Click here to see John Maeda discuss the future and RISD.
I received this link from a friend two weeks ago. It is my selection for Best Video of 2007 as the theme deals with a profoundly optimistic view the future. The protagonist is John Maeda who has been (s)elected as the next President for the Rhode Island School of Design.
Maeda is not your average selection for the President of a leading design institution. He is young, Asian, an entrepreneur, professor, father of five, media maven, scientist, and blogger. Equal parts technologist and artist, he is a modernist in the purest sense of the word. He is an author, and I have described his book, Laws of Simplicity, as the best 100 pages of design writing I have read in 2007.
I see an analogy between John Maeda and Barack Obama. Neither are predictable choices for Presidential positions.
The alleged dichotomy between art and science is made moot by Maeda's life and career, and by RISD's decision to ask him to lead and represent them. The received "wisdom" that art and science are somehow inherently opposed smacks of the prevailing partisanship in politics. Obama's promise of a new, post-partisan, way of dealing with the issues that surround us, and the voters' possible ratification of such a view, could push us through the traditional barriers in the same way that RISD's choice asks us to think differently about the future of our academic institutions.
I don't know Barack Obama. I cannot testify to his character, and I didn't ask him for an interview. But John Maeda is an acquaintance, and he graciously allowed me an interview by email. When I asked him about the Obama analogy he said "Actually the word on the street is that when people meet me they think I'm something of a cross between Barack Obama and Woody Allen". The full interview is given below.
RF: First off—congratulations. Seeing this kind of change in a professional career is a terrific sign of optimism. This is a big deal, being head of a cultural institution with such a legacy. Have you made any such radical transitions in your life before?
JM: Once before, yes. I was a kid from a working class family that made tofu the old-fashioned way in a run down bakery in Seattle’s International District that somehow escaped for college to a faraway place called MIT.
JM: Perhaps once they meant something when “technology” was simply a tool of the scientist and “art” referred to the practice of painting portraits for the wealthy. It’s like saying “the Web” and “writing” might be distinctive, but they’re not. The Web is a technology that would have no meaning without the context of human expression; writing on the other hand would only exist in our heads if it weren’t for technologies like writing with blood, or carving on stone, or ink on paper, or HTML and the Web today.
RF: Do you feel the desire to get your media designer mitts on each school’s website? Do these schools ask you to weigh in on these details given your media talents?
JM: I’m perhaps the worst person to hire when it comes to the issue of content and style of information in RISD’s webworld because I’m terribly opinionated on the whole matter. I must say though in my ongoing interactions with RISD’s communication department since the Dec 21 announcement, I am in complete heaven as they all speak my language and have been simply laying in waiting for a leader that might be able to point them in the right direction. RISD is not alone in the dilemma of having a great website and lack of online leadership. Look at all the confusing websites for all art/design schools, universities. Heck, even companies that spend millions on their websites can be mired in confusing link structures and overcooked Flash experiences. The exception though being the Yale School of Art website—it is built around a WIKI concept where any member of the Yale community can edit the website themselves. This is one of the key directions all university websites have to head. There are a few other key directions too. I’m not telling what they are, yet.
RF: Most of us in the art/design world do not really understand computers and technology. For example, a tech guy told me recently that Google was capable of devouring the entire Internet. I did not know what that he meant, but I somehow believed him. What should we be fearful of with technology today?
JM: If Google were some sort of mythical creature, then yes I could imagine it getting hungry and wanting to devour … something. Whether it would want to eat the entire 100 yards and essentially eat … itself. Now that’s crazy. So yes your friend is exaggerating a small bit.
As for what to be fearful of technology today, it is its rapid advancement without any clear and common reasoning as to whether our lives are becoming better because of technology. Yes it makes us faster. Yes it makes us stronger. Yes it makes it better. Just like in the intro to the Six Million Dollar man (sorry I’m showing my generation here). But Steve Austin was never really happy. And after several seasons, he got cancelled! What is the lesson learned? Technologies are the trend of change. Change is constant. Thus technology is usually not a sufficient grounds upon which to build what can be thought of as “traditions.” I am curious what might be the new “traditions” afforded by digital technology in the art and design space. Because RISD has masterfully preserved many of the traditions of art and design in ways thankfully unfettered by the last two decades of heady doctom-ism, I believe it may be possible to look to the future in a totally new way grounded in classical thinking. MIT has always defined itself as an institution that teaches engineering grounded in the foundations of traditional science and has done quite well for itself. I see RISD being able to accomplish a similar success.
