Inside My Design Mind: John Maeda, Design Leader

by Heather Miller
- Mar 15 2016 - 3 min read
John Maeda Profile
Courtesy Benedict Evans

For more than 20 years, John Maeda has defined design—especially in bridging the competing worlds of design, engineering, and technology.

Maeda started his career at the MIT Media Lab, where he was the first to embark on a true multidisciplinary experiment to help nurture designers who code and engineers who design. This, in part, sparked his longtime, instrumental role in helping to evangelize the need for art in education—promoting STEAM, not just STEM.

After most recently serving as president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Maeda joined venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers as a design partner. A prolific speaker and author, he continues to explore the complicated intersections of education, design, and technology.

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John Maeda’s most recent book is Redesigning Leadership (MIT Press, 2011). Courtesy MIT Press.

Here, Maeda shares his latest perspectives on the “coding cookie” and its ascent in popularity; the diversity problem in Silicon Valley; and how “philanthro-capitalism” can really happen in the 21st century.

What’s your take on the increasing focus on business becoming a “force for good” and making more positive societal and environmental impacts?
Now that I’m in Silicon Valley in the VC-verse, I’m often presented with stereotypes of the industry that I represent, like “vulture capital.” But I’ve seen that the VC world is about supporting companies that can be a huge force of good—“because good design is good business,” as T.J. Watson Jr. once wrote to all of IBM as CEO in 1966.

I worry sometimes about the emphasis on learning how to code as being an end goal; it’s simply a skill to get to a meaningful goal. So if coding is taught in a way that is agnostic to how the economic and cultural universes can be impacted, then we miss the point. Coding can never be taught to students just for coding’s sake. That’s how I learned it at MIT as an undergrad, and it took a lifetime for me to see how computation intersected with all sorts of aspects of the world around us.

Speaking of coding and students, you have famously advocated moving from STEM to STEAM. What are your thoughts on coding now—especially as it has become a huge career path and increasingly a larger focus for education, even in elementary school?
If you look at what is made in all of these rudimentary and easy programming systems, such as the jumping frog or a blinking light, then it is definitely an entry point. But at some point, that skill is not going to help you rewrite code. Yes, the first taste of the “coding cookie” is the sweetest, and it takes engineer skills to become a great coder.

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man 2. Courtesy Paramount/Marvel.

Is everyone an engineer? No. Does everyone want to be an engineer? I don’t know. The neat thing about today is, we have people like Tony Stark, Iron Man. Remember 20 years ago, it was the unpopular skinny fellow who had the masking-taped glasses in Revenge of the Nerds. Now it’s Tony Stark flying around and driving an Audi R8. That image has helped the idea of coding, and “nerding,” as being cool.

The technology industry, specifically Silicon Valley, has been called out quite a bit in the past year for a lack of diversity. What are your personal observations on this?
Diversity is important to me. When I became president of RISD, I realized, “Whoa, I suddenly have power, so I’m going to make diversity important.” I put my vice president of HR in charge of initiatives to help address it.

During my time at RISD, I became aware that this is a 21st-century issue, and it’s very nuanced. It doesn’t just mean the color of your skin; it’s all kinds of things. At the time, we launched a now-national program called RISDiversity.

RISDiversity is a series of photographs of people and the stories of how they feel different. It’s great because you’ll see people of obviously different ethnicities. And you’ll also see older people and younger people and Caucasian people, and you see that everyone is different in some way. The project explores how everyone can come in touch with the challenges of feeling different and can feel the opportunities afforded to a community when you let those differences surface and become included. And that’s when change for the better can start to happen.

Redshift’s “Inside My Design Mind” series explores the personal insights from leading designers across industries.

Interview and reporting by Paige Rodgers of Autodesk.

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