Transcript of conversation with John Maeda
John Maeda: Our students carry this thing you described, passion, at a level that we forget as we become adults and tied to the physicalities of the world. They still hold on to it. And that kind of passion reminds me of why I want to do this; this job of representing art and design as the President of RISD.
Jo Reed: That was John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Designer, artist, computer scientist, author, and educator, John Maeda has been a leader in integrating art, design, technology and science. Born in 1966, Maeda studied software engineering at MIT and used his natural ability as an artist to design software and graphics that had an aesthetic appeal. After completing his master's degree at MIT, he studied art in Japan where he received a Ph.D in design. As computers became more sophisticated and the web made their technology more accessible, Maeda was perfectly positioned to influence computer-generated design. His work is often at the crossroads of art and technology, where he has consistently pushed their boundaries to explore how these disciplines shape each other. He is known for his innovative thinking; a belief that technology should be humanized, and that design in the digital age should be simple. Indeed, one of his books is titled, The laws of Simplicity. He is a pioneer in championing the creative economy in his insistence that a thriving 21 st century economy must find its leaders in artists and designers. He has won many national and international awards for his work and was chosen by Esquire Magazine as one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century. Maeda's own art work has been exhibited throughout the world and can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Since 2008 John Maeda has been President of the Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD where he has continued his innovative collaboration of design and technology. It's been a long journey for John Maeda which began in Seattle in his father's tofu factory, where he learned by example the value of craft and of hardwork.
John Maeda: Well you know I grew up in a hole in the wall, in the international district, which used to be politically incorrectly, Chinatown of Seattle, and that's where I grew up in this very cold in the winter, very hot in the summer environment, where my father worked very hard and taught us to work hard with him, through example.
Jo Reed: What kind of work did your father and you do?
John Maeda: The work was kind of hard to describe really âit's all manual labor, and it begins at 2:00 o'clock in the morning, or 3:00 o'clock in the morning, and it goes on until 5:00 at night and you move things from left to right, with your hands, you scoop things, liquids, solids, you carry heavy things, they are cold in the winter because you're working with water, which is very cold in the winter, and it's very hot in the summer, because we fried a lot of things too; like industrial style frying. And I always wondered when I was in school about how I learned about child labor, you know? I was like oh, like my parents might get arrested or something? <Laughs> But that's kind of how I grew up; working very hard with my parents.
Jo Reed: And how did you get to MIT from there?
John Maeda: My parents were immigrants, and they thought this thing called a college would save their kids from having to work so hard; so they knew that there were two colleges in the world; MIT and Harvard and had this dream that one of us would go to this place, wherever it might be. We were in Seattle, Washington, and they thought MIT might be in Washington as well, even though M stands for Massachusetts. We had no idea, but they had this dream that someday one of the kids could go to college; that was the dream.
Jo Reed: What I have found and not meaning to overstate the case at all, but kids of immigrant parents, who decide that they're going to be artists or writers or involved in the creative arts at all, are met often with very blank stares. I know a doctor who decided she was going to be a novelist; and her parents, I think they're still passed out from the shock of that. Did you find that as well?
John Maeda: I think it was in grade school; my parents were there for the parent/teacher conference thing, and my teacher, Mrs. Harita, she told my parents that John's good at art and math. My father said to his friend the next day; John is good at math. So I learned- I'm like wait, Dad, what about the art part? And he says John; this art stuff is not good for anything, so the math stuff is good. So I was good at Math too, and computers were just kind of like emerging; and we were always so busy working, that my father felt a little bit sorry for me I think, so he bought me a computer, which at the time was an anomaly. We didn't have many computers around then. And I would learn how to use it at night.
Jo Reed: And what did that entail, because computers then, very different from computers now.
John Maeda: Well the computer back then...
Jo Reed: We're talking in the 80s?
John Maeda: Yeah. You'd buy a computer, you'd bring it home, you'd plug it in, and it would glow. That was all it could do, really. You know, there was no software. So you had to type in the programs and run them. Computer programming was like a real craft back then, and my father, my world at the tofu factory was about making things with your hands, so I began to make things with my mind. Well the same kind of manual labor, but creating these machines inside the computer that you really can't see; computer programs.
Jo Reed: When did you decide that art really was worth something too?
