Sept. 15, 2023
The Art of Designing a Life with Global Impact
Edie Adams often watched it from behind her condo window in Seattle, sipping her coffee. The little plot of land beckoned. She was living in Belltown in 1996, where the smell of salt and seaweed rose at low tide.
Chockablock with semi-industrial buildings and dilapidated old structures, the neighbourhood was growing into its character. Now, Belltown is a densely populated, stylish community. But back in the mid-1990s, the district was roughly unshapen and ripe with promise for the University of Calgary graduate.
It had been two years since the Microsoft Natural Keyboard she’d helped to create was released, leading the way globally for ergonomic devices. This was the early days of a trailblazing career at Microsoft as a designer, leader and innovator — one that continues today, and has seen her log more than 140 patents.
It’s a career that has led to Adams, BSc’85, MEDes’90, receiving this year’s Arch Award for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement from the University of Calgary Alumni Association.
Her vision for hardware and software has shaped how we interact with data, at home, office or in the field, and how we communicate with each other.
Handle almost any Microsoft device by, say, just extending your index finger to guide a cursor, and you’re likely reaching out toward Adams and the teams she has been part of for the past 30 years or so. Microsoft mice, keyboards, the HoloLens, Windows iterations, Surface products and many more began as exotic ideas that she helped bloom into creative tools.
“When I got the call about this award, I realized that my lifetime achievement is actually figuring out how to collaborate with other people and accomplish things with them,” says Adams, Microsoft’s director of human factors and vision science.
“It’s not just about me.”
For Adams, growing up in Brooks, Alta., through to her education at UCalgary and her ever-shifting roles at Microsoft, her journey has always been rooted in community and contributing to it.
Establishing her roots
The little scrub of soil that Adams could see from her condo, which she loved for its industrial aesthetic, was part of the Belltown P-Patch, a community gardening program. These plots of dirt held more than the potential for growing food, flowers and herbs; they were incubators for learning, restoring and shaping the ways people use space to connect with themselves and each other. That excited Adams.
In the early days of her Master of Environmental Design (MEDes) program, before she left for Washington in the early 1990s and joined Microsoft, Adams — who considers herself “super-introverted; I’m the biggest person in the world at blowing off social engagements” — started to mesh with other students to meet common goals.
“Our incoming class worked on projects together in the mode of serious hippiness,” says Adams. “Collaborating in this interdisciplinary education that encouraged all viewpoints is something I valued at EVDS (Faculty of Environmental Design, now School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape). It laid the groundwork. I knew the P-Patch could be more of that for me. At that time and in that place, we were standing in the midst of change.”
Digging in with determination
As she worked her little plot and grew asparagus and lettuce near her condo, watering and weeding, and helping others to pick up garbage in the area amidst the remnants of an apple orchard where roses grew wild, she soon shifted into the higher gear that is her preferred speed — all-in.
Adams, who was grafting apple trees at age 12 with her farmer grandpa, stepped up as a community liaison for a City of Seattle pilot project called Arts Up. She enjoyed eyeing neighbourhood artwork flourishing at the tops of buildings, integrated into downspouts and temporarily placed on street corners.
When she wrote the forward to a book about the area, Belltown Paradise, she noted “the determination, conviction and devotion that is manifest in the P-Patch…(is) a testament to an insistent will to make our little corner of Belltown thrive.”
She could well have been writing about herself.
If there were an Alphabet of Edie, you’d find that “A” represents two enduring pillars in her life — art and architecture. The “ED” in her name may well stand for Environmental Design, the former name of her faculty. The “Z” is the zest with which she approaches her life and work.
“I do tend to go all-in,” she says. “You could say I’m hardcore.”
A rock- and ice-climber, explorer of all seven continents, a Porsche race-car driver, a philanthropist who supports emerging artists, a mentor and meditator, and so much more, Adams views everything, including cancer that is in the rearview as learning that she can integrate into a life of discovery.
Growing up in Brooks, by age six she wanted to be a doctor. Her early fascination with the body and how it works veered much later toward product designs that incorporated ergonomics, and the application of psychological and physiological principles to design.
Her dad, Archie, was a contractor who built houses and commercial buildings. Her mom, Margot, was a florist. As a curious kid, Adams would fish stuff out of the castoff greenery at her mom’s shop and design little arrangements. The family moved into different houses that her dad had built and she got to pick out her bedroom décor. She’d later bend toward art, architecture, gardening and playfully shaping materials for a purpose. The bow of her life was being readied for a vocation involving design.
“I always knew that I would leave Brooks,” says Adams. “I could see that beyond it, there was a much bigger world.”
A career blossoms
During a road trip as a kid to British Columbia, her family stopped at Revelstoke and the Enchanted Forest. Home of the Mermaid Pond and the Red Barn. Baby Dragons. The Enchanted Forest Princess. Three Little Pigs and the Shoe House. The Enchanted Forest Castle.
