Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

DESIGN IN MIND: John Maeda

John Maeda is an American executive spearheading a new convergence across the design + technology industries. He recently joined Automattic as Global Head of Computational Design + Inclusion and previously served as Design Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), a world-leading venture capital firm. An internationally recognized speaker and author, his books include The Laws of Simplicity, Creative Code and Redesigning Leadership. He holds degrees in Electrical Engineering + Computer Science from MIT, an MBA from Arizona State U, and a PhD from University of Tsukuba in Japan.

Maeda draws on his diverse background as an MIT-trained engineer, award-winning designer, and executive leader to help businesses and creatives push the boundaries of innovation in their markets and fields. An internationally recognized speaker and author, Maeda’s books include The Laws of Simplicity, Creative Code, and Redesigning Leadership. He has appeared as a speaker all over the world, from Davos to Beijing to São Paulo to New York, and his talks for TED.com have received cumulative views of over 2 million to date.

Maeda holds BS and MS degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an MBA from Arizona State University, and a PhD from University of Tsukuba in Japan. He was the recipient of the White House’s National Design Award, the Tribeca Film Festival’s Disruptive Innovation Award for STEM to STEAM, the Blouin Foundation’s Creative Leadership Award, the AIGA Medal, the Raymond Loewy Foundation Prize, the Mainichi Design Prize, the Tokyo Type Director’s Club Prize, and induction into the Art Director’s Club Hall of Fame.

Listen here to our conversation with John Maeda or subscribe to the podcast through iTunes. Take the conversation with you and keep Design In Mind.

 

Below is a transcription of the Design In Mind interview with John Maeda.


Arkitektura:
Let’s start at the beginning: You were born in Seattle?

John Maeda:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
And how did your parents decide to move to Seattle?

John:
My parents were missionaries in a post World War II religion in Japan and they were sent to Seattle.

Arkitektura:
Wow! So it was. It wasn’t a choice on their part.

John:
No, it was sort of a Shinto sect, very strict, very pro-meditation. So I grew up meditating a lot.

Arkitektura:
That’s great actually. And they are saying now it helps shape your brain.

John:
Who would have thought?

Arkitektura:
Do you still practice Meditation?

John:
Um not really. But people do ask me why I don’t get angry and I think it’s because I spent so much time meditating.

Arkitektura:
So do you have siblings that also did the same?

John:
Oh yeah, yeah.

Arkitektura:
It is incredible. I do a meditation practice and I think about bringing my daughter to meditation. It is a really good practice to start when you are young.

John:
I think so, but when you are young you don’t know what you are doing so hey it is like all things that parents subject their kids to. You hope it does something but it may have the wrong impact.

Arkitektura:
And did they continue to do meditation after you left home?

John:
Oh yeah. They are peaceful people.

Arkitektura:
And when they came here, I understand that they were making Tofu.

John:
Well, they didn’t start out that way. My dad was a cook and worked in the restaurant. My mom was a legal secretary. The Tofu shop that the restaurant would use, my father would pick up the Tofu and the couple, the older couple, they didn’t have any children and they liked my dad. So my dad came home one day and probably told my mom, “Hey, we can own a Tofu shop, a Tofu factory and you won’t have to work at all. You can just count the money.”

Arkitektura: (laughter)

John:
And of course my mom suffered working with my father for decades and I feel really bad for her.

Arkitektura:
Are you being sarcastic or do you truly feel bad?

John:
Oh, it is very hard work. You know, you wake up at like anywhere from one O’clock to three O’clock in the morning and you would work till five, six PM and it is six days a week so it was tough for my mom. My dad too, of course, but…

Arkitektura:
I was thinking about that. I read that they they worked very, very hard and that said you kind of have to in that business but I wondered how that must have been like for you. To have parents working really hard.

John:
Oh, well, they made us work hard too (laughter) so I guess we were brought along for the adventure. I think it shaped how I think about life and work and my work and all the work I have done. I don’t think I have ever really worked very hard. My parents have worked really hard. So I look at them as a kind of example.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, it is interesting. I was speaking to my cousin about how our parents and our aunts and uncles kind of paved the way for us. My parents are also immigrants so they worked very hard when they came to this country and then we, as their children, have it easier. I don’t think from the outside some would say you don’t work hard.

