In a bold move, the Rhode Island School of Design announced in
December that John Maeda,
associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab, where he has
served since 1996, will take over as RISD's 16th president starting
in June. Maeda has long been an advocate for humanizing technology
and for marrying design and computer science in a seamless whole.
As a designer he has experimented with motion typography and has
developed complex systems for clients such as Cartier, Google,
Philips, Reebok and Samsung. He has also authored books including
Creative Code and the most recent, The Laws of
Simplicity, which has been published in 14 languages. Needless
to say, this announcement came as a surprise to many in the design
field. How will assuming the presidency of a major design
institution alter the ways Maeda works? More importantly, how will
Maeda alter an institution with so much history? Although all will
become clear after he assumes the seat of power, we couldn't wait
to hear his reasons for taking on this challenge and his immediate
plans for the future.
Heller: John, it's difficult to know where to
start—indeed, it's been hard to pin your career down. However, you
state in your online video that you relish new things. And one
constant for you has been the MIT Media Lab. Tell me about that
experience and what's prompted you to leave the fertile ground of
Click on image to play John Maeda's RISD video.
Maeda: The Media Lab is a unique singularity
point in the history of academia. It was the result of combining
two visions: Professor Nicholas Negroponte's stunningly accurate
prediction of digital convergence from the '70s, together with
former MIT president, the late Jerome Wiesner's passion to
contextualize science and technology in the human equation.
Wiesner, having worked on the Manhattan Project, knew firsthand
that technology did not live in a vacuum separate from human
I started out, first and foremost, a product of MIT and not the
Media Lab. My undergrad and grad studies were in electrical
engineering and computer science at MIT—after which I was at the
Media Lab for a year as a PhD student, only to drop out because of
a negative experience with my faculty advisor. I am always grateful
to my old advisor—if it were not for him I would have never gone to
art school. The “lucky accident” we often describe in making art or
while designing is prevalent in life in general.
I came back to the Media Lab in 1996 to fill the shoes of the
Cooper. After 11 years, the shoes still feel quite loose, as
Muriel had spent decades going after many “grails” of visual
design. My interests have always been very broad. I like creating
in all kinds of media, especially words like I write now. The RISD
presidency seemed particularly attractive because I would then be
able to broaden my interests even further. There are so many more
Cooper-esque folks out there that are younger and more talented
than myself, like Martin Wattenberg, Ben Fry
and Casey Reas. I feel it is more their time than mine. Mine
has passed in this area of visual research, but of course I still
continue to dabble.
Heller: Most university or college presidents are
involved with the image and wellbeing of their respective schools.
They are the corporate face of the institution and also the prime
fund-raisers. Your academic career has been focused on developing
innovative curricula. How do you reconcile your creative needs with
the conventions of a presidency? In other words, are you going to
be the conventional college president?
Maeda: At the Media Lab as associate director I
have been managing the Lab's cash flow and have turned things
around, with my right hand, Becky Bermont. So, fundraising and also
the more important challenge of funding retention has been part of
my job. In business it is often said that it is always better to
effectively keep a customer versus focusing solely recruiting new
customers, because your best customers do the job of selling you to
new customers for free. I look forward to the fundraising
challenges I face ahead.
Working on a 16-iPod piece for the Riflemaker
Heller: But you are also an artist…
Maeda: I think my MO has always been to find
design and art even in the most inane tasks. If “administration
design” was a field to invent, or even “administration art,” then I
am up for the challenge. The number one request I heard from RISD
students was, “If I am at the most creative school in the world,
then I should see that reflected in the administration—no, demand
it.” Innovation can play a role in any situation, I believe.
Heller: Everyone is curious to hear what went on in the
meeting that convinced you to take on this role. Without betraying
confidences, can you paraphrase the moment that sealed the
Maeda: Really from the beginning, I thought I'd
never have a chance at getting the job. Once it had materialized as
a possibility I recall my wife, Kris, [jokingly] betting all my
kids—five girls—that “Daddy can't get this job.” Add to that I
showed up 30 minutes late for the interview, as I was stuck in a
meeting at MIT that I couldn't leave. Somehow I got the “callback,”
and after that point somehow remained during each phase of the
When it came to me in the end, I kept thinking how the review
panels, search committee and the board were all composed of crazed
innovator-types that wanted to show the world that RISD was the
only place in the world that would be willing to make the leap to
hyperspace. Sort of “Look at us, world—we're going to go where no
art and school and design has ever gone before!” I figured if they
were willing to press the hyperspace button, then I couldn't turn
down the chance to boldly go where no artist/designer has gone
before. Note that I'm not a Trekkie or anything but am known to
channel James T. Kirk once in a blue moon.
Heller: I'm a Kirk fan myself. But I'm certain that the
minute you considered this as real possibility you began, as Paul
Rand would say, to sketch out the solution to the problem. What are
the challenges you are facing?
A favorite fortune cookie quote.
Maeda: Well, I have a lot of experience and
interest in how communities are designed and implemented using
modern technology, but also the old-fashioned handshake. So I've
been thinking, designing, stressing—channeling Paul every other day
to find nobleness.