Years later, the Microsoft campus at Redmond, Wash., just east of Seattle, held immense allure for a young Canadian product designer journeying far from home. “Surfing the internet” was still a new, exciting concept in the early 1990s. There was a shimmering energy that suggested anything was possible.
Adams came to Microsoft by way of a job at Novatel doing industrial design, followed by an ergonomics consultancy in Seattle.
“At the time, Microsoft was doing the first mouse design in-house and wanted some help with the ergonomic aspects and I said, yep, I can do that,” says Adams, who would later see the design she worked on, Microsoft Mouse 2.0, reside in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). The Microsoft Natural Keyboard followed, and then the sky was the limit.
Her role changed as she accelerated through the corporate ranks, a trajectory that saw her move from being an individual contributor to overseeing large teams. She understood that her work process held a contradiction. On the one hand, she needed quiet and time alone to be contemplative; on the other, she thrived from receiving input from others.
“I realized the work I do myself is fun, but the work that has impact, whether it’s a product or philanthropic activities, requires other people,” Adams says. “I sometimes have an idea, sometimes others do, but accomplishing it means mixing with others so that we can all do something amazing together.”
Trevor van Gorp, MEDes’06, who worked with Adams when she was his external adviser and mentor during his master’s, as well as when they co-authored the 2012 book, Design for Emotion, says she is “incredibly collaborative, very adaptable, an inspiring figure and, really, an understated genius.”
Adams’s hallmarks are curiosity and open-mindedness, says van Gorp, founder and principal user experience designer at Affective Design Inc. in Edmonton. “I sought her out partly because I found it so inspiring that someone could come out of UCalgary and make such a huge dent in the universe,” he says.
There is no single product that Adams is most proud of creating. Her one steadfast rule is perhaps a clue to how she directs her life: “There is no rule book.”
Adams’s contributions continued well beyond improving mice and keyboards. For the Xbox game console, her team made the controller’s buttons and joystick readily reachable by people with smaller hands without impacting the performance of others. More recently, HoloLens required a team to optimize the physical fit and visual display and determine how to overcome motion sickness caused by AR/MR (augmented reality/mixed reality).
Creating a workable design requires both art and science. At Microsoft and outside of it, Adams has felt herself drawn relentlessly toward this mix.
Philanthropy helps budding artists
When Adams saw a painting hanging in Building 19 outside her Microsoft office in the 1990s, she thought: why is it there? It didn’t look like it belonged in the workplace. She was intrigued. Who was the artist? She started asking around.
There was an impressive Microsoft art collection anchored by a group of like-minded employees. Her peeps! She joined its employee committee, spending a few years as committee chair.
As her collection grew, she branched out into the broader community, working with Seattle arts organizations such as Artist Trust, sitting on the board of the Henry Art Gallery and, since its inception, being on the host committee of the Seattle Art Fair. Her main area of philanthropy is supporting artists and the arts, especially emerging artists and institutions; she has gifted at least 25 works to museums.
“I want to support the work of others so that the entire arts ecosystem, which is very complex, can flourish,” Adams says. “It is all done within the context of community, where the arts are so important.”
The promise of growing
Adams starts almost every day at 5:30 a.m., makes a coffee and savours it in bed. Then she meditates, puts together her list of things to do, makes notes and gets dressed. Her breakfast is granola with whole milk, yogurt and some fresh fruit. Sometimes, she’ll walk a few miles before responding to emails and making calls.
“When I get an hour break, I go into the studio at Microsoft and that’s where I’m pulled in a thousand different directions,” she says.
Her house is architect-designed, full of light, surrounded by trees and close to salt water. The neighbourhood is diverse and there’s a farmer’s market. Near the end of the day, she’ll wander outside and garden, her pruners in hand with loppers and a rake nearby. These days, she’s building a shade garden and holds a Master Gardener designation.
So much of what Adams does at Microsoft is solving “What if?” scenarios and then optimizing. She says she loves it, given that there’s always different ways to see and new ways of doing things. When she gardens, though, it’s like a break in space and time. She focuses on tending and growing. She’s got her plot of land. For Adams, every garden, every project, every person and every day holds promise.
“Go out and see the world. Know that everyone is different and going through their own stuff,” she says “If you engage with the world and others, somewhere out there, your people exist. You will meet them. And you will discover that you can accomplish things you never thought were even possible.”
UCalgary’s annual Arch Awards are the highest recognition presented by the UCalgary Alumni Association (UCAA) to honour and celebrate alumni who are driving change and making a positive impact in our city and beyond.
The 2023 Arch Awards will be held on Thursday, Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. in the MacEwan ballroom.
Eight visionary alumni including Edie Adams, Dr. Jennifer Hatfield, Aaron Renert and Dr. Moche Renert, Matthew Brister and Tara Brister, Leah Schmidt, and Dr. Madeleine Cole will be honoured in this year’s ceremony, which, as in previous years, will kick off Alumni All Access from Oct. 12 to 22. Our annual celebration for all things UCalgary is back! Everyone is welcome to join in on 10 days of amazing events to discover new ideas, explore what UCalgary has to offer and have fun!