John:
Oh, I don’t think anyone would say that about me I think. If they do, I welcome criticism. I also know that it isn’t all that great. Let me give you an example: I remember I was at the Media Lab [at MIT] one year and there was a construction project and there was a construction worker moving a big concrete block and I asked, “that block, it has plastic it, why is that?”, and he said, “well, you know this is all built on top of a landfill in this area so that is why it has it in the concrete but why would you care? You are clearly a white-collar worker here and I am blue- collar worker. Your life is not the same as mine, why do you care?”. And we got in an elevator together. And I thought for a moment, I thought, “You know, I come from blue-collar family and there’s one thing I realized in the white-collar world: You don’t have real friends. People don’t really rely on you as much as in the blue-collar world. I help you, you help me, it is symbiotic.”

Arkitektura:
Yes.

John:
But in the professional world, it works a bit differently.

Arkitektura:
It is very true. It is very true, yeah.

John:
And he said to me, “well, I like my blue-collar world.” (laughter) and our ways parted.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, I mean. You are obviously white – collar now. Do you still have longings for a blue-collar lifestyle?

John:
Oh no. no. The famous design historian John Heskett said, “people would say it was so much better in the old days, it was so much better in the old days,” and he said, “in the old days, there were dirt floors, there was no running water”. And that is a hard life, we have a good life. I couldn’t live like my parents. They worked so hard with so much less. That said, I respect people who can get the job done who don’t have means.

Arkitektura:
Absolutely. When did you start realizing that you kind of saw the world differently or have this creative bent or were interested in creativity and art. At what age, would you say?

John:
I had teachers who seemed to think that I was good at Art but my parents never went for that. It was like, “we don’t want you to be good at Art because you won’t make any money, so you gotta feed your family.” That was the idea but I think in later life, I realized I was lucky because I learned how to be very useful at different things. And when I grew up professionally, my parents basically said, “you are now self sufficient, go do what you wanna do.” I think if it was the other way around, I might have been a little more lost.

Arkitektura:
Absolutely, I think that makes a huge difference. I mean if you had been dependent on them for your Art, that would’ve been a no- no. But the fact that it went the other way, that was the ideal. When your teacher saw that you were good at art, were you actually good at drawing, illustrating?

John:
Yeah. I was good at drawing, painting etcetera but I didn’t even know what it was you know. And there were of course people better than myself so you know, there is one thing you can do slightly better than someone else.

Arkitektura:
Do you ever draw anything now?

John:
I try to but my interests have changed.

Arkitektura:
You don’t feel like there is some need and you have to do it.

John:
No. I don’t feel that. Well, I feel I need to make, to create. But people immediately think that means you wanna make Art. To me I think that people, you know community, institutions, are kind of Art work, it’s work. I find that to be very creative.

Arkitektura:
So, for instance, when you were President of RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), there was a creativity in sort of organizing that community?

John:
Well, there was creativity in understanding it. When you have a community around for a long time, I mean that was like over a century long, I wasn’t there for whole century…

Arkitektura: (laughter)

John:
Just listening , understanding. When you make something , like out of paper or whatever, you take a look at the material, you study it, you test it, you work with it but it is inert. You can study it, it is understandable. When you have thousands of people, that all have different views on something, you can’t sit in a day and figure it out. It takes years. So it took me a few years to understand what the community was about, what it wanted to do, what I can do for the community and find some overlap.

Arkitektura:
I mean, I guess by that point you had already had experience with working with a community, not that large, but the Media Lab was certainly that.

John:
Oh yeah, but it is very different. I mean at MIT it was all about technology and I think technology people, we, I’ll say myself, we don’t convene that much (laughter). We are just sort of like heads down, get the thing done. But in an Art space community, there is a lot interaction, there is a lot of exchange or change in critical thinking. So that was new to me. It was kind of like I went to Liberal Arts school for the first time. It was like my perspective on that experience.

