Simply the Best: Maeda’s the Man at RISD

John Maeda, MIT Media Lab guru, artist, designer, computer scientist, author – in short, a guy who comes about as close as it gets to being a Renaissance Man, circa 2007 —- was just named the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the most prestigious design schools in the world. It’s a great day for RISD – but also for the design world in general.

Maeda is a geek in the finest sense of the word. He has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in software engineering from MIT. It doesn’t get much more hard core than that. But he followed that with a PhD in design from Japan’s Tsukuba University. John%20MaedaRZ.jpgAnd he's combined those two threads to explore the often fraught relationship between design and technology —- most specifically, how can design help solve the enormous gap between the complexity of the technology and humans’ ability to use and understand it.

Maeda has taken that techy research and extended it further, exploring how people can simplify their lives in all areas, in an increasingly frenetic world. His book, The Laws of Simplicity, spells out what he’s learned — from the tricky balancing act between too much functionality and too little (say, in the number of buttons on a DVD player), to a strategy for organizing your closet (with five daughters, John has a very personal relationship with clutter.) We spoke to him for a 2005 story called The Beauty of Simplicity.

Maeda’s humanistic and astute understanding of the primacy of human factors in design is a critical one, particularly for manufacturers today. Presciently, Philips Electronics realized that Maeda’s expertise was too valuable to be kept in a university lab, which is why he was drafted to serve on the company’s Simplicity Advisory Committee, vetting products for ease of use and, well, simplicity.

It’s that kind of experience that makes him such a sensational choice to head RISD. With Maeda at the helm, the school, already a powerhouse of talent and creativity, will have an opportunity to extend its influence even further, to a world eager to know how design thinking can be transformative in every area of life and commerce.

And, mostly importantly, with John preaching simplicity to a new generation of designers, can a usable remote be far behind????

We asked John what he had in mind for his new gig, and got this response: "RISD is an incredible opportunity that will be quite unique — it's composed of a world-class school and a world-class museum. As a Fast Company reader and follower for many years, I'm delighted to now have a chance to think about expanding the sisterhood with "Fast School" and "Fast Museum" — RISD as an institution of higher learning that is best suited for the 21st century."

We look forward to chronicling his new adventures in Providence, and to seeing the school flower under his leadership.