Product Design Visionary

Robert McKim, ’48

March 2023

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Robert McKim at a desk surrounded by students

Photo: Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

In 1966, Bob McKim helped design a study of 27 high-performing professionals who were given mescaline and then asked to take part in a creative problem-solving session. At the time, McKim, ’48, was at the helm of Stanford’s product design program and was pushing the field forward with an innovative approach—including doing academic studies on the effects of psychedelics on creativity. 

A graduate of both Stanford and the Pratt Institute, McKim spent his career trying to improve the thought process behind the design of everything from shopping carts and MRI machines to the mechanical whales in Free Willy. His focus on both art and engineering shaped world-changing designers, including professor of mechanical engineering David Kelley, MS ’78, who founded the design firm IDEO and later Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or d.school.

“Bob McKim was trying to create little Leonardo da Vincis,” Dean Hovey, ’78, MS ’85, told Stanford in 2002, in an article about how he, Kelley, and several other program graduates designed the Apple mouse.

Robert Horton McKim, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and the driving force behind Stanford’s product design program for 30 years, died on July 17. He was 95.

After he graduated from Pratt, he worked for the noted design firm Henry Dreyfuss Associates in New York and then returned to the Bay Area, where he’d been raised. An informal meeting with John Arnold, a professor of mechanical engineering and of business, led McKim to join him at Stanford, where the two men created the product design program within the mechanical engineering department in 1962. Arnold died the next year, and McKim ran the program on his own for nearly three decades.

During his tenure, McKim became a leader in visual thinking, an approach that encourages designers to rely not on language but on seeing, imagining, and drawing. “He was ahead of his time,” says mechanical engineering professor Bernard Roth, academic director and co-founder of the d.school, who credits McKim with the concept. McKim’s book Experiences in Visual Thinking became a foundational work in the field and remains central to the d.school’s design project methodology.

McKim also introduced his students to the concept of needfinding, an antecedent to the popular modern-day approach known as human-centered design. It uses the need, rather than the product, as the starting point for idea generation. 

In 1988, McKim retired, having made Stanford’s product design program a world leader in project-based education. He stepped away from academia and spent the next 30 years working as an artist and sculptor at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif.

“He was not someone who wanted to fit in a box,” says his wife, Debbie Simpson-McKim. “He always said some of his favorite students were the ones that did not become engineers or designers—they went off on some completely different track and had a life that was their own.” 

His penchant for the unconventional influenced his students and colleagues alike. “If it weren’t for him, I’d probably be a straitlaced engineer,” says Roth, laughing. “He brought me from New York; he made me weird.”

In addition to his wife, McKim is survived by his first wife, Virginia; daughters, Melisa Posteri and Melina; two grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at kshiloh@stanford.edu.

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