Arkitektura:
Interesting. But it also must have brought out these two very different sides of you. which obviously exist in you, this kind of what you said, “hankering down and getting something done” and then actually engaging, exploring , risking.

John:
I think that I like to point out that an institution has a past, a present and future. And the leader’s role is to find some way to bridge the past to the future in the present. And so you really have to have a handle of the past but you also have to kind of know what the future is about but you also have to know what future will match that past. So just finding that was a struggle, a lot of learning, a lot of creativity went into it and I feel proud of what I got to do there.

Arkitektura:
And struggle is actually a great thing because you do learn so much.

John:
Oh, yeah, tons. I learn a lot about myself, my own limitations, what I can do, what I can’t do, where I have to learn to improve. So that was great. The students were kind of the key to everything for me, they were my surrogate family. I had like thousands of them.

Arkitektura: (Laughter)

John:
And just their optimism and their curiosity. You know I would sit with them over meals because I would live on campus and walk around and learn from them. And I would see over and over how brave they were, they weren’t afraid to be Artists and Designers, they weren’t gonna make any money. That didn’t bother them, this is the work they had to do. I learned a lot from them.

Arkitektura:
I interview creatives, I have for a very long time and that is the one of the things that I think is most inspiring. This lack of turning away from what you have to do.

John:
Yeah. You know and some of them have means so they get to do that and some of them don’t, they shouldn’t be doing that. (laughter) But they are doing it. So I think it was a great privilege to be a kind of chief cheerleader for that community.

Arkitektura:
Now you don’t get to be around young people in that way nearly as much I imagine. I was thinking about that: Looking at your whole career, so much of your time was spent with younger people.

John: Hmmm.

Arkitektura:
And I was thinking about the advice that you had gotten from your professor in Japan about the importance of thinking young and it helps to be around young people when you think young and practice young.

John: Yeah.

Arkitektura:
How do you maintain that when you are not around younger people?

John:
Well, I have discovered that everyone is really young here in Silicon Valley (laughter) and I got older at the same time too. So the relative distance is no different than when I was at any other stage of my career. So I get to learn from tons of younger people here.

Arkitektura:
Now, what does think young mean really?

John:
Think young? I don’t know really anymore. I am not sure if it’s young or old or…I think the best to describe it is: This younger fellow was saying, “When you are younger, you are always told you have great potential and when older you are told ‘ah you did that great stuff!” And he said that, “The key to life is no matter how old you become, is to always get to be told you have potential.” So, I would say thinking young is being someone who people will always come up to and say, “you have potential!” I think that is what being young is about.

Arkitektura:
My Grandma often says, “You never stop learning, you never stop growing.” She is a great cook she says, “I always learn something new even when I make the same dish that I have made so many times.” Or now she is learning the computer. There is just all these things, there is this potential for growth, there is always this potential for growth.

John:
Yeah because someone who has no potential will not grow. They are pretty happy sometimes. So it is like, “Ah, I wanna be like that, I don’t wanna grow.” My other favorite phrase is, “I’d rather be green and growing instead of ripe and ready to rot.”

Arkitektura: Uh hum.

John:
I like that one. The green tomato becomes ripe, a ripe tomato gets rotten.

Arkitektura: (laughter)

John:
So, I like being not ripe.

Arkitektura:
Yes, and I am sure you are being really challenged in that way by working here in Silicon Valley.

John:
Oh, well I am very green. I was away from high-tech for over five years as President. And five years in the technology world is like six times the speed of whatever. So I am catching up now and learning so much.

Arkitektura:
So how would you describe the world that you are living in? This Silicon Valley world.

John:
I think I am living in a world where I am closer to the foundry of much of the software we use today. I would say we have to use today because it is so prevalent. I am beginning to see why it happens this way. My role is to see how can I broaden or extend how it is done now so that greater economic impact will occur from things that I am close to.

Arkitektura:
When you describe it to me it sounds intimidating. You really have to innovate, it sounds like, innovation is key because you have to think of new things: “How can I do something. I am not sure what it is that needs to be done but I am figuring that out to make something happen.” So you’re kind of walking into the unknown.

