Stanford Design Program

03 History

"We have been refining our methodologies and instruction practices since 1958. This is where human-centered design was born."

The Design Program dates back to 1958 when Stanford Professor John Arnold, formerly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first proposed the idea that design engineering should be human-centered. This was a radical concept for engineers in the era of Sputnik and the early Cold War. Building on Arnold’s work, Bob McKim (Emeritus, Engineering) and with Matt Kahn (Art), created the Product Design major and the graduate-level Program in Design. This curriculum formalized in the mid-60’s, making the Joint Program in Design, as it was then named, one of the first inter-departmental programs at Stanford. The texts we used in those days were McKim’s recently published “Experiences in Visual Thinking”, and Jim Adams’ “Conceptual Blockbusting, a Guide to Better Ideas”. The “Loft” in those days was a bootleg attic space in Building 500 that the University didn’t know about (and the faculty pretended didn’t exist). ME101, a class in what McKim called “visual thinking” was the introductory class for all design students and the class included four imaginative “voyages” in the Exploratorium, a 16 foot geodesic dome that projected 60’s-style multimedia shows on its surface designed to stimulate creativity.

In the 70’s the Loft moved to its current location behind the Old Firehouse. Bob McKim and Jim Adams went Emeritus; Matt Kahn, Rolf Faste and David Kelley continued to develop the multidisciplinary curriculum merging art, technology, and needfinding though the 80’s and added a business factors emphasis in 90’s. Forty-some years later we still teach ME101 to hundreds of undergraduates every year and the Mechanical Engineering and Art continue this historic collaboration with faculty drawn from both schools for instruction.