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

A believer in the power of design to change the world, McKim’s philosophy of “visual thinking” and his unique creative methods echo in Stanford’s legendary design program today.
Robert H. McKim, creator of a design approach he called “visual thinking,” with his students. | Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

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

McKim was among the first hires of storied creativity guru John Arnold. Working first as a lecturer and then as a faculty member, between 1958 and 1963, McKim shaped the nascent design program based on a human-centered approach to design that echoes at Stanford today. He was the driving force in the program for more than 30 years.

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

McKim immersed his students in a human-centered approach to design based on visual thinking that stressed imagining, sketching, and rapid prototyping over drafting, writing, and calculations. He partnered with Stanford art professor Matt Kahn to merge aesthetics into the product design program and made overtures at the business school, in the liberal arts, and at the Esalen Institute for gestalt psychology.

McKim believed that great products had to be not only aesthetically pleasing, but also able to satisfy basic human needs. Even as early as 1959, McKim was giving talks with titles like Designing for the Whole Man. In the classroom, his disruptive prototyping exercises and inventive research projects – blessed with equally inventive names like need finding, idea sketching, ambidextrous thinking, and abductive reasoning – were aimed at “awakening” the senses and giving the designer “license to forge ahead.” His book Experiences in Visual Thinking, first published 1972, became a foundational work in the field.

“This book is the beating heart of the Stanford design project methodology. We use it liberally to help students improve their power of perception,” said David Kelley, a one-time protégé of McKim’s and co-founder of both IDEO, the design firm, and Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the

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 his sincere mentorship were his true strengths. He played frequent host to groups of students 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 choice, often-paid internships and it was not uncommon for those students to emerge from his program and form startups from ideas developed while studying at Stanford.

Robert Horton McKim was born on Sept. 24, 1926, and grew up in San Mateo, California, graduating from San Mateo High School in 1944. He started his studies while in the Navy during the last 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 commenced an Associate Degree in Industrial Design at Pratt Institute. During the Korean War he worked at Lawrence Livermore Lab (1952-1954).

He returned to New York in 1956 and worked at the renowned 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, design consultant, and inventor. He soon began lecturing at Stanford and was eventually invited to join the faculty at Stanford.

McKim retired from Stanford in 1990 and commenced a 25-year second 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 95 years old, McKim could be found playing 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; granddaughter Jessica and husband Curt Onstott and 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 grandnieces and nephews Madeline, Drake & Wolfgang, Kevan, Julia, Dawson & Brighton, Anna, Gavin & Corbon Smedt. He was predeceased by a son, John McKim.

A dedicated fund for the Robert McKim 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 donations in the name of Robert H. McKim be made to Doctors Without Borders.

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