John:
Well, I am kind of used to that. When I was at MIT, I was in research so my whole job was to find new things no one had ever thought of. I don’t know if I was ever lucky but I was lucky to have a few great graduate students who found all kinds of new things. It was Ben Frye and KC Reese who made something called processing. A bunch of other students made all kinds of things that I can see here and there and I am used to trying to imagine what hasn’t happened yet, with people.

Arkitektura: Yes.

John:
That is a part I discovered later in life: How much I like people. I think that when you are a creative, a lone creative, you are taught to be like, “I am a lone creative, I am just so happy, I am in my zone, I am in my perfect place.” But I think I realize that it is much more interesting being part of a team. If you are lucky, you get to lead a team. I think I like that dynamic.

Arkitektura:
What are some of the things that you like about it?

John:
It is hard. I like how much harder it is. You know when you are making something out of a paper, you can punish that paper, you can change its color, you can flip it up and down. You can’t do that with people. People won’t like to be folded: You have to listen to them, understand them, move with them and sometimes they may move with you. I like that dance.

Arkitektura:
So, when I say, “being creative, or you’re a creative or how do you use creativity.” What does creative mean? How would you define that?

John:
You know, it is funny because I have these friends that used to design furniture for a while. And it was Paolo. Paolo said to me he doesn’t ever use the word “creative” because only God gets to create. And he was serious.

Arkitektura:
I am sure.

John:
And I love the finality of that. I loved how he had categorized that “create” as something holy, you know. On the other hand, we brandy about the term, “I am a creative or doing something creative, let’s get creative, let get bean bagged chairs and squishy balls and get creative. Pass around the post-it notes, creative.” And then it becomes something else too. I think everyone is creative but each individual person carries their own notion of risk. If I have high inability to manage risk, I may be creative but I won’t express that. Whereas if am the opposite, I am all out there, I don’t care, my creativity will be seen more.

Arkitektura: Uh hum.

John:
So how much risk are you willing to hold? You could be a super creative person and you could have a family to feed, spouse to feed in some cases, just people to take care of. You may be the most creative person in the world but you are not gonna get creative too much because you are carrying so much risk.

Arkitektura: Uh hum.

John:
But if you are flush and you are doing well, you have your health. You are gonna get more creative.

Arkitektura:
Well, initially I thought that what you were saying was not so much what you have to hold in the sense of responsibility but how much of a risk taker are you.

John: Exactly.

Arkitektura:
And I was wondering how high on the value scale is risk for you. Where does it land?

John:
Well, I think everyone has that thing in them: “Are you sure you should do that? This could be the last time that happens.” Or the insidious voice that appears out of nowhere with a lower tone, and that tone comes out to talk to me: “Why are you doing that? That doesn’t sound too safe, are you sure?” But, I don’t know, somewhere along the way, I guess I got used to accepting risk because it was the only way to feel alive.

Arkitektura:
When you start tapping into what risk feels like, moments in which one has been risky or taken a chance or jumped, the immediate sense for me is adrenalin, that there is this almost addictive quality to it.

John:
That is a good one yeah. There is a chemical aspect to people who like to take on risk.

Arkitektura:
My mom is a risk taker and the other day I was out with her and she inspires me a lot and she was parking the car. And we were on a road with all one way cars, oncoming traffic, and she didn’t care. She just reversed (laughter). Reversed and just parked the car perfectly, and it is a big car. And it was in that small gesture that I saw that window into all these other ways in which she is a risk taker.

John: Uh huh.

Arkitektura:
And you can take risk on a small scale, whether you choose to approach someone to say hi or whether you park your car in a certain way and you can take risks on a larger scale.

John:
Just the way that you are describing it, it is kind of like out of sheer stupidity you can take on risk or out of sheer confidence in your skills you can take on risk. I think it is always somewhere in between. I think for me at least.

Arkitektura:
Well, because it is hard to have that level of confidence in everything that you risk, every risk you take.

John:
Oh yeah, it is not logical

Arkitektura:
So one thing you are noticing is that you are at the sort of nexus of all these fundamental things that we are using in our lives. What about the culture of it all, how is that for you? Because you have been in educational institutions for so long which is very different, I imagine, than Silicon Valley.

