Product design and creativity expert James Adams has passed away

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James L. “Jim” Adams, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and expert in creativity and product design, died surrounded by his family at his home on the Stanford campus on January 15. He was 87 years old.

James L. Adams, 1934-2022 (Image credit: Courtesy of the Adams family)

Adams was a true “maker” – a prolific thinker, writer, tinkerer, and doer of things with his hands. He enjoyed repairing old farm machinery, tools and gadgets and building models in his spare time. And these deep interests flowed from and into his academic life.

“It changed the act of ‘doing’ from a moribund operation to an inspiring, world-class activity for the personal development and education of our students,” said Bernie Roth, design professor and engineering colleague mechanics at Stanford.

Adams received his master’s degree in 1959 and his doctorate in 1961 in mechanical engineering from Stanford. As an undergraduate at Caltech, he graduated first in his engineering class in 1955, was elected student body president, and played on the basketball team. He studied art at UCLA for a year before entering graduate school at Stanford.

After defending his dissertation, Adams took a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, developing systems on spacecraft destined for the moon, Venus and Mars. It was the height of the space race. “It was hard work, but doable and glorious,” Adams said in a 2010 oral history collected by the Stanford University Archives. “It was the Super Bowl.” And yet, in 1966 and at the age of 32, Adams felt he had become “old enough for the aerospace industry” and began his career as a professor at Stanford. This business will last for the next 33 years.

At Stanford, Adams inhabited an exciting space where art and engineering intersect, and he seemed to anticipate, if not embody, the principles of empathetic design before such terms became commonplace in design circles.

“The Product Realization Lab wouldn’t be what it is today without Jim Adams,” said David Beach, a colleague, friend and collaborator at Stanford’s famed Industrial Design Center, which he directs. “He was an artist with a sense of aesthetics and an enthusiasm for life that he brought to design, to teaching – where he was simply outstanding – and to life. His house should be a museum for all the things of beauty and usefulness he had collected and preserved there.

As a teacher, he was loved. From 1968 to 1975, Adams headed the design division of the mechanical engineering department. He helped ground the groundbreaking curriculum in values, technology, science, and society and led courses with titles like Aesthetics and technology (co-taught with a humanist colleague), creative problem solving and Good products, bad products. Adams won Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Service to Undergraduate Teaching and was the first-ever recipient of the Richard Lyman Award for Outstanding Service to Stanford University Alumni.

He was also a defiant voice in academic circles. He served as Chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering from 1975 to 1978 and concurrently for a time as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the School of Engineering between 1975 and 1983. From 1983 to 1990 he was director of the interdisciplinary program in values. , Technology, Science and Society (now the STS program). He was a member and chairman of the faculty advisory board and a long-time member of the faculty senate.

Adams has written several books. The best known is Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideasfirst published in 1974, but also The care and nourishment of ideas and Flying buttresses, entropy and O-rings: the world of an engineer. He self-published an autobiography, An engineer’s factoryand had several unfinished manuscripts in the works at the time of his death.

Retirement from Stanford came in 1999, but Adams continued to tinker and build, and also to think, write and teach. A new book, Good products, bad productswas published in 2012 and the final edition of his Conceptual Blockbusting was published in 2019. During the last decade of his life he maintained an active blog, People and productsin which he lists his areas of interest in the following order: “Product quality, creativity and innovation, design, the nature of technology, working with hands and people…”

James Lowell Adams was born March 6, 1934 in Rialto, California to Lowell and Jean Adams. His father was a packing plant foreman and owned a 20-acre orange grove on which three generations of Adams lived. His mother was a gifted seamstress, furniture maker and watercolourist whose creative interests had an outsized influence on her son. On the farm, Adams learned every trade imaginable that involved the hands: carpentry, farming, plumbing, blacksmithing, electrical, sewing, cooking. He became a multi-instrumentalist musician, accomplished carpenter and furniture maker. But above all, he loved ideas and people. His friends were legion and always as colorful as him.

“Jim was a great colleague and friend of mine,” Roth added. “With his outgoing personality and personal example, he had a strong influence on who I am.”

Adams is survived by his wife, Marian Leib Adams, of Stanford, Calif., former Director of Continuing Education at the Stanford Alumni Association; brother John Adams of Rialto, California; son Bob Adams and wife Jen of Davis, California; son Dan Adams and wife Star Teachout of Palo Alto, Calif.; stepson Sam Player and wife Angela of Mountain View, CA; his daughter-in-law Elizabeth Jones and her husband Matt of Mountain View, Calif.; and grandchildren Zander, Leo and Felix Adams; Skye Adams; Nicole and Tessa Player; and Payton and Mia Jones.

A memorial ceremony is planned. Gifts in lieu of flowers may be donated to a fund established in James Lowell Adams’ name through Stanford’s Product Realization Lab.

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