• 03.26.09

John Maeda: Question Everything, But Nail Those Deliverables

He’s just started as president of the Rhode Island School of Design, but we’d love to appoint designer John Maeda to another position we just invented: Official Ambassador Between Academia and Business.


The man is firmly entrenched in higher learning–he has earned a brain-busting five degrees!–yet he’s also the guy big corporations turn to when they need serious problem-solving (clients include Phillips, Reebok, Samsung, Google, and Cartier). He’s fluent in the language of both, so to say. Oh yeah, and he’s also an athlete: He organizes Jogging with John for creative entrepreneurs in Providence: “For those who like a dose of ideas with their morning run.”


In a just-released Harvard Business Review article, Academia vs. Industry: The Difference Is in the Punctuation Marks, Maeda and Becky Bermont say the disconnect between work and school can be overcome with a few simple punctuation marks. Here’s a crib sheet to the new vocabulary:

punctuation marks

Apostrophe (‘): “In
academia there is the luxury of time. Thus when a thought might start, it doesn’t necessarily have to finish. You can begin … and not necessarily end.”

Period (.): “In industry we like to hear the virtues of ‘execution’ and ‘getting things done.’ Got an idea? Set a target deadline. When you’re done, package the result and move onto the next task.”

Exclamation mark (!): “In industry it’s important to be heard. Speaking up is critical for an individual’s or idea’s survival. ‘I can’t hear you.’ No. I really can’t. So what do you do? YELL. YEEEEEELLLLLL.”

Question mark (?): “In academia there’s always a need to think critically. Debate is the starting- and ending-point for all meaningful dialogue. Got an idea? Question it.”

The point of all this (get it?) is that great businesses need to learn the vocabulary of education’s punctuation marks. A more perfect balance for training smart entrepreneurs? The Question-Period, something Maeda says he’s trying to instill in his students at RISD.


About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.