RF: Your professional accomplishments span many fields. But it seems to be that you are fundamentally a designer, a problem solver. What design challenges most attract you to being a President of an Art School? Curriculum, students, faculty, facilities, or…?
JM: First of all, I’m not President of RISD yet and will not be so until June of 2008. There are about 3,726 people at RISD which includes students, staff, and faculty. There are also 20,000 or so RISD alums out there as well. Since the announcement on Dec 21, I have been getting emails, Facebook friend requests, you name it—at a rate that is making my mind swim. I would say that my first design challenge is to engage in communication with all of the RISD community, which I’m doing with an internal blog that was launched together with the announcement. In the short span of two weeks since the blog was launched just before winter break, I am now in direct contact with 15% of the current constituents of RISD and the number grows daily. I can see in the future that my second design challenge is when I become President of RISD it is how to sustain direct and open communication with all of the constituents. I call this an attempt to realize an “open source” approach to university administration— ’m just following my own advice from the Laws of Simplicity in the 2nd Key to Simplicity OPEN: Openness simplifies complexity. When people don’t have to guess what I’m thinking, and simply know what I’m thinking, I think that everyone breathes easier, including me.
RF: RISD has hired you, a younger person with a non-traditional profile to be President, and in San Francisco, CCA is launching an MBA degree in design. Is there a sea change going on in Art Schools?
JM: I think that it has been popular to ignore the fact that our world moves at a pace that business has learned how to optimize and communicate in ways that are foreign to not only art schools but technology schools as well. I don’t see that as a problem really, and more of an opportunity to be distinctive from business. Yet to be truly distinctive, you need to understand the other side. I did my MBA because I found I couldn’t read newspapers anymore, and I also wasn’t happy how I began to observe universities behaving too much like businesses. Learning the language of one’s enemy, is the best way to become true friends. Through understanding we are able to celebrate differences much better.
Though I wasn’t aware of CCA launching an MBA program, I’ve been well aware that business schools wish to partner more with art and design institutions. I think the leaders in the areas of able intersections between design and business have been Patrick Whitney of IIT and Roger Martin of the University of Toronto. These directions of cross-cultural understanding are where the world is headed as the world not only becomes more “flat” but also hybridized in all dimensions by a younger generation that is less interested in their specific title and more interested in what they will do for the world as their own medium.
RF: When I applied to RISD several decades ago I was asked to draw a bicycle. Are students still evaluated on their ability to render by hand, or has the digital world rendered this obsolete?
JM: Before accepting the position, I actually went incognito to one of the admissions orientation sessions as a prospective parent. First of all I was blown away by how packed the room was. For some reason I had thought that since it was a summer day that there would be just a few folks there. It was my first exposure to the fact that prospective students together with their parents really put an institution through its paces before considering the process of application. And yes the “draw a bicycle” requirement did come up, Rob. It was new to me, and it’s been around for a few years—at least ten years because that’s when you applied to RISD, right Rob? (smile).
As to whether that might change, I haven’t the slightest idea. It’s really up to what RISD wants to do. My job as President of RISD will be to empower those at RISD to do what they want to do as the preeminent institution of art and design in the 21st century. I have to say though that asking folks to draw a bicycle is much better than asking them to make a drawing of a computer mouse.
RF: What is the best preparation for an art student today applying to RISD?
JM: Having a good mind and global perspective. Being unafraid to work hard and knowing that playing once in a while isn’t a bad thing. Recognizing the odd feeling of being part of the first generation where reference books began to really matter less in an age of being able to type a simple keyword gives access to entire worlds of knowledge on the Web. Seeing oneself beyond being just an artist or designer in a purely traditional sense, but as the embodiment of the hope for humanity as a person that will bring understanding, joy, and peace to a world that in spite of the best communication technologies available in the history of mankind, still chooses to ignore each other, fight with each other, kill each other.