John Maeda: Actually at MIT, I discovered that I could draw and program, which was an anomaly. And this was '85; '84, I went to MIT, '85. Macintosh is taking off, graphical computers emerging. Remember it was all like text/graphics on the screen? And everyone needed people who could draw pictures on the computer screen; icons. So I became very popular on campus. Wow, there's this guy, he can like program, but he can also draw and make icons of things and so I became the guy that could draw icons and when you're the only person who can do this kind of stuff, your head gets kind of big. I'm like wow, I don't believe I must be really good at this stuff, you know? And I found a book in the library, by a man named Paul Rand, a graphic designer and I opened up the book, and I looked at all the pictures, and the text, and I thought, wow I really suck at this. People are really good at this, so how do I get better? That's how it began.
Jo Reed: And you ended up after MIT going to art school in Japan?
John Maeda: Yes, a lot of accidents, happenstances more like â¦I got to MIT and in my first year there, the upper classmen were studying for this test, called the GRE and I was like, what's this test for, because I did the SAT thing, you know. Well this is to go to graduate school. And I called my dad and said, there's something called graduate school and so Dad said, go to graduate school, you know? There was a Professor named Muriel Cooper who was the Art Director at MIT Press for a long time, and she saw my skills at work and she said, maybe you should be in art school instead. And I thought, what is that? Never knew it actually existed. <Laughs> I wanted to switch into something like this Rand stuff I saw; my father told me I'd have to finish doing what I'm doing. His whole rationale was you'll have to feed your family someday, John. So you know, that was his whole thing. And I finished my Master's degree in â¦ semiconductor physics. He said well you can get a job now, you can support a family if you ever needed to; go do what you want to do now. So I went to art school and changed my life.
Jo Reed: Did you know immediately John that art and science had a lot to say to each other or was that something that you discovered?
John Maeda: Not at all, I knew nothing about this. Really at MIT, this media lab place was starting to take off, and so I hung out there. So,
in art school I discovered- the school I went to was very Bauhaus-ish- it was Tsukuba, outside of Tokyo, and I just kept reading. They had a large English language library. So Bauhaus, old art history, going back way back. I was like wow, there has always been this curiosity about art and how art advances the world and what's science-like collides with it, and something happens like the Futurists, the idea that the automobile could change the entire perspective of art. I was like huh, technology, science and art have always led to some kind of quantum leap. Photography, you know, the unholy art. Later, we love photographs, so technology always puts a little kind of an accident in the oyster, a little bit of sand gets in there and you wait a while and artists, people create the art that we all suddenly can't live without.
Jo Reed: During that time in art school were you working at all with computers, and if not, did you miss them?
John Maeda: I think everything in my life has been like a very happy accident. Went to art school, and I was very happy âcause I was away from computers. Very happy.
Jo Reed: What were you doing?
John Maeda: I was setting type, the old fashioned way; I was making sculptures out of aluminum, sitting there for a like aluminum is so hard; we think it's so soft, but it takes forever to mill aluminum by hand. And then I had this teacher in Tsukuba, who pulled me aside and said, so what will you do with your life, John? I said well I want to study the classics and be like you, teacher. He looked at me like I was crazy and he said, âYou idiot, in Japanese; you horse's behindâ; that's pretty bad in Japanese. He said you're young, so do something young with yourself. When you get older, the classics will always be there, so don't worry about it so much. So it was very freeing. So I picked up the computer again; began to make stuff. The stuff was unique because at the time people who could make art and computer program were a rarity and made stuff; people didn't know what it was. People would stare at it and say that's not art; that's nothing; you stop doing that; it's a disgrace. It was really good; it was good, like oh, you think that, well thank you. Kept on making stuff. It began to become more mainstream. My teachers at the time said to me that I should become a professor, because I should figure out if my work was any good or not. Because at the time I was one of very few people who could do this. I said well make more people that can do it; and see if you are really any good at it. Make the people that will come and destroy you someday. So at MIT I did that. I came in touch with all these people who could do things like this on the computer, much better than me. And so I changed again.
Jo Reed: You also redesigned software to in fact make it more applicable to designing art.
John Maeda: Yes, it's been a long strand since the sixties, computer art at Bell Laboratories; there's always been a movement to link computers with art, a long standing linkage. Until the web, there was no way to deliver it easily.