John:
Well, when I was at MIT at the Media Lab, there were a lot of corporate sponsors. So on any given day I was working with three or four companies and so I am used to working with corporations. And my mentor, Nicholas Negraponte who co-founded the Medial Lab, once said to me as young professor, “John, don’t forget that industry is smarter than us. We may be MIT blah blah blah but industry does things at scale. They get things done, we don’t.”

Arkitektura:
So is it smarter or is it stronger?

John:
Um, I would say stronger. Which, in some cases, is more important than smarter. And for me, that is why I spent so much time working with industry. I was like, ” Whoa”. And I was lucky because in 2001, I began to see a pattern. Before 2001, the computers in academia were so much better than the computers anyone else had, even industry. But in 2001, I remember the freshman coming to campus and they had better computers than we had in the research labs.

Arkitektura: (laughter)

John:
And industry partners had ten times more computers than we did. And I was like, “wait a second, I thought we were ahead. Oh, you guys are way ahead.” I have always been aware of that. So for me, working here reminds me of working back then. At the same time, what is great is that things I saw twenty years ago in research are now happening. So I am like, “oh, I saw that before.” So that’s been helpful.

Arkitektura:
And exciting.

John:
Yeah, because it is happening at scale. Before it was like a one-off experiment, now it is like, “Oh my gosh, it is like gazillions of them.” What does that mean?

Arkitektura:
And just along this thought. What’s been most surprising for you moving here?

John:
What’s been most surprising is the lack of diversity in technology companies. I think that’s been the most surprising for me. I had heard that but to see it up close has been, “Whoa”.

Arkitektura:
I was noticing that while walking down the street the other day, while walking down Valencia [in the Mission District] and I was very frustrated by it. And I was thinking about when I was going to be speaking to you. I was thinking about something that I read about when you went to Japan: You had this sort of realization that you are an American.

John:
I am an American but I look Japanese.

Arkitektura: Uh hum.

John:

And they think I am American and when I am here, they are like, “Where did you come from?”, “I came from Seattle”, “no, but where did you really come from?”, and I am like, “I came from Seattle!” So, I find great comfort in practicing not fitting in. It is uncomfortable. But that discomfort, going back to this risk thing perhaps, that discomfort makes you more willing to take on risk. Because you have little to lose. You were never anything in the first place. So go ahead.

Arkitektura:
But I think it is also freeing, I should say, because you can kind of fall back on, “well, he comes from a different culture, maybe he doesn’t understand.”

John:
That happens too: “Oh yeah, yeah. That’s who he is. That is why he thinks like that.” I don’t really think that! Well, that’s the thing.

Arkitektura: (laughter)

John:
I think that as you grow stronger or older, you stop caring what people say about you. That is always the constant exercise. You should listen to criticism of course. But if you listen to what everyone says about you, you just can’t get anything done.

Arkitektura:
And this is the thought process I am recently getting into is usually if someone has something to say about you, positive or negative, is not about you.

John:
Well, it is a projection. So, you can’t take it on too much. I think we are social beings, all that work in social animals, like [David] Brooks. All I know is that remembering who you are is always a good exercise. Because that person is always better than the person you are now. “How do I do that? How do I get stronger at being who I am?” My favorite phrase by John [C.] Jay [designer] is, “The most powerful thing in the world you can be is you.”

Arkitektura: Yes.

John:
Which makes total sense. I can’t be you, I can’t be like so and so. I am really good at being me. So I am gonna be really good at it, you know. I like that centering.

Arkitektura:
Yes, I think it is great and I think meditation helps a tremendous amount with that. Even if you don’t practice it now.

John:
I think so, yeah. Just finding yourself.

Arkitektura:
It sounds like RISD also was instrumental in that for you because you were saying that you learned so much about yourself, your abilities.

John:
Oh yeah. I had a campus that really over decades had its own culture of how things were and are and there are great things in it. And I wasn’t like everyone there and I didn’t look the same either. So I had to learn how not to be me. Because the President’s role is not to be you, it is to be about them. So that was a good experience. And so I began to learn how to be on behalf of the community. So I became someone else. Now, I am not there anymore, I am re-settling with being who I am. And it is interesting. I am like, “Oh! I used to think like that, oh yeah it is kind of fun.”