Think of the touching movie “Joyeux Noël” directed by Christian Carion—when music and visual revelry and humanity prevailed for a single moment in the midst of war. The film reminded me of how core human expression is to how we relate to each other. It is like when the NYT interviewed several people on what they felt would be the big thing in science of the future and they asked me. I told them that in the midst of all the attention given to the sciences for the ability to one day cure cancer, what matters more is after one is cured, whether their life is truly worth living. The quote they used for me was simply, “The arts are the science of enjoying life.”
RF: Unrelated but related: Is there a better example of good design than a bicycle?
JM: Yes. A rock. Nature did a good job by this. Extremely useful in many regards.
RF: RISD used to have a reputation for being the most expensive art school in the country. The rumor was that they kept the tuition high intentionally for prestige factor. Is this still the case? Is RISD conscious of being a luxury brand?
JM: First of all, I don’t give much credence to rumors. For instance it’s rumored that I have a staff of thirty people that do all my design work for me, but in reality it’s just me at this desk at home where I’m typing my responses to you.
The cost of college tuition is high everywhere, and having five children I’m aware more than most that I want to make sure the investments we make in their future are good ones. As for comparative costs, I do know it’s more expensive to go to MIT than RISD, and I haven’t done a study as to why that is so. But as someone that does actively purchase things from brands like Issey Miyake and so forth, I do know that when I do so I’m buying something of excellent quality that goes way above the standards of items from other brands. For instance I bought a shirt from the Gap that lasted for maybe a week before it fell apart in the wash; on the other hand a shirt I got from Comme des Garcons has lasted for ten years and still looks like it is new. So for whatever RISD costs to go to, its value is likely to last a much longer time than most other schools out there.
As for whether RISD will be affordable to more families, you can look to motions by leading academic institutions like the recent announcement by Drew Faust of Harvard to provide more financial aid to the middle class. So many universities are aware that it’s important to make high quality education accessible to simply the best students in the world regardless of their financial resources. Especially since I myself was a product of public schools and parents without a college education, you can tell where my heart and my hopes really are.
RF: I see you had a new entry on your blog today. Do you think you will still be able to find time to write?
JM: Always. I love to write, I love to draw, I love to create and express. I think if I didn’t do any of it, I’d either explode or whither away.
RF: Fund raising. You would not have been selected to this position if the RISD board did not think you would be talented at bringing home the bacon. What percentage of your time is spent in thought about this?
JM: The average I’ve heard is 70 to 85% of one’s time. I don’t find that so surprising as I don’t know any President/CEO out there in the commercial world that isn’t spending at least 95% selling their company’s strengths to others—if they’re not they should be fired. As for how much time I’m spending on thinking about how to advance RISD’s brand and increase interest by individuals and corporation to engage in new ways, I’d say right now I’m at 200% right now (smile).
RF: You and I made some light hearted analogies between you and Barack Obama and the upcoming elections. Will this job put communication constraints on you, or can you discuss politics and upcoming election?
JM: Actually the word on the street is that when people meet me they think I'm something of a cross between Barack Obama and Woody Allen. So someone that can give people hope grounded in theory but lack of actual experience (Barack), and also is unafraid to show his own neuroses as born of this special, nonlinear affliction of the human heart we call being "creative" (Woody). In other words, I'd vote for Barack as President but not for Woody, but if I wanted someone to make a movie about my life it'd be Woody and not Barack. I hope that works for you as my little bit of expression of my politics. And I think everything above is quite revealing as well. You're asking me such hard questions Rob and I appreciate it. Man.
As I am just closing this note and getting tready to hit Command-S to save it and ship it off to you, I got a nice email from Elizabeth Diller from Diller Scofidio + Renfro. When we are at Design Miami together a few weeks ago I told Liz that I was on the verge of a big change and she enthusiastically kept guessing what it might be and where. She tells me upon just learning the news, "Congratulations! Kids taking over the world!" My guess is that she's referring not to me, but the future students of RISD. Thanks Rob!
Thanks John and Congratulations.