Jo Reed: Not to us. It was happening in Hollywood in some ways.
John Maeda: It was happening all over the place. Exactly, but it could never become mainstream, so I feel very lucky I was there when it hit mainstream. I'll never forget when I was interviewed with Times one time, and I was asked, who's my idol. And I said well this man, A. Michael Noll, how was at Bell Labs; ahead of his time; did some amazing stuff like virtual reality before computer screens existed; all this stuff. And so I mentioned that. And then a letter came in the mail from A. Michael Noll, and he said, I'm so glad someone out there remembers me still. But the second thing he said, is he said that the reason why, see he stopped making art in the late sixties, went to work for Nixon I think; went into policy making. He said he stopped making art because he realized that making art is important; but policy makers define the whole space of the world. So he put all his work into policy making. And I was like, huh, what's that?
Jo Reed: Your latest book Redesigning Leadership really talks about what leaders can take from artists and designers, this seems like a perfect segue.
John Maeda: I think that people are looking for new kinds of leaders, and they haven't been able to find them in business schools, or technology schools. They're looking for folks that can take risks, can think around corners, that can work extremely hard and represent the highest form of integrity and if you lay those out, it sounds a lot like an artist; a designer. So I've been looking at this role as President of RISD, as a kind of opportunity to just talk out loud about leadership and how being an artist and designer, helps to shape my experience, which I want to share with others who are grappling with what it means to be a leader in this very tumultuous times. And how I draw upon my understanding of art and design to help me cope; help me succeed; and I'd like to share that.
Jo Reed: You know there's often a stereotype I think of the artist; the lone individual, struggling away, and you know, certainly there is a lot of solitary work that happens with art, but as you point out, artists are also extraordinarily collaborative.
John Maeda: Yes, yes.
Jo Reed: They do work well with others.
John Maeda: I know very few artists that want to live in a closet by themselves. There are few of them; they do amazing things; we find them later; after they're gone usually, but artists in general love society and they love to relate to society and they love to have the opportunity to let us come and touch what is meaningful. Which if we live in this constructed, capitalistic world, we think we see it a certain way, and artists help remind us of what's truly important. It's what they do; they can't help not doing it; it's in their DNA. It's why sometimes that individualistic artist seems sort of lone-wolfish. Not because they want to be alone, it's because they want to participate with society at a grand scale, to have the opportunity to do so.
Jo Reed: Passion is the other thing artists really bring to the table and in some ways you see that at Google, if you look at that combination of where work and life. Work is similar and Google creates and atmosphere where you - a lot of your life can be happening at Google in a way that's quite fulfilling I think.
John Maeda: Well first of all, at Google you have the company cafeterias which are like five star restaurants, so you're fed well. So you'll never be a starving Google employee.
Jo Reed: And B, for me, you can bring your dog to work.
John Maeda: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Very crucial. <Laughs>
John Maeda: It's a very amazing place and I have to ask though; the question is what kind of environments to artists really want and in my book I give a recount of how I was struck by how a young artist here on campus was saying how she needed to struggle to feel alive. So there's something about artists that want to run counter to any easy feeling that it's where they get their lift, their kick, their connection from.
Jo Reed: Hmm. That's interesting. I recently interviewed the poet Robert Hass and he said he had been thinking about the difference between fantasy and imagination. And for him, fantasy is like day-dreaming, you fall into it you hardly know when you begin to fantasize and then it just kind of ends. But he thinks imagination involves struggle and he likens it to Jacob wrestling with the angel.
John Maeda: Funny you say that because you know I use Twitter a lot; and I have a bunch of things I can't actually put on Twitter, so I have this whole little word sculptures, little poems. One thing I will eventually press a button on. One failure of an artist that they should avoid, because failure is supposed to be good for artists; but one failure to avoid is the failure to imagine. I think when artists stop imagining, they aren't the people that they want to be, but sometimes real life takes control. You know you've got to feed your kid now â stop imagining. You've got to drive over there; you know carry the Snickers bar from here to there, so you know, but artists have the ability to imagine at will and that's an extraordinary skill. You see it all the time. They can take something and imagine about another kind of skill. They can take something you think is pedestrian like waiting in line for lunch, and make it into something. Sometimes they fail, but they are not afraid to fail at trying to imagine that it could be something else.
