Bill Moggridge, a British-born industrial designer and educator who set the standard for laptop design three decades ago when he developed a clamshell case with a hinged lid that folded over the keyboard, died of cancer Saturday in San Francisco. He was 69.
His death was announced by the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, which he had directed since 2010.
In the late 1970s, when Moggridge left his native London to launch a Silicon Valley design firm, portable computers were more theory than reality. The smallest computer was the size of a sewing machine and about as easy to carry.
In 1979 a Silicon Valley entrepreneur named John Ellenby invited Moggridge to help him develop a truly portable computer. The result was the GRiD Compass, a machine that, at eight pounds, was much lighter than desktop models. Its most ingenious feature was its hinged construction, which allowed the computer to be folded up inside a briefcase.
The price tag exceeded $8,000, beyond the reach of the average consumer. But it was adopted by government agencies such as NASA, which in 1983 put the Compass on the first of many space shuttle missions.
Moggridge's influence extended beyond the aesthetics of laptops. He founded a field he called interaction design, which emphasizes the centrality of human experience in developing computer software and hardware.
"I don't think Bill ever found a technology he was not fascinated with, but it was not the fascination of a techie," Tim Brown, president and chief executive of IDEO, the Palo Alto-based international innovation and design firm co-founded in 1991 by Moggridge, said Monday. "He approached every technology with a lovely naivete.… He was never interested in technology for technology's sake but only in what it could do to help people have more interesting lives."
Moggridge's views about the user experience began to form when he took home a prototype of the Compass laptop in 1981.
"For the first five minutes I was still proud of all the work I had been doing for a year and a half, thinking how valuable it was that I had created the physical form, with a nice looking display that folded over the keyboard," he told Smithsonian magazine last year.
His delight faded once he discovered how unfriendly the software was. The machine ran on a clunky DOS-based operating system that required the user to enter a series of incomprehensible commands to execute the simplest task. "That's when I realized the significance of human-computer interaction," he said.
He decided that designers needed to change their focus to think about shaping not only a physical object but people's experiences or interactions with it, the theme of his 2007 book "Designing Interactions."
Moggridge "had the intuition that this software stuff was what people were going to care about," said David Kelley, founder of Stanford University's Institute of Design. "He thought designers should be involved in any human-machine interface. He pioneered that idea and it changed the profession."
The son of an artist and a civil servant, Moggridge was born in London on June 25, 1943, and studied industrial design at the Central School of Art and Design.
He established his own firm in London in 1969 and became a successful designer of toasters, refrigerators and other appliances. In 1979, recognizing that high-tech design was the new wave, he moved to California and set up an office in Palo Alto.
In 1991 he joined Kelley and British designer Mike Nuttall in launching IDEO, which has created designs for companies such as Procter & Gamble, Apple and Microsoft.
Moggridge, who taught design at Stanford and the Royal College of Art in London, became director of Cooper-Hewitt in 2010 when it was in the midst of a major capital improvement program. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian's under secretary for history, art and culture, said in a statement that Moggridge increased attendance and digital access to collections, oversaw the renovation of the museum's two townhouses and developed its new National Design Library.
His survivors include his wife of 47 years, Karin, and sons Alex and Erik.
Despite his immersion in the digital world, Moggridge was a people magnet whose love for what Brown called "the humorous side of humanity" was evident in his extensive collection of Japanese plastic food. Brown said Moggridge was fascinated that anyone would work so hard to make a fake object look so real.
"I've always been interested in trying to understand people," Moggridge once said in a lecture. "I think that's part of design."