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Why Superstar Designer John Maeda Is Obsessed With Airbnb

Now living in Silicon Valley and working for Kleiner Perkins, Maeda is a big supporter of the sharing economy. For good reason.

Why Superstar Designer John Maeda Is Obsessed With Airbnb
John Maeda Then: President, Rhode Island School of Design Now: Design partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers [Photo: Benedict Evans]

When John Maeda landed in Silicon Valley in 2013 to take on a new role as a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, he didn’t have a car—or even a place to stay.

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But instead of booking a hotel, he decided to navigate Menlo Park via the sharing economy. “People said, ‘Oh, you must be learning so much in Silicon Valley from all the CEOs,’ ” he says. “And I’m like, ‘No, I’m learning through Airbnb hosts and Uber drivers.’”

“It’s so easy to stay within our biases. But what inspires creativity is exposing yourself to what might make you feel uncomfortable or different.”

John MaedaPhoto: Benedict Evans

Since leaving his job as president of the Rhode Island School of Design in 2013 after a five-year run, Maeda has jumped into several new projects. In addition to his work with Kleiner Perkins, Maeda has been putting together an ambitious report on design and tech trends modeled on the Internet Trends report assembled every year by Kleiner’s Mary Meeker. He’s also serving as the chair of eBay’s Design Advisory Board, which is helping the company better integrate design thinking into its products and work spaces.

“Tech companies are learning how to embrace design,” says Maeda. “What I learned in the context of working at a large corporation system like eBay was that you just have to find all the designers and pull them together. There you have community, and that’s how it starts.”

Who Would Be On His List Of Most Creative People

Paola Antonelli, senior curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “She predicts the patterns in culture and industry that we need to care about now and in the future.”

What Inspires Him

“History: the history of the Industrial Revolution, the history of the automobile, the history of the computer. And it’s excited me to see that these are all just patterns.”

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Quirky Side Project

“I wrote a program called Spring Counter. You type in how old you are and it tells you how many springs you have left to live. It shows you all the flowers that are left in your life and the ones that have already died. [I find it] hugely motivating.”

How He Stays Productive

Stow your iPhone. “I try to hide, go dark. It’s a great ritual to unplug for three hours and delete five apps on my phone—so I can stop. Phones are designed to be addictive.”

Break your habits (even good ones). “I constantly reorganize and redesign the system I’m using. Someone told me, I think it was [Behance CEO] Scott Belsky–he’s so big on organization and performance, etc.–and he was telling me how the irony of to-do lists is once a to-do list works, it becomes less effective, because it’s now gone into your subconscious. You have to have a new system to reactivate your prioritization. So, I keep changing my system, so I’m aware that I have to prioritize. I might use Post-its one week, and I might draw on my hands for a while. I just keep changing [my routine] so I’ll be more aware.”

Eat well. “I know that sounds kind of silly, but I never realized your diet changes how productive you are. I would eat crap from snack machines or just eat whatever was around me. I’d get sick a lot. So I’m very careful, eating fruit every day. Anything unprocessed: I am very conscious of that now.”

How He Sees The Future Of Computing

“You can pick your doomsday or your technophile view of the world, whether it’s neural implants or computers watching our every move, [but] I kind of want to believe, based upon the data coming back from the study, that we’re going to have all kinds of ways to cocoon ourselves from this constant rain, this steady rain of information.”

He Thinks The Best Recent Development In Design Is:

“Designers are being increasingly invited into the traditional circles of power and influence—like boards of companies and the financial world—and earning their places there.”

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He Thinks The Worst Recent Development In Design Is:

“The increased demand in tech for more designers and design leaders appears to be interminably outpacing the supply of available skilled talent.”

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