Arkitektura:
Reminds me of what it was like to start working more after having my child and remembering this other aspect of myself and re-meeting that part of myself.

John:
Re-meeting that person, yeah.

Arkitektura:
Someone told me, “You will turn to that part of yourself and say ‘Oh, hi! I remember you.'” And it is very much like that. It is a process, it didn’t happen in a day or a week.

John:
No, no, no.

Arkitektura:
It takes some time.

John:
That is the advantage of getting to live a bit longer. You can talk to all those people that lived before you inside your own body. My friend Jessie Shefrin, she always says how many lives she’s lived. She’s like twenty years my senior, “Oh yeah, yeah, I had one of those lives John.” I love when she does that, actually. It is like “I had a life, that was that life.” “Oh, ok. Ok Jessie.”

Arkitektura:
How would you describe the current life that you are having now?

John:
Oh, the current life I am living is…I would say…I am in a river, it is like a running river and I am seeing things anew. I think I was in a ocean before and now I am in a river. It is fast moving, like white water rapids, and I see all these people doing all kinds of things and my role is to facilitate them to do even better things. And it is kind of like my role in academia, a little bit, as a professor but it is different. I like it.

Arkitektura:
How is it to be traveling this much?

John:
Oh! You know the thing about the human body and the mind is, you think you can’t do it. And then I am almost a year in and I can’t believe I am doing this, going back and forth. I’m just happy that all the parts of my body are working ok and I keep doing it.

Arkitektura:
Now, are you specifically going back and forth between two places or do you find that you are traveling just all over?

John:
All over the place. All over the place.

Arkitektura:
So, you have done so many different things over the last twenty years, I will say. What are the some of the things that you are most proud of?

John:
Oh, I am never proud of anything I have done (laughter). I don’t think I linger around anything so much. I think that I always feel afraid that if I was ever really proud of something I did, I might not evolve, so it’s like a superstition thing. I tend to do things and I am kind of happy for a micro-moment and then I just think, “Oh no, that wasn’t that good. Let’s see if you can do this better or do that instead.” I know that people who are good at what they do are extraordinary. I know that when I was in the nineties and I was making things in Java and making things for the web that changed and flew around, I was one of the few people that can do this and then I began to recruit graduate students to do this kind of work in their own name, in their own brand. And I began seeing how much better they were than me and I was like, “Whoa, I gotta stop doing this.” So, I think I am able to see when I know that I cannot exceed. I can see when people can do what I cannot do and I always get out of the way before I look too bad.

Arkitektura: (laughter)

John:
Old man, pathetic. So, I think I start things, people seem to run into that, they go further than I could ever imagine and ideally I have changed to doing something else. That is my life so far.

Arkitektura:
So you’re great at facilitating.

John:
I am great at opening doors. I’m not so good at walking through them in a very reliable way (laughter). I play with the keys a bit.

Arkitektura:
I saw an exhibition at the Barbican [in London] that you were in this summer.

John: Yeah.

Arkitektura:
It was a technology exhibition. It was a really playful exhibition, I brought my daughter there, not that that is unusual, and I thought “Gosh, here is John Maeda in a very playful exhibition. Is he very playful himself?” And it seems like you are. Would you describe yourself that way professionally?

John:
Playful? Yeah, I think so. I like to try things. I think trying and playing…I don’t know actually. Playing does not seem very risky, trying seems risky (laughter).

Arkitektura: Uh hum.

John:
So, I think I like to try to play things. Try new things, that’s all.

Arkitektura:
And just in this forty minute or half hour conversation, I am finding it really difficult to pinpoint who you are: Are you a creative person? Are you are a designer? Are you a technology person? What do you identify most with or all of them?

John:
Oh, well I am still trying to figure things out. I guess we’re all kinds of things. I like to think that we can be everything. You don’t have to just choose. You can be both. Do both, I like to say. And I am in the investing world now. I never thought I could ever be in this world but it is so interesting. I feel lucky to get to try. I don’t know if it is being playful but I like to try.