John Maeda

Artist, author, computer scientist and president of the Rhode Island School of Design

Please tell us a little bit about what you do.

John Maeda: As the president of Rhode Island School of Design, I’m working to build a justifiable case for creativity in the world, to share with industry and policymakers (and anyone who will listen) the critical role that artists and designers play in driving innovation.

How do you interpret the conference theme, “Design (Re)Invents”?

JM: Design is all about problem solving. With the current economy, climate change and the healthcare crisis, artists and designers are finding ways to do more with less and applying design to developing solutions to the daunting problems that others don’t even know how to begin thinking about. It’s about asking the right questions and critical thinking.

How is the concept of reinvention reflected in your work?

JM: I have always thought of myself as a “hybrid”: someone who looked to combine art and technology, design and engineering. After I got my MS at MIT, I went to Japan and got a PhD in art. Later on in my career as a professor I was seeking new things to hybridize. I realized there was this whole world of management out there that I didn’t know about, so I got an MBA. Curiosity and learning keep the mind healthy and challenged. Passion drives artists to explore and cross boundaries. Much of my work reflects those interests: art, design and technology.

What innovative approaches or trends do you think are changing the way people do business right now?

JM: Right now, I see a world that is obsessively focused on STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—to drive innovation. I believe we need to add art to give STEM some STEAM. After being steeped in STEM at MIT, growing up with that mode of thinking, at RISD I’ve arrived at another extreme: an extreme of humanity.

What influence does design have on business (or does business have on design)?

JM: We exist in a society where achieving “measurable results” has become the end all, be all. What’s missing is the notion that artists and designers are among the most passionate people about what they do, and the world needs more of that passion. There’s too much systematic thinking and logic, too many soulless business processes. Humanity is about doing wonderfully impossible things. 

As the world continues to struggle with monumental challenges—challenges that require our most creative thinkers to find inspired solutions—it is essential to push the notion of artists-as-entrepreneurs one step further. Artists, designers and other creative types need to become leaders. Our best “art-repreneurs” also have the ability to lead and inspire others. They deal in “artonomics”; that is, mixing the authentic expression of artistic practice with innovative economic models. 

What was the first piece of design that had an impact on you, and why?

JM: Paul Rand’s logo work, as well as the simple wisdom of his remark: “You cannot play if you cannot earn.”

What’s one rule (in design or otherwise) that was made to be broken?

JM: The process is just as, if not more, important than the result.

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