News & Perspectives

Art Meets Innovation

Art Meets Innovation

How John Maeda is transforming the way we think about design.
Perspective// Posted by: Jeff Greenwald / 21 Mar 2015

A true polymath, John Maeda is currently a design Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. He has created an extraordinarily diverse career blending science, technology, commerce and the visual arts. A former professor and head of research at the MIT Media Lab, Maeda served from 2008 through 2013 as president of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Enter: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken as a designer?

JM: Leaving the comfort of a tenured professorship at MIT and becoming the president of a college, RISD, during its most challenging times was a big risk. I was inaugurated just before the global financial crisis of 2009, but I didn’t know that until it was too late. I had to learn how to run a major not for profit with a freshly minted MBA and no operating experience at scale, for sure.

Another risk was to leave the comfort of what I had built at RISD, and enter the venture capital industry. That was a big risk. I’ve survived this year so far — knock on whatever surface
you’d like!

Enter: What fields could use the most innovation right now?

JM: Definitely human resources. Being president of RISD, I learned how important culture is. You know how college costs so much? What you’re buying is access to a gigantic “family,” a community that’s lasted for sometimes for hundreds of years. It’s intangible. So culture is extremely valuable. And to me, culture is not owned by any part of an organization usually. Maybe HR.

So at RISD I moved HR to report to me and worked at building community, building better communication, creating more inclusion and more training, and it made a difference. Companies are only as good as their people. That’s a cliché – but who’s taking care of those systems, those invaluable people? Human Resources. And what kind of tools do we give them to do that right now?

Enter: One of your solutions at RISD was to make yourself very accessible.

JM: Yes. It was a great flaw, and it was a great experiment. I remember I was at some kind of brunch for college presidents early in my presidency. I was talking to the president of an Ivy League school. This was in 2009 or something. I was the lone college president blogging and tweeting. So this Ivy League president came up to me and said “Hey, you’re John Maeda! We’re
watching you.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re watching to see if you’ll succeed or fail at being so accessible.”

Enter: And now it’s part of the culture.

JM: They’re all in it now. At the time, I was like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and no Santa Claus was in sight. Now college leaders have got to be on social media. So there you go! I was right at the wrong time. Artists tend to do that.

Enter: What is the biggest lesson you took away from RISD?

JM: The biggest lesson I took away is how important it is, in one’s lifetime, to have the opportunity to fight for people who are worth fighting for.

I remember meeting a sophomore in a high school once. She said something to the effect of, “I’m the creative one in high school. I’m the weird one. No one takes me seriously. But you — you’re going to fight for us.” That’s when it got real. It was an honor to get to fight for those who believe in creativity, in spite of a whole system that believes in innovation but is quick to question the value of the art.

Enter: I always think of innovation and art going hand in hand.

JM: People who are close to the arts understand that. But if you’re a policy wonk, you make the point that innovation helps America grow and improve. Art? Well, that’s something separate.

I was right at the wrong time; artists tend to do that.

Enter: I’m wondering if you think that design is being driven by true innovation, or by preconceptions of what we expect to see in the future?

JM: I would say design does three things: It follows the trend, it makes the trend, and it brings back old trends. So it depends on which kind of design you’re engaged with. There are people designing things that look like they were made in the 1800s, because that’s considered what’s interesting or valuable to someone. There are those who are designing futuristic things, because they’re pushed to design what has not been made yet. But there are people doing everyday design, all the time. like flyers for their rock bands. They’re not designing something futuristic.

Enter: Whose design are you watching with the most excitement?

JM: Well, definitely the technology industry. I have a front row seat for that. Since my time at MIT in the ‘90s, I’ve watched it evolve and grow. I had an R1 University research seat. Now I have a VC-world industrial seat. And what I saw in research twenty years ago is now happening.

