Design Legend John Maeda On Creativity, Youth, And Audacity Vs. Courage

In an interview with The Great Discontent, the former RISD president and current Silicon Valley design leader shares his insights on building a creative career, and how risk-taking requires two very different qualities.

Design Legend John Maeda On Creativity, Youth, And Audacity Vs. Courage
[Image: Flickr user Thomas Geiregger]

In December, design legend John Maeda left his post as president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to become a design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and to chair the eBay Design Advisory Board. In an in-depth interview in today’s issue of The Great Discontent, Maeda, who studied engineering before going to art school, gives useful insight on developing creativity, the intersection of design and technology, and the importance of teaching as “intellectual philanthropy.”


The full interview is worth a close read, but here are a few key ideas he shares:

John Maeda

When you’re young, do something young

After studying semiconductors in graduate school, says Maeda, “I studied at Tsukuba University’s School of Art and Design in Japan. There, I reprogrammed myself a little because I didn’t have a computer. It was a happier, quieter life, although still very intense. I reconnected with physical materials and experiences during my time there, and after a few years, my typography professor asked me what I would do with my life. I replied, ‘Well, I want to be a typographer like you or like the classical typographer, Jan Tschichold.’ He became very angry with me and said, ‘You’re young. Do something young with yourself, because the classics will still be there when you’re old.’ That was useful advice.”

Creativity can come from necessity

“I think creativity was always a thing in my home for two reasons: one, we didn’t have much money, so we didn’t get to buy things. If we wanted something, we had to make it. I always made stuff out of paper and glue and things I probably shouldn’t have touched. The second reason was that my father was a skilled craftsman, particularly in making food. In Japan, it’s not just how food tastes; it’s how it looks, the textures in it, and how it’s presented on the plate. I learned how to think aesthetically through watching my father make meals for friends. Watching the act of beautiful Japanese foods being made and our family’s lack of resources both pushed me to be creative.”

There’s more than one way to take on risk

“When you’re taking a risk, you can either be audacious or courageous–two different things. If you have audacity and take on a risk, it means you don’t know what you’re getting into; you’re walking through a door, into a dark room, with no idea what’s there. If you have courage, it means that you know exactly what’s behind that door; there’s something dangerous, hard, and it’s going to make you really uncomfortable. I think you get to be more audacious when you’re younger because you don’t have as many experiences to reference. When you’re older, you know a lot of patterns; you know exactly what’s behind that door, and you don’t risk as often. In that frame, I have to say that I have always chosen to be audacious, even though I shouldn’t be. I have the courage to be audacious.”

Design needs to lead in the new economy

“We don’t buy things because they have better technology; we buy them because they’re better designed. People in technology generally don’t understand what design is. I think there’s an opportunity and responsibility for designers to play a larger role in economic development and leadership. I call it moving from lowercase design to capital D Design to dollar sign De$ign. It’s going to be important for design to take a larger role in the technology economy.”

About the author

Evie Nagy is a former staff writer at, where she wrote features and news with a focus on culture and creativity. She was previously an editor at Billboard and Rolling Stone, and has written about music, business and culture for a variety of publications.