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David Kelley elected to National Academy of Engineering
What do the lavatory sign on an airplane, the three-ton mechanical whale in Free Willy and the original Apple computer mouse have in common? They are all brainchildren brought to life by David M. Kelley, Stanford associate professor of mechanical engineering and founder of IDEO Product Development. Kelley is among 78 engineers and eight foreign associates elected to the National Academy of Engineering on Feb. 17.
Election to the academy is one of the highest professional distinctions that an engineer in the United States can receive. Membership honors those who have made "important contributions to engineering theory and practice," including those who have demonstrated "unusual accomplishment in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology." Kelley is cited for the creation of diverse products and for affecting the practice of design. His election brings the number of Stanford academy members to 80.
Kelley grew up in a small Ohio town with little exposure to art. Like his father, he studied to become an electrical engineer. As a student at Carnegie Mellon University, Kelley agonized an entire summer over switching his major to fine arts but decided to stick it out in engineering and received his bachelor's degree in 1973.
Upon graduation he worked briefly as an electrical engineer for Boeing, where he designed and analyzed lights and lighting systems for the 747 aircraft. He also worked at National Cash Register (NCR) on circuit boards containing the then-just-invented microprocessor. But the focus on problem solving rather than innovation made him miserable. When a friend told him about Stanford's then little-known product design engineering program, which offers a combination of business, art and engineering courses, he enrolled. He earned a master's degree in 1977 and has taught in Stanford's Mechanical Engineering Department since 1978. In 1990, he earned tenure.
In 1978 Kelley founded IDEO Product Development (formerly David Kelley Design) in Palo Alto, Calif. He serves as chief executive officer of the 350-employee company, which has designed more than 3,000 products. He also founded Onset, a venture capital firm, in 1984.
At IDEO (ideo- is the combining form of the word idea, from the Greek "idea"), products range from highly sophisticated technologies to consumer toys. Some IDEO creations include an inflation device for balloon angioplasty, snug-fitting Smith ski goggles, wrap-around Nike sunglasses, the Medtronic portable pacemaker programmer, fishing rods for kids, an instant cholesterol meter, rubber grips on toothbrushes, the Polaroid I-Zone camera, steering controls for Caterpillar earthmovers, multiple laptop computers (including the first-ever laptop, the GRiD), charging systems for GM's EV-1 electric car, Internet appliances including the Audible MobilePlayer and SoftBook electronic book, Steelcase office chairs and the underwater vehicles in the movie The Abyss. In the 1999 Industrial Design Excellence Awards, the company won 12 awards double the amount won by any other firm.
Kelley creations such as the Enorme telephone (designed in 1984 for an Italian company) and the GRiD Compass computer have even made their way into the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in both New York and San Francisco.
Kelley's Stanford courses take a multidisciplinary approach to design by blending engineering innovation, human values and manufacturing concerns. They focus on product-design methodology, techniques of quick prototyping to prove feasibility, and design through understanding of user needs.
"I team-teach in the Art Department alongside Matt Kahn, in the Computer Science Department with Terry Winograd, and lecture extensively in the Business School every year," Kelley says. "My students must take classes in all these disciplines, as well as in psychology and other subjects. Design engineering is no longer a single discipline, where students can focus on a narrow set of skills. Empathy for all the other disciplines associated with product development is essential to innovation."
Design engineering students in Kelley's program are trained to be generalists, not experts. "We teach them to be experts at the methodology of design. In every class, I try to build an internal step-by-step process into their heads, so that when they are given any problem to solve, they have the confidence to jump right in and apply the design process they have learned."
And jump in they do. Last February, Ted Koppel brought his ABC "Nightline" show to Stanford to show how product design worked. He asked students to perform an impromptu product design: Build a shopping cart. Students went to stores to interview and observe shoppers and test carts. Then they built a cart that featured racks for small plastic baskets, hooks for plastic bags, a crossbar for child safety, electronic gadgets to scan purchases while shoppers wait in line, and wheels that let the cart move sideways with a simple push. They showed it to store owners, who were impressed by the innovations.
Kelley teaches six classes a year one "Human Values in Design" class (ME116), two "Human-Computer Interface" classes (ME447 A and B), and three "Master's Project in Design" classes (ME211 A, B and C). The classes are based on projects, not lectures and problem sets. "Students work as individuals and as teams to tackle projects that have no right answer," Kelley says. "They learn to develop a point of view and visualize their concepts through building prototypes."
His "Human Values in Design" class "centers on observing actual users or potential users of products as a way of getting ideas for new concepts through understanding the latent needs of people," Kelley says. "Students sometimes find themselves spending a day with a tugboat captain, or a fireman, or watching people eat in their cars. Product design students are required to be need finders as well as problem solvers."
Students engage in quick prototyping through a process Kelley calls "enlightened trial and error." Says Kelley: "Stanford has a wonderful history of teaching quick prototyping as a way of quickly building innovation into product concepts. We have a world-class prototyping facility, and my students spend much of their time building one prototype after another, taking it out and showing it to potential users, bringing them back and refining them over and over again."
Kelley is faculty adviser for Stanford's student chapter the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. As a graduate student, he co-founded Stanford's mechatronics program, the brainchild of his faculty adviser, Larry Leifer. The course teaches mechanical engineering students about electronics, and it is one of the most popular classes on campus. Students build, for instance, robots that shoot Ping-Pong balls at each other.
"People ask, 'What do you design?' and they expect you to say cars, toothpaste tubes, whatever," Kelley told a writer for Stanford Magazine in 1996. "But we're not experts at any of those things. We're experts at the process of designing stuff."
Kelley's innovations as a product designer have earned him extensive national and international recognition. Many consider him a major contributor to the success of the Silicon Valley. San Francisco Focus magazine listed him in an article titled "Bay Area Brain Trust: 101 Achievers Who Make This the Smartest Place on Earth." The San Jose Mercury News named him in "100 Most Powerful People in Silicon Valley," and Esquire magazine pointed him out in "21 Most Important People of the 21st Century." He was invited to brief Clinton's transition team on design issues.
Kelley is a member of the Industrial Designers Society of America, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
By Dawn Levy