At first blush, John Maeda doesn't seem all that intimidating. A slender, gentle man with a brilliant mind, quirky wit, vast wardrobe of T-shirts, and long fingers gone knobby from too many years at a keyboard, he looks like the geeky head of a computer-science lab. Which, until last winter, is exactly what he was.
Then, in December, in a decision that stunned the clubby academic design world, trustees of the 131-year-old Rhode Island School of Design unanimously picked Maeda (pronounced my-AY-da), the former associate research director of MIT's famed Media Lab, as its next president. "Early on, we decided to be open to somebody not in the normal path of college presidency," says Rosanne Somerson, the head of RISD's furniture department, who served on the search committee. "John certainly fell into that category."
In choosing a technologist, the committee is gambling that a highly networked, Web-enabled thinker who also happens to be an artist, designer, and author—probably the closest thing to a Renaissance man the digital world has produced—can help reconcile the design world's competing impulses: creativity and pragmatism, uniqueness and mass-marketability. And no one was more surprised by the selection than Maeda himself. "RISD rhymes with risky!" he says cheerfully, in June, displaying his fondness for goofy aphorisms ("RISD is the right-brain MIT!" is another favorite). A month later, at a Harvard boot camp for 60-odd new college presidents, the son of a Seattle tofu maker is still marveling at the adventure before him. "America is a weird country. It's like I was a waitress somewhere, and now I'm in a movie—a futuristic astronaut cast in a new kind of Wild West picture. [At RISD] I get to make, like, a space Western."
People who know Maeda hailed his casting as a stroke of genius. But within RISD's redbrick halls, his appointment initially plunged the community into a state of high anxiety. What would it mean to have such a techie guy leading such an artsy school? Would he replace the studios with computers? Would he sell off the school's creative mojo to roaming tech entrepreneurs? Would everybody have to learn PowerPoint?
Soon, word spread that Maeda was thinking of axing the sacred Foundation Studies program, with its emphasis on drawing, art history, and building actual physical objects. Panic spread from the glass blowers' kilns to the weavers' workshops. "When I first heard that rumor, I freaked out," says RISD senior Adam Meyer. "Being in industrial design, my background is a little more technical than other majors, but I felt I needed this fine-art approach to things."
Maeda, it turned out, had no intention of killing the program. And he had anticipated some of the stir his appointment would create—and quickly set about defusing it. The very night he got the news, he launched a blog for the internal community, called one.risd.edu, where he tackled the issues head-on. Setting the IT-takeover rumors to rest, he assured the campus, "I don't really love computers" (a fairly shocking admission for a guy with two computer-science degrees from MIT, as well as a PhD in design from the University of Tsukuba in Japan and an MBA from Arizona State). "I would not want to imagine an Ikea-ized, computerized RISD."
Then he began mapping out his vision of the school's future, articulating, in a series of posts, where he thought design education at RISD needed to go. This would be no autocratic exercise, he explained, but an open-source design problem that would draw on ideas from the school's faculty, staff, and students. "Creativity's about ownership," he wrote. "We all own RISD together, and we're going to design it together."
What shape that might take is a topic of intense interest even beyond academic circles. "If you're looking for someone to reinvent this very old construct—the way we learn—John is the kind of thinker who will turn it upside down, and you'll suddenly realize it got 100% better," says Chee Pearlman, director of Chee Co., an editorial and design consultancy in New York, and former editor of I.D. magazine. "That's why the whole design-education infrastructure is looking at this with a certain amount of skepticism and, perhaps, envy."
The skepticism stems from the suspicion that Maeda's digital background is a rather bloodless culture in which to nurture the creatives at RISD; the envy flows from the contrary idea that combining MIT's and RISD's cultures may prove extremely fertile commercially—even threateningly so. What is taught in the nation's design schools invariably bleeds, after all, into the corporate world students inhabit postgraduation. And with companies increasingly looking to design for a competitive advantage in a merciless marketplace, the stakes couldn't be higher: Students who think in a larger social and economic context—the ones with the big ideas—stand to make a bigger impact than those looking to produce the next bit of design esoterica or rubberized kitchen tool.
"We have to expand beyond the idea that design is good for business," says Richard Koshalek, president of the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. "It's true. But it's also good for the larger society and the challenges we face, ranging from global urbanization to sustainability." Maeda, he says, can brilliantly articulate the case for why designers should no longer be at the margins. "If I were a corporate executive, I'd go and spend time with Maeda."
The Nature Lab at RISD is a relic of a kinder, gentler, analoger time. The 71-year-old facility, with more than 80,000 stuffed and mounted moose heads, human skeletons, and dung beetles, is a treasured artifact in an institution that celebrates its history like some schools flaunt their juiced-up sports stadiums or slick computer labs. Freshman drawing classes are held here, and you can check out an armadillo or a tarantula for your homework.
"When something dies on the road, people call up to see if RISD wants to taxidermize it," says Maeda, roaming the room, pointing out bones and shells. "It's like the Hogwarts School of Art and Design."
