Talking to Power

Talking to Power

Three weeks into his tenure as the new director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Bill Moggridge sat down with design consultant Chee Pearlman to discuss his plan for transforming the local landmark museum into a national force in the service of design. As co-founder (with David Kelley and Mike Nuttall) of IDEO, the radical innovation consultancy, Moggridge brings to the job a different expertise than previous directors at a time when the institution is undergoing a major renovation that will close the Carnegie Mansion for up to two years while an overall restoration and addition of a new 7,000-square-foot gallery is completed.


Chee Pearlman: You are a guru of design and famous interaction pioneer who designed Grid Compass, the first laptop computer, in 1979. Why do you think you were the one chosen to be director of the Cooper-Hewitt?

Bill Moggridge: For me, it seemed a natural step. And it’s all thanks to David [Kelley], whose idea it was to bring in Tim Brown as CEO of IDEO so that all the founders, including myself, could follow our own individual desires and interests. David did Stanford; Mike [Nuttall] became a long-distance runner, and I started telling more stories about design. And once I got really involved in communication and trying to explain design to a broad audience, the notion of moving from an IDEO platform to a national platform was immediately very exciting to me.

What was the mandate of the job that the Smithsonian presented and what is it that you want to accomplish?

The interesting thing is how the search committee expanded on their strategic mandate from the initial description of the director’s role that was presented to me. Of course, the priority was the museum itself and putting on exhibitions both physically and virtually, but they also expressed a desire to develop the Cooper-Hewitt into a national design resource and to see it become an international design authority. Those two things fit very closely to my own ambition to tell stories.

And to tell stories well, you need both the physical presence of exhibitions and the ability to illustrate by drawing from collections both past and current and perhaps future. Storytelling in terms of trying to help education, to help professionals, and to help the leadership of the country understand more about design—that’s what being a national design resource is about. And that’s all exciting stuff.

That seems to go way beyond the bricks and mortar life of a museum like the Cooper-Hewitt.

Much of that mission is already underway. Caroline [Baumann, deputy director] and Paul [Thompson, former director] have been developing the virtual version of the museum for a while. They advanced the National Design Awards, now in its second decade, and developed education very broadly across the country. So there’s been a strong movement in that direction long before I came into the picture.

Is there a role model among museums or institutions that has been an inspiration to you?

The strange difference between the USA and other countries is that there’s only one national organization for design. If you look at the UK, for example, they have the Design Museum, of course, and the V&A, the Design Council, the Design Business Association, the Royal Society of Arts, and it goes on and on. It’s the same with new cultures like Korea where they have Design Research Association and the Korean Development Institute. All these are activities about promoting and supporting design at a national level. Whereas here, it’s just us. So for us to fulfill a broader mission like that is a great opportunity.

Do you think there should be a design czar in Washington D.C., or a national platform for design at the Cooper-Hewitt in New York? And what about architecture and design organizations like the AIA or AIGA?

Things like AIA and AIGA are associations that represent designers in particular disciplines, but there isn’t a body to help and support all of them. Just by being part of the Smithsonian, that moves Cooper- Hewitt in that direction. Still, it’s surprising how many people are not fully aware that the Cooper- Hewitt is part of the Smithsonian. And, of course, they think of the Smithsonian as a place to see animals or space things on the Mall in Washington, but we can correct that impression. If you think about how to reach people around the country—the child or businessman in the Midwest, somewhere like that—they haven’t heard of the Cooper- Hewitt but they have definitely heard of the Smithsonian. Emphasizing a bit more our Smithsonian connection could be a very valuable thing.

The idea of a national platform for design has boomeranged around since the Clinton era. Why do you think this is the right moment now?

It has been tried, that’s right. I just learned today that there was a 1972 version that lasted a year. It was like a design council, an attempt to make a national design council that would be part of Washington’s structure, then Clinton tried to revive it with one meeting but that didn’t go anywhere.

If you look at the difference between then and now, there’s an awareness in everybody’s consciousness that design processes can solve difficult problems and also that the problems are getting more and more difficult. The further we get into globalization, the more the easy problems go offshore and we’re left with the difficult ones. We’ve got to learn to solve them. But you don’t solve them with the methodologies of the past. Clear to all kinds of organizations is that putting together an interdisciplinary team, using a design process to solve these problems—with a designer as part of the team and lots of other people as well—has an enormous impact and potential for innovation that’s much greater than the conventional approach to innovation.

So there’s an acceptance in universities, business schools, and organizations that design has value as a process that people can follow and use. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if every leader in America knew how to use design processes effectively to solve problems and create innovations? That’s a nice simple goal.

That’s at one end of the scale. At the other end, you can ask, how do we get there? We probably get there by having every kid able to do it. And wouldn’t it be nice if every kid in America knew about design by the time they were 12 and had the opportunity to study it in high school, if they wished? If you had a pincer movement like that, you could change quite a bit.

What would be your dream idea for an exhibition in the new space?

I’d love to prove to people that everything is design, and give examples. Architecture is obviously design; people understand that. But let’s expand our image and not be exclusive in any way and try to give examples of interesting design wherever it happens, whether it’s architecture, organization, social change, or food, or whatever.