Becoming a Product Designer

Source: Interview with David Kelley, 24 July 2000.

Pang: This is an interview with David Kelley, July 24, 2000, at the IDEO world headquarters.

Kelley: There you go!

Pang: I want to begin by asking about how you got into the Stanford Product Design Program-- the story of your origins and involvement there.

Kelley: Sure. That's a program which I still teach in-- I never left-- and how I got there is an interesting story.

Work before Stanford

I was out there in the world, I'd graduated from Carnegie-Mellon, which is a respectable university in engineering, and I was out there in the real world being a bad engineer. [Pang laughs] I just wasn't good at what they were asking me to do. What they were asking me to do was primarily analytical, at Boeing, and National Cash Register, and other big companies. But it wasn't creative, it was analytical: you were supposed to calculate this, and if it didn't work you were supposed to go back and work harder. I had always had an interest in art, but I came from a small town in Ohio where if you were male, art was not a potential career; if I'd been born in Manhattan, it would have been a different deal. But I was also good in math and science, so I went into engineering. I really love engineering, in the way I'd define it today, but the jobs I had then weren't like that.

So I was relegated to having this kind of job during the day that I didn't really like-- which is kind of a downward cycle-- and doing my art sort of as a hobby in the evening: I'd go and do sculpture, or make jewelry, as part of some group. And that was really exciting, but you didn't think it was a way to make a living. In 1973, I was working at the Boeing airplane company. It was the gas crisis, and I put a sign up that I wanted to share a ride, to save gas.

Discovering Stanford

Hearing about the program

The guy who answered the ad was a guy named Bill Potts, who had just come the year before from the Stanford Design Program. I had no idea about Stanford: I thought Stanford was in Los Angeles, that's where I was at that point, being a good guy from Pittsburgh. So he was in the carpool, and we drove for 40 minutes every day to Boeing. He worked in a different group than I. But he's still my best friend; we've been friends from that day forth.

One of the things that cemented our friendship was what he did for me: he said, "You're the right guy for this program." I have a low self-image at this point: "I'm a bad engineer, how can I get into Stanford?" was my response. But he kept pushing and pushing, and saying, "Look, this program's right for you," and talking about product design, and McKim, and telling the story. And so eventually I applied on his urging, and got in. Then-- and this is one of the things I try to convince students of-- when you find the right fit for your life's work, it's really obvious, and your really enjoy it, even though you might change that at a later time, and have a different career.

At Stanford

I got to Stanford, and it was like heaven. Instead of being a bad engineer, I was-- actually, I didn't care what I was, I loved it so much. So from the very first day, I met this guy Bob McKim, who was my mentor, and I studied under him, and with Jim Adams, and all the other guys. The idea that engineering is a creative thing, that it's dreaming up possible futures, trying to understand what people want and give them that, and resonate with people-- that was so different from my electrical engineering training, where what was macho was who could do this math homework set. It was completely different.

So I felt the program was vital and exciting, and a good fit for me. We've remained small, however: it's not like it's a huge thing. We have 12-15 new graduate students every year, and it takes two years, so at any time we have about 30 students. So it's small. But all these guys like Manock-- Manock was like class of 1966-- and I was just this weekend with Marshall Turner, who was head of the EPA, and was an early Stanford Product Design graduate.

Pang: So how did you get into teaching at Stanford?

Kelley: Remember, I'd just fallen in love with the place. I was there three years, and had never gotten to Stanford Shopping Center, I was in the machine shop the whole time. What happened was, I went for two years, I'd TAed every class that I could, and it was like a debt to the university at some level: so I said, "I want to teach this." We've always had lecturers in the program. We've always believed that a practitioner who delivers one class a year can prepare all year and do a really great job. So that was my aspiration, to do that.

I got involved with a professor named Larry Leifer, who was doing smart products, and just starting the smart products program. That meant understanding microprocessors, and giving that knowledge to mechanical engineers. The electrical engineers already knew about it, but mechanical engineers didn't, and they could put microprocessors in some product to make it work. Well, that's what I had just done at National Cash Register. I had microprocessor experience, and I was converting from EE to ME, so I taught that class with him-- actually, I was a TA, but it felt like I was teaching it, you know how that it is.

Anyway, that was a great experience, and Leifer was crazy enough to say, "Why don't you do a Ph.D." McKim, who was my real mentor, said, "Oh, that'll ruin you as a designer, don't do a Ph.D." But the idea was intriguing, and so I started on a Ph.D., so I did the course work under Larry, and I had a vague notion that I'd do something on robotics for handicapped people. And then two things happened. I realized I didn't like reading or writing as much as I liked building, and that was a negative. The other thing was that Silicon Valley was booming, and these guys would call Stanford, and say, "I've got this little microprocessor-based printer, and I want somebody who will design it so the processor will work;" and they'd come to me, because I was the electrical engineer/mechanical engineer combo guy in the division. So I'd go down and see them, and it'd be fun, and you'd do some medical pipetting device, or it'd be a reading machine for blind people-- that was more exciting than writing a Ph.D. So I said, "I'm going to quit and do this."

But it was definitely in my decision that there were these lecturer positions that I could still have. I was very close to McKim-- he lent me money to buy my first house, it was more than a professor-student relationship by the time I'd graduated-- and so I knew I could do this lecturing thing. At first I did one class a year, and pretty soon two, and got some kind of consulting professor appointment a few years later, and then in 1990, when McKim retired, and Rolf Faste was head by then, there was a search, and so I got a formal appointment and tenure in 1990.

So from 1980 to 1990, basically, I taught as a lecturer.

Pang: Was the smart products class where you hooked up with Jim Sachs?

Kelley: Jim was taking the class; I don't remember if he was a TA or not, but he was certainly working as hard as a TA. We were in the same crowd: he was hanging with Leifer, and I was hanging with Leifer, and that's how we met. One other person who was there, by the way, was Tim Koogle, who's now the president of Yahoo. We were all on that same floor.

Jim Sachs describes his education at Stanford, involvement with Hovey-Kelley, and work on the mouse project.


Document created on 10 July 2000;