Maeda loves the lab—its history, its tactility, its randomness. For a guy who has spent most of his career in front of a computer screen, the sheer physicality of the place is exhilarating. "I've been an IT guy in a sensorially deprived space," he says. "All these things can't be replicated so easily. This is our basic competitive advantage. If this were all Googleable, it wouldn't matter so much."
Exploring a world that both reveres and is repelled by technology has been Maeda's passion. At the Media Lab, which he joined in 1996, Maeda, now 41, championed work designed to humanize technology. Last year, he authored a best-selling book, The Laws of Simplicity, a manifesto on how to muffle the noise of the digital age.tapped his expertise to launch the "Sense and Simplicity" campaign that transformed both its products and its organization; Samsung hired him for advice as it transitioned from a hardware manufacturer to a consumer-experience-driven company.
But Maeda's a designer as well as a geek, and his own work is imbued with the same puckish humor that has helped him survive both academic politics and the chaos attendant in parenting five little girls. His line of digitally graffitied limited-edition sneakers for Reebok (based on simplicity laws, with names like Timetanium and Emoretion) was an instant sellout. Maeda's digital art has a permanent home at MoMA, and he recently had a show, "Maeda: MySpace," at the Riflemaker Gallery in London, which included, memorably, two iPods in love.
That oddball artsy streak naturally appealed to RISD's search committee. But Maeda's corporate connections were also a plus. At the Media Lab, he managed research relationships with more than 70 industrial organizations. While RISD already has a wide range of industry partnerships, trustees are looking to grow that area exponentially. It's likely to be a tricky juggling act.
Students at MIT, says Becky Bermont, who followed Maeda from Cambridge to Providence for a new role as RISD's VP of Media + Partners, want to build things that can be commercialized. "They're technologists. They want to see their stuff in the world," she says. But RISD students, as Maeda is fond of saying, are "heirloom tomatoes in a Cello tomato world." Since it was founded in 1877, RISD, one of the oldest fine-arts colleges in the country, has been turning out highly skilled graduates with a distinct point of view—people such as Dale Chihuly, Jenny Holzer, Nicole Miller, Gus Van Sant, and Kara Walker. They're not the sort to obsess about what HP needs to make a snazzy printer, or how Whirlpool sees the future of the washer-dryer.
However, most of the school's 650-plus annual grads will need actual jobs. And, Maeda thinks, the corporate world could use an infusion of their avant-gardism to offset the more strategy-driven and market-obsessed approaches of schools such as the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Stanford. "I think that mapping corporate needs onto a design problem is sometimes really informative and can give students the language they need to be designers who fit into the world better," he says. "But sometimes you want to say, 'Let's think of problems that are totally impractical and different from what you're going to learn on the job.' I want our students to be able to talk to CEOs, but I don't want them to have to Drucker up."
"Mapping corporate needs onto a design problem can be really informative....I want our students to talk to CEOs, but I don't want them to have to Drucker up."
While the corporate world is obsessed with the idea of design thinking—which relies on data and process for inspiration—Maeda is skeptical. "Design thinking is basically about being able to make good PowerPoint slides—the quad-chart slide, the stakeholder slide. I get that. I think it's important. But at the same time, you hear whispers, even at Stanford, that people aren't making things anymore." Scott Klinker, head of the 3-D design program at Cranbrook Academy of Art, who defended the intuitive, qualitative approach to design at this year's Industrial Designers Society of America conference, agrees: "The proponents of the strategy-based approach say, 'Don't worry about form. We'll save you with design thinking.' I think that's crap. Design has always been a complex synthesis of analytical and intuitive processes."
Even before Maeda's hiring, major companies were tapping RISD's eccentrics—and liking the results. Students have worked with NASA on designing for extreme environments, for the Coast Guard on vehicle design, and with DuPont on new uses for the countertop material Corian. And a multidisciplinary group of RISD graduate students recently wrapped up a top-secret project for, coming up with so many cool ideas that the Target team had trouble choosing among them. "It surprised the hell out of us," says marketing VP Will Setliffe.
Paul Kim, director of marketing at Samsung Electronics America, also has high hopes for a project that RISD will launch in the fall semester. It uses seven of the company's RSS-equipped 52-inch LCD TVs as virtual student centers. Potion, a company founded by several of Maeda's former Media Lab students, designed a zooming, interactive interface that will incorporate feeds from the school's calendar and upcoming events, and allow students to post images of their own work for instant "gallery" shows. Says Kim: "We're hoping RISD will help us figure out how to make the screens a living, breathing tool for people in a community."
Ultimately, the form-givers need the strategists and vice versa, and few embody a fusion of the two more completely than Maeda. "I'm still trying to understand why this academic institution chose me to lead it," he concedes, after a long day at Harvard's president camp. "I've been fortunate to sit at the cutting edge of stuff in a different way than RISD. So I'm trying to bond the two sets of DNA together right now, to infect my DNA in this weird presidential world. I'm like the Ebola of the digital revolution. But it's not me; it's in them. The virus only works if it goes somewhere."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.