottom. The Compass, as this groundbreaking laptop was called, went on sale for about $8,000. Although the price was too high for the average consumer, the Compass was popular with the military and made trips aboard the space shuttle starting in 1983.

Mr. Moggridge, who died Saturday at 69, was not only the designer of that first laptop; he is also widely viewed as a father of the field of interaction design, a discipline that focuses on improving the human experience of digital products.

He advanced this field through IDEO, the influential product design firm he co-founded, and, most recently, as director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City.

Mr. Moggridge died at a hospice in San Francisco. The cause was cancer, said Jennifer Northrop, a spokeswoman for the museum.

Several portable computers had been built before technological advances allowed Grid to try to create a computer that could be easily toted around. Mr. Moggridge had designed one the size of a sewing machine in 1972, but it was never built. He got the work with Grid after a chance encounter with its founder, John Ellenby, an engineer, who was sitting on the steps of a neighbor's house waiting for the neighbor to come home.

In his book "Designing Interactions" (2006), Mr. Moggridge wrote: "I had the experience of a lifetime developing a design that was innovative in so many ways. I developed the way that the screen was hinged to fold down over the keyboard for carrying. This geometry accounted for only one of the 43 innovative features in the utility patent that we were awarded."

In fact, almost every laptop since has used some form of Mr. Moggridge's design. Mr. Moggridge's name is on the patent, but the rights to the patent were assigned to the client. Grid was bought by the Tandy Corp. in 1988.

Mr. Moggridge would later say that when he tested the prototype in 1981 it was the first time he had used a computer, and that it was the software, not the box, that captivated him. It opened his mind to the idea that for the rising digital era, design could be more than merely creating beautiful, utilitarian objects but could also be about the user's experience.

In 1991, Mr. Moggridge merged his own design firm with those owned by David Kelley, a Stanford professor, and Mike Nuttall, another British designer, to form IDEO. That company gained international renown by creating forms for technology as well as products ranging from portable heart defibrillators to the Palm V, a sleek hand-held personal digital assistant. IDEO's clients over the years included Procter & Gamble, Apple, Microsoft and Eli Lilly.

At IDEO, Mr. Moggridge also began writing and teaching to advocate the importance of humane design in everyday life, and broadening the services the firm would provide. In addition to products, IDEO branched into, for example, designing environments like the lobbies in Courtyard by Marriott hotels.

Mr. Moggridge took the helm of the Cooper Hewitt design museum in 2010, only a year after it awarded him a lifetime achievement award. Soon after, he also won the Prince Philip Designers Prize, Britain's most prestigious design award.

William Grant Moggridge was born in London on June 25, 1943, to Helen and Henry Weston Moggridge. His mother was an artist and his father was a civil servant. He studied industrial design at the Central St. Martins College of Art and Design (formerly Central School of Design) in London and founded Moggridge and Associates there in 1969. He opened a new design firm called ID Two in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1979.

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