Heller: And can you give a hint as to your
Maeda: As for hints as to where I am right now,
there is a hidden online community that has launched at RISD
concurrent with my announcement, called “One RISD.” In the process,
I discovered some incredible human resources at RISD that executed
my impossible requests in an amazingly short amount of time. It
turns out that “Scotties” [or “miracle-workers”] abound at RISD and
really pulled a rabbit out of the hat in technology deployments I
requested, in addition to design refinement. As of today, the day
before Christmas and a little over two days after the announcement,
I count 252 unique visitors that span an even mixture of students,
staff and faculty that are currently educating the “pre-frosh” that
I am—that's close to 7 percent of the entirety of RISD mobilized
already online, and the school's on vacation right now! The
visitors keep growing.
As for what I have further down the pipeline, I will save that
discussion for a later date. Sorry for the secrecy. You know, I
aspire to become the Steve Jobs of university presidents [smile].
Seriously, though, I envision RISD as the Apple brand in the
Heller: By taking on this institutional role, are you
going to put your own creative efforts on hold? Is this a hiatus
time for your talents or a repurposing of them?
Reebok x John Maeda Timetamium.
Maeda: No, people ask me that a lot right now.
I plan to continue to create—to the extent that I still do my job
well as president, of course. I need to create to live, so you will
continue to see me do random, small projects. My recent
collaboration with Reebok on the Timetanium sneaker portends some
more things coming down the line from my favorite, local shoe
source. I also plan to continue to show in art galleries and write
books—but not at a breakneck pace.
Most people don't realize but I have no staff of assistants for
my creative work. All the books, images and objects I've produced
were created by my two lousy hands and confused brain. So I have no
overhead nor project management needs—I just need three hours or so
and can make what I need to make. I'm always envious of folks with
major studios like Bruce
Mau or Karim Rashid that do such big, bold and amazing projects
executed to perfection. I've always just been one guy making stuff.
I figure that's unlikely to change.
Heller: I presume that RISD has made this very bold
appointment because they want to move into the future of art and
design. As you see it, what is the future of art and design
Maeda: Don't know yet. I have to understand
what the present situation comprises. The worst thing to do is to
buy a bunch of computers and install Adobe this-or-that everywhere.
First of all, you'll go broke quickly with just paying for the
regular upgrade costs; secondly you'll make the exact same
images/objects that every Tom, Dick and Jane in countries from
Taiwan to Turkey run natively. It all looks the same because it's
made the same. Any vision I might have for RISD would have to be
about the 10–20-year future, not about now or next year.
Heller: Will you try to make RISD into a new MIT Media
Lab or take a clean-slate approach?
Maeda: Clean slate, definitely. The Media Lab
had been around for 20+ years now. It was at the right place and
the right time, and served an incredible role in the digital
revolution. I prefer to look out further and beyond, but fueled by
the incredible traditional and classical core at RISD that
represents more of the “what is good” versus just the more
technology-centered approach of “what is new.” You see it today so
often—we desire great experiences, not just new experiences.
Heller: There is a lot of talk about how teaching—and
learning—will be transmitted in the digital era. Of course,
distance learning has picked up steam. Do you see the old models of
the academic institution changing radically? Will the campus be
transformed into something else?
Maeda's avatar in Second Life.
Maeda: Having both will be critical in the
future—a great “bricks and mortar” campus and a great “clicks and
bits” campus. You're speaking to a guy that got his MBA online—it
was much more difficult and rigorous than I expected as it wasn't
one of those programs where you slip your Visa card and get a
diploma emailed to you in 24 hours. Over an intense, two-year
experience I realized firsthand that education will, and can, be
delivered in the future as an online experience, in an interactive
and challenging manner. But the tools and technology for learning
are still no better than the teletype technologies of the '70s, as
they are still so primitive. I see great opportunities for
designers to imagine the next phase of online education—and I am
for sure not talking about just things like Second Life (I'm not a
big believer in VR, yet).
Heller: What's most interesting to me about your
appointment is the connection to graphic design. This discipline is
not often so well represented. When David Brown was president of
Art Center he came out of a graphic design world, but was not
himself a graphic designer. Do you think the way graphic design has
been taught is ripe for reinvention?
Maeda: I think of myself as able to span many
disciplines and do not feel wed to solely graphic design. That
said, I think that the ticking time bomb of our future is the
explosion of information readily available and mutable to all—it is
so expansive that we will never be able to fathom it all. I imagine
before the book was invented, society never thought it might be
possible to organize massive amounts of info as bound copy. The
conceptual equivalent of the book has not yet been invented, and
I'm not talking about websites here.
Heller: Along these lines, and perhaps an odd question,
is this new role for you a kind of entrepreneurship? Do you look at
this opportunity as one to build, not a business per se—although
that is the nature of the educational institution—but a laboratory
from which new ideas and models and standards must
Maeda: It's not a lab—it is an institution
comprised of a world-class university and a world-class museum.
What I have going for me, and RISD, is that it is comparatively
tiny compared to Stanford or MIT or Yale, and thus, in theory, more
agile and nimble. Like a Cooper MINI. Maybe RISD needs a racing
stripe that goes all the way across to make it look more like the
racing Cooper version... hmmm.
Heller: OK, finally, on that first day or week or month
that you start, what will you do?
Maeda: I will probably turn on my computer and
start the day with a green tea as always. Then hit the accelerator
pedal and see how fast this baby goes. I start June 2008. Stay
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