Jo Reed: Scientists are like that too in some ways, aren't they?
John Maeda: Scientists and artists are similar. I like how if they say you're a sculpture major, you can't get a job. If you're a biology major, you can't get a job too, so a certain scientists are you know, mathematics. So it's sort of funny how we think it a certain way. I think pure scientists are very similar to pure artists in that their integrity matters more than anything else. And the discovery is rare, but that doesn't scare them.
Jo Reed: Okay. Why do think there's been such a separation between art and science?
John Maeda: Oh a separation occurs because we like to box things, you know? Like if you're going to carry your lunch in a bag; if you're going to a party and you want to say what you are, you want to make up your mind. We need to know what that is in order to refer to it, whatever it is and if you say I'm a melon, banana, mandarin, orange, pineapple, kiwi, like well what is that? You say on the other hand, well I'm an apple. It's much crisper; it works better; we can really identify who you are; what you are. Artists, scientists, names of jobs; we like that box. The box is very comforting. But as you will notice, most artists don't want to call themselves artists, because the artist is a box to be in. Scientists are slightly more comfortable with it; artists much less so.
Jo Reed: We've talked a bit about what scientists can learn from artists; what can artists learn from scientists?
John Maeda: What artists can learn from scientists is something I'm really passionate about now, working here at actually, about how can artists learn how to raise funds for their explorations. The way scientists have mastered.
Jo Reed: Must, yeah.
John Maeda:I have something on the web; I have a little counter I've made where you can compare the number of dollars given to defense, to the arts and it's like you can't even compare; there's nothing you can use with your hands or whatever to compare the magnitude of difference.
John Maeda: I think artists know they need funds to do their work and scientists know that, too. But there are much more evolved ways to evaluate science and to fund it. For the arts, it's much less evolved. So what can artists learn from how scientists are raising funds and how can they be a part of that fundraising that scientists do.
Jo Reed: Well right off the bat I would think one of the differences is that scientific discovery has the ability to be replicated, and I think that's very important for funders. And I also think, and I might be wrong here, but I think that funding for science is often hinged on the project's applicability on how the project, or the outcome of the project can be put to use.
John Maeda: Well I think the grants sort of asking for exploration; and going back to the whole policy thing, I mean the thing that we discovered in Washington is that many of these grant-making procedures have certain requirements. Maybe you need a PhD to get funding. For most artists, a critical degree is an MFA; so there's a kind of think stuck inside our policies for grant awarding that bias towards scientists. So that goes back to A. Michael Noll's point, that the policy holds the key to changing perceptions at a- not perceptions but even like, possibility. So it isn't the fact that when your daughter comes up to you and says, you want to be an artist and your immediate reaction is, no you're not going to be an artist, you know? That reaction isn't a reaction because artists are bad; it's because you're worried about their ability to feed themselves in the future. But what if in the future, being an artist was as good as being a scientist, which isn't that bad, too. That could change perceptions. I think Europe had that angle and is losing it right now, because Europe saw the cultural value of art in relationship to cultural value of science, and now as if I just get tighter and we become more - a truly capitalistic society; you can't measure art's impact; you toss art out, in Europe. America is learning how to realize that innovation doesn't come from the sky, it comes from innovative people that the art and design field has like in spades. So why don't we use them?
Jo Reed: You're a champion for this, for the role that artists and designers play in the 21st century creative economy, so I kind of want to approach this two ways, first, give me your definition of what the creative economy is; what does that mean to you?
John Maeda: I like Richard Florida's definition of the creative class; the creative economy around that. Anyone doing thinking work is arguably creative. And his definition that includes lawyers and all kinds of people, so I find that still valid. In particular though, in business creation; in creating new types of businesses, that's the creative economy on steroids. Let me give you an example: So there's a company Air BandB, it's what's called a couch surfing site; so if you have an extra room, you can rent out your room to anyone, an eBay for like your room. That now has a billion dollar valuation. Ashton Kutcher is now backing it as well; that's started by two of our graduates. You wouldn't expect that, but art and designers are now functioning as leaders in that economy that we know so clearly as the quote/unquote future. You see it at that scale; you see it at even smaller scales; people making successfully their letter press work, and selling it on Etsy.com and making a living online. That's also part of the economy. Artists and designers make creatively, and people want to buy creatively. Look at Apple. Why is Apple so successful? Not because they have the best product; they have the best-designed product. It fits with your culture; they're making culture; they're artists in business.
