Robert McKim, a force in Stanford’s product design program, has died


Robert H. McKim, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, creator of a design approach he called “visual thinking,” and one of the early and influential members of Stanford’s product design program in the late 1950, died July 17 at his home in Santa Cruz, California. He was 95 years old.

McKim was among the first hires of famed creativity guru John Arnold. Working first as a lecturer and then as a faculty member, between 1958 and 1963, McKim shaped the fledgling design curriculum based on a human-centered approach to design that echoes Stanford today. He has been the driving force behind the program for over 30 years.

“The courses, projects and exercises that McKim developed decades ago are still at the heart of design education at Stanford,” said longtime friend and colleague Bernie Roth, who joined the design faculty in 1962. “He truly believed in the power of design to change and improve the world.

McKim immersed his students in a human-centered design approach based on visual thinking that emphasized imagination, sketching, and rapid prototyping rather than drafting, writing, and calculating. He partnered with Stanford art professor Matt Kahn to merge aesthetics into the product design curriculum and made overtures to business school, liberal arts, and the Esalen Institute of Psychology in the gestalt.

McKim believed that good products should not only be aesthetically pleasing, but also able to satisfy basic human needs. Already in 1959, McKim gave lectures with titles like Design for the whole man. In the classroom, his disruptive prototyping exercises and inventive research projects – endowed with equally inventive names like needs research, idea sketching, ambidextrous thinking and abductive reasoning – aimed to “awaken” the senses and to give the designer “clearance to go ahead”. ” His book Visual thinking experiments, first published in 1972, has become a seminal work in the field.

“This book is the beating heart of Stanford’s design project methodology. We use it generously to help students improve their powers of perception,” said David Kelley, a former McKim protege and co-founder of IDEO, the design company, and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as d .school.

McKim explained visual thinking in a 1985 Smithsonian magazine article on teaching creativity: “Visual thinking breaks you out of the mindset of language, which keeps you stuck in a certain way of seeing and expressing the world.”

McKim’s teaching style and sincere mentorship were his real strengths. He frequently hosted student groups at his Stanford home and at Stoney Ridge Ranch, his retreat on Skyline Drive in the mountains that border Silicon Valley. McKim was adept at placing mentees in prime, often paid internships, and it was not uncommon for these students to graduate from his program and form startups from ideas developed while studying at Stanford.

Robert Horton McKim was born September 24, 1926, and grew up in San Mateo, California, graduating from San Mateo High School in 1944. He began his Navy education during the final years of World War II. . He studied at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, then followed his father, Horton Albert McKim (BA ’17), to study engineering at Stanford, earning his Bachelor of Science in Engineering in 1948. He then went to New York and started an associate’s degree in industrial design at the Pratt Institute. During the Korean War he worked at the Lawrence Livermore Lab (1952-1954).

He returned to New York in 1956 and worked at the famous industrial design firm Henry Dreyfuss Associates while completing a BA in industrial design at Pratt in 1958. McKim then returned to California, where he worked as a teacher, consultant in designer and inventor. He soon began teaching at Stanford and was eventually invited to join the Stanford faculty.

McKim retired from Stanford in 1990 and began a second 25-year career as a sculptor and artist. He moved to Santa Cruz in 1998 with his second wife, Debbie; their bird, Valentino; and dog, Gracie. He loved cool jazz, and even at age 95 McKim could play tuba in an ensemble with his wife and a cohort of art-loving friends.

McKim is survived by his wife, Debbie Simpson-McKim of Santa Cruz, California; his first wife, Virginia McKim of Los Altos, California; daughter Melisa and son-in-law Vincent Positeri of Crystal Lake, Illinois; daughter Melina McKim and son-in-law Henk De Poot of Enschede, Netherlands; grandson Ryan Staal of The Hague, Netherlands; his granddaughter Jessica and her husband Curt Onstott and his great-grandsons Nathanial and Rockwell Onstott of Corvallis, Oregon; nephew Gordon and Suzanne Whitney-Smedt of Los Gatos, California; nephew Rodney Smedt and wife Kathy Shaw-Smedt of Los Gatos, California; nephew Ward and Loida Smedt of Vallejo, California; and great-nieces and nephews Madeline, Drake & Wolfgang, Kevan, Julia, Dawson & Brighton, Anna, Gavin & Corbon Smedt. He was predeceased by a son, John McKim.

A fund dedicated to Robert McKim’s legacy is under development. Information will be available soon. An event to celebrate McKim’s life and memory will be announced in the coming months. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in Robert H. McKim’s name be made to Médecins Sans Frontières.


Comments are closed.