I think of the guys at Paper 53, who make the drawing app for the iPad. Hugely inventive. If Venetian craftsmen had worked with pixels instead of glass, it would be like those guys. And Google’s doing a great job. I think they’ve moved away from just a Vulcan (Star Trek reference) style design firm— speed and practicality, and are adding more emotion to what they do.

Enter: You’ve often spoken about the importance of trust. In this era, when we’ve been inundated with immersive marketing, how can we create trust without being invasive?

JM: It would have to start with people to people: a stare across the table at someone you can see. I’m very old fashioned that way. And when you can’t meet someone directly, I think voice is a great surrogate for the body. But face-to-face is great.

Enter: What if that’s not possible, what if you’re trying to build trust in a brand?

I think of the guys at Paper 53, who make the drawing app for the iPad. Hugely inventive. If Venetian craftsmen had worked with pixels instead of glass, it would be like those guys.

JM: I think that brands today need to have some kind of personal connection to be effective. Many companies use surrogates for that connection — like Flo with Progressive Insurance, or the GEICO gecko, or the “Where’s the beef?” woman from eons ago. And knowing more about a company—its mission and values, and people who work for it—also helps, and creates that personal connection. How the message is mediated does matter. Because although we are cynical to advertising that we can detect, we will let ourselves go home with those that we feel are perhaps authentic.

Enter: What kind of work are you doing right now with KPCB?

JM: I’m working with the various companies to support their founding teams leveraging of design in technology. I noticed that the younger companies know that design is important, because they grew up in this whole frothy design era—whereas the ones that are more engineering-centric are coming late towards this notion of design.

But just communicating design is not’s not just about Apple, it’s about culture. The reason why Apple is expert at design is because they’ve been designing for 30 years. It’s in their DNA. The earlier startups bring design in-house and into their culture the better — it’s an investment. It isn’t like something that you’re buying for right now; it’s something you’re investing in, and building over time.

Enter: You said you’ll put up any art on your wall for at least a day. What’s on your wall now?

JM: I have an old piece by Bruno Munari. He was one of the Italian futurists. I always loved that era of activity, because there were no computers. They were reacting to the advent of the automobile, and its speed. That was the technology of the day. And I have a lot of fortune cookie fortunes I tape on my wall. I think designers are kind of like kleptomaniacs.

Enter: What’s your favorite fortune cookie fortune up there?

JM: “You will become a good lawyer someday.” I like that one. I wanted to go to law school, but at the time I chose to become a college president instead.

Enter: Either way, you got to see how sausages are made.

JM: I got to see how a lot of sausages were made. It made me think about life and education in general. I think it was Rob Kalin — he founded Etsy. Rob painted a picture of life for me once. He said the education system was designed for when we died in our 40s, so four years of college made sense. You would stock up on an education and live a life and you would eventually expire. But advances in science let us live to be 80 or 100, it’s kind of impossible to believe that you’ll take four years of your life, from 18 to 22, and expect the education to last until you’re 80.

That kind of reshaped how I thought. It was like when Jack Dorsey came out with the Square.

RISD was the first college to give out Square, which is a mobile payment device, at scale on an American campus. When they started to be all around campus, I thought about how one of the best professors at RISD, Michael Fink, could totally change the game of education. I thought, “Mike can just take a Square, assemble 20 students in a park just outside my office, and charge students with credit cards. He wouldn’t need me! Why do you need a president, or an institution?” Stuff like that kept happening during my tenure as president, it made me think whether life is about longevity, or how you access live people.

The earlier startups bring design in-house and into their culture the better— it’s an investment. It isn’t like something that you’re buying for right now; it’s something you’re investing in, and building over time.

Enter: You once said, “if you’re never wrong, you never get something right.” Tell me something you were wrong about.

JM: It would be in 1990-something, when people started to have home pages. For this thing called “the Web.” I thought, who needs a home page, give me a break! I fortunately changed my mind a few months after it took hold.

Jeff Greenwald
Jeff is a best-selling author, photographer, and monologist.