Jo Reed: Opening that iPhone, that box, it was beautiful.
John Maeda: People love it. Yeah. And people keep trying to make something the exact same size, and the exact same like number of pixels, but it's more than that, it's the entire experience, and then experience is what artists and designers make, because experience always has to be fresh. It keeps moving and computers cannot create fresh experiences. We, people; we are very sensate; artists feel the world. They craft/sculpt experiences every day. They thrive to let you, the audience feel something. You can't feel it if you feel the same thing every day. So it's always a little bit different.
Jo Reed: And in some ways, that goes to what you've said about what you've learned here as President of RISD, the buy-in doesn't happen to be a social media, it happens more on one.
John Maeda: Yeah I was at this thing this week about best practices in the social media for fundraising. And so I was watching the expert talk about all the social media; this, that, whatever, you know, Twitter, Facebook, whatever, a conversion rates, etcetera, and for me, I couldn't help but feel like, I am so tired of social media; I mean it's like so like Tweeted out, you know I stopped my Facebook page, like last year and the reason why isn't because I don't believe in it. I believe we're over believing in it. I was so excited to hear that you were going to be here in the room with me, not over the phone, so I could actually see you and feel you, understand you. I thought wow; this is going to be much more exciting because I wanted to give you a better interview because of it; because you're here; because you bothered to come here, so thank you.
Jo Reed: My pleasure.
John Maeda: That's a big deal.
Jo Reed: But it's also the truth; I'll always rather be there, because you do get a better interview; there's just no question about it.
John Maeda: Yeah, I think that that's lost on the social media world. The thing I found the most ironic, as the person spoke and I could hear other case studies about it. There was something about how, I forget, it might be Lady Gaga, or who was it that raised a lot of money online; an online campaign that succeeded, versus most don't succeed, it turns outAnd they were all kind of like wondering like why? Could it be the celebrity? Could it be whatever? It struck me how it's because in the case where money was raised, it was linked to an event. You're all there in the concert space. And so you're all there with your phone ready, and so it's actually a synchronous event; you're all there together, that's why you're all moving in like lemmings together. It's like the famous story about the commercials for the Superbowl. Like why is a commercial there so popular? It's number one, a live event. Number two, if it's live, they have to be there; they can TiVo it of course, but they're all there with their popcorn and barbeque ribs, whatever, and so the commercial gains more value because you're sitting there watching it knowing that someone else, millions of people are watching it at the same time, that's a rush. We want to be together; even if we're apart, we want to be together.So social media is very asynchronous, and I think it's best when you're all at the same ti- which is not the whole point, the point is asynchronous. I find that interesting.
Jo Reed: So put on your predicting hat, and what would you...
John Maeda: It's a very small hat. <Laughs>
Jo Reed: Okay. How about just a couple of ways that you think artists and designers can be given more value for their role in the creative economy.
John Maeda: Oh, well two things: The first thing is that the world beyond art and design, private equity people, new dot com-ers, policy makers, should know what art and design really is. Artists are sophisticated people; they are creative thinkers. Designers make businesses. They change the economy. Getting in touch with that fact is step number one. The second challenge is inside art and design institutions; recognizing that there's a larger role to play. I think that many people in institutions, like even mine, think of art and design a certain way. So inside institutions themselves, looking beyond the quoted version of art; the quoted version of design; what it means, to look more expansively to how the world is looking for these kinds of creative minds. So inside institutions of art and design look outside. Outside art and design, look what's in there. Those two things have to happen; it hasn't happened yet.
Jo Reed: That's interesting. Well John Maeda, I thank you so much; I really appreciate you giving me your time.
John Maeda: Thank you!
That was Designer, artist, computer scientist, author, and President of the Rhode Island School of Design, John Maeda. You've been listening to Art works produced at the national endowment for the arts,. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor
Excerpts from âMy Luckâ by Broke For Free, from their EP, Directionless, licensed through Creative Commons .
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, a look at creative placemaking in Miami, Florida.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.