Seven Habits of a Design Mastermind: What I Learned Working for Bill Moggridge

I worked with Bill Moggridge at the Cooper Hewitt Museum for the final two years of his life. Bill had left IDEO — the colorful & globally-adored design consultancy he co-founded — to become director of the museum around 2010. I was low on the ladder, an AV tech who worked my way up to content design and UX (thanks to Bill’s re-org of the museum and hiring of digital crusader Seb Chan).

Bill was a hero to designers, businesspeople and bureaucrats alike. He was an accomplished industrial designer, co-founder of a groundbreaking company, author of definitive books, and a founding father of interaction design and UX — professional areas whose importance and popularity have grown exponentially in the last decade.

His claim to fame as an industrial designer was that he designed the GRiD Compass, the world’s first laptop.

Mogg in 2008 at the Creative Company Conference. Photo by ter-burg on Flickr cc-by-sa/2.0

Perhaps more impressive than any of these achievements is that I’ve never heard anyone say a single negative thing about Bill. I’ve never met anyone so widely adored. (Don't take my word for it, see IDEO’s crowdsourced digital eulogy for proof). Bill proved that it is possible to be globally influential without making enemies or burning bridges.

With the 3rd anniversary of his premature death now approaching, I've had enough time to let Bill’s lessons sink in, and I wanted to share the best of them.

1. Go Slowly

My mom was a corporate exec for decades. (Bear with me, this relates.) When I was telling her about my new museum job with a new director from a fancy consulting background, she listened to the whole story. After taking it all in, she concluded, “Well, he’ll probably start by trimming the fat. Get ready to see a lot of people fired.”

Weeks went by, and then weeks became months. Nobody was fired. My MBA mom was usually pretty good at predicting organizational behavior, so I was surprised to see the staff roster basically untouched (the only change was Seb’s hire).

I was waiting for the Santa-esque Brit to hold some kind of epic all-staff meeting, to produce some sweeping manifesto of change, or at the very least for a few fireworks to explode behind closed conference room doors.

I slowly realized that there wasn’t any dynamite hidden in the conference rooms. Bill was a builder, not a demolitionist.

Bill’s technique was slow, incremental, friendly. He extended his hand to everybody in the organization. Though he never declared it aloud, his actions demonstrated his belief that people could change, organizations could change, and that old patterns could be replaced with new ones. He had the patience and the skill to cultivate this habit shift. He wasn’t in a rush to show the outside world that the museum was making change. Bill was slow, and he showed me (when I was 25 and quite impatient) that slow can be smart.

2. Be Available

Bill spent a lot of effort making it clear that he was always available to talk. His assistant (whom he had inherited from his predecessor, and did not fire, but befriended) told me one day when I (very timidly) requested his time, “You know, I’m not some yappy guard dog here to scare people away. Bill wants to make time for anybody who’d like to meet with him.” This was my first office job, mind you, so I didn’t fully appreciate what a gift this was.

His assistant had instructions to invite, not to shoo. His door was always open. If he saw you poking near his door, he’d call you straight in or simply wave, genuinely, like a doting grandpa. Whenever we spoke 1-on-1, he ended the meeting by reminding me that I was always welcome to come back and chat again, no reservation required.

A lot of management books advise bosses who desire openness and collaboration to prop their door, so much that it’s become a cliché.

An open door is meaningless if the person behind it is closed.

Bill understood that it wasn’t enough to be friendly, that he also had to actively remind and reassure people that he enjoyed chatting. Bill opened his door, yes, but he also opened himself.

Bill often invited people to go places with him, just casually. To nearby museum exhibitions, to panel talks, or to simply walk together on the way to the train. A little goes a long way.

3. Use Your Feet as Your Outbox

If you sent an email to Bill, he’d be likely to show up at your desk to verbally deliver his reply. How simple, and how wonderful. An opportunity to be humans with each other.

I tried this a few times myself, and it always made me feel really good. I saw my colleagues face-to-face. We could physically smile at each other and remember that we’re both humans. I would bump into other colleagues en route and suddenly remember stuff I had to say or share with them.

There’s something about e-mail that just sucks. It’s a tense medium. The most innocuous sentiment can be misinterpreted as rude, picky, or any number of negative things. Delivering your replies in person is a wonderful way to make the office more humane.

4. Be Lighthearted

At the occasional staff party, Bill wrote songs about office life and sang them, poorly. He made goofy costumes for senior managers. He generally had a big laugh at himself and invited us to join. Museums in New York tend to take themselves quite seriously, so this was a major tone shift for us.

5. Pass the Mic

Bill wrote two books, Designing Interactions and Designing Media. Most of the space in these books is dedicated to interviews with other people. Bill’s beliefs and sensibilities do come through in his choices and commentary, but he basically gave the floor away.

Designing Interactions book cover. Photo by doos on Flickr cc-by/2.0

He developed a series of talks at the museum called Bill’s Design Talks. This too was dedicated to putting others in the spotlight. His questions were brief, simple and gentle. No gotchas, no gossip, no showing off.

In meetings, Bill was very quiet. He rarely shared his own opinion. This was funny, because a lot of pitches and proposals went around talking about “Bill’s vision” this and that. I remember scratching my head trying to figure out what the heck “Bill’s vision” could possibly be, because he was so damn quiet all the time, letting everyone else talk!

I sometimes felt frustrated because I really wanted to know what Bill thought. I recognize now that this was a somewhat of a lazy impulse.

I wanted Bill to give us easy answers. He wanted us to arrive at the answers collectively.

Bill said in interviews that he believed the group mind was more powerful than the individual mind. I can tell you that he didn’t just believe that, he lived it.

6. No Jargon

Bill almost never used jargon, acronyms, or fancy language. His books are refreshingly plain in their writing. When he did talk shop, he’d usually define the terms on the spot. And with a chuckle to let you know that no, you’re not a dummy for not knowing.

7. Point to History, Not Taste

Bill had a deep library covering art and design history, as well as business, management and more. He could cite historical examples and case studies with ease.

He never dropped knowledge on your head, but rather passed it sideways like he was slipping you an interesting treasure.

Here’s an example: In 2012 I was tasked with creating interstitial animations for the National Design Awards gala. I shared my work with senior managers for feedback.

Instead of saying “I think these bubbles would look better with a bounce effect,” Bill suggested I borrow his book about Disney’s principles of animation. He said, “the pros like to put a little wobble and a squish at the end of a motion to make it seem more lifelike — you ought to read the book, you’d enjoy it.”

The squash-and-stretch principle used by professional animators

And with that simple twist, a potentially annoying and disheartening piece of feedback was re-framed as an opportunity for me to deepen my knowledge base and learn from history’s best examples.

Working for Bill, though brief, was an eye-opening and very lucky moment in my life. Bill strongly believed in sharing and learning from others. I hope that by sharing what I learned and observed, I can extend the ripple effect of positivity he had on everyone around him.

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