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John Maeda: Fall in Love with Technology Through Great Design

About this talk

For all the love given to technology and its impact, a fatigue is brewing. Better specs are no longer the reason to buy, so the latest product is less now likely to wow us. But in his new role as a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, former RISD president John Maeda has been pondering: What can make us fall in love with tech again? His conclusion: “The new economic climb will be powered by great design.”

His new mission is work with both startups and “end-ups”to help best infuse design principles into its leadership and staff. To accomplish this, he urges leaders to elevate the importance of designers while overlooking failure as the worst outcome. Instead, he says, the losing result is staying stagnant. “An institution can gravitate backwards, and as every startup knows, that’s a problem. You have to move forward right now.”

John Maeda, Global Head of Computational Design + Inclusion, Automattic

John Maeda is a world-renowned artist, graphic designer, computer scientist and educator whose career reflects his philosophy of humanizing technology. For more than a decade, he has worked to synthesize technology, education and the arts into a 21st-century model for creativity and innovation.

At Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, Maeda works with KPCB’s entrepreneurs and portfolio companies to build design into their company cultures. He served as the 16th president of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) from 2008 through 2013, during which time RISD saw increased applications, fundraising, and career placements. Prior to RISD, Maeda spent 13 years at the MIT Media Lab as a professor and head of research. His career bridging the intersections of graphic design, computer science, art, education, and leadership earned him the distinction of being named one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century by Esquire.

Maeda chairs the eBay Design Advisory Council, serves on the boards of the wireless hi-fi company Sonos and the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.

Full Transcript

So first of all, I want to note that a couple months ago, I drew this on my hand. It’s like a– like I said, I went from lower-case design to a capital D design to a DE dollar sign design. And I drew this on my hand. And then what happened is the wonderful folks at Tattly made a real tattly. And I’m thinking, [INAUDIBLE], I’m opening for [INAUDIBLE]. But you know, like, you can go to town with it, so please do that. Let’s see here. OK.

So last year I was really focused on this question of what is design. And I really tried to understand it. It all began with a pursuit in the ’90s when I discovered the work of Paul Rand and really began to make like 19 different variations of trying to define design. And it got really confusing. And I’ve stopped. So what I’ve done instead is I’ve gone back to the interview I did with Paul Rand in 1996. And I wanted to do an exercise with the audience today that brings back four questions from that era. I’d like all of you to play Paul Rand. I will play myself. So I’m going to ask you what is design. And then you will read what Paul Rand said. You can say it in a grumpy old man’s voice. Or you can say it in a high voice and whatever. So this is OK. This is like in a theater. And all at the same time, ready, what is design? Read. (audience) Design is the method of putting form and content together. Design, just as art, has multiple definitions, there is no single definition. Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it’s so complicated. Now, I have looked at this for a long time, these words by Paul Rand. And yesterday, I pulled out this key word, the word multiple. And if you boil it down, it’s basically speaking to this notion that has been said at this conference and other ones on design. Designers are good with ambiguity. They can handle discomfort. It’s OK. They like to be in that odd space. Second question to all of you as Paul Rand. What is the difference between good design and bad design? This is a fun one. (audience) A bad design is irrelevant. It is superficial, pretentious– basically like all the stuff you see out there today. You’ve got to chuckle when you say that because– and you think about that– he’s basically dissing everybody else except himself. And that’s a good one too because, in essence, when you pull out what he’s doing there, he is differentiating himself. He did that for so many years. He was the man. So, and he was able to say it. Question number three, most of your designs have lasted for several decades. What’s your secret? (audience) Keeping it simple. Being honest. I mean, completely objective about your work. Working very hard at it. What he didn’t say in this is something I noticed when I was at his studio. And he was showing me one of his fan letters. He had so many fan letters. He says, look at this letter. So I was looking at the letter, and it said, dear Mr. Rand, I think your work has been amazing. It’s transformed America, the world. I especially love the CBS logo. And he looked at me and he smiled. And he says, you know, don’t you. I said, well, you didn’t design the CBS logo. And he said, that’s right. But when you live this long, people think you designed everything. So outlive your competition is the takeaway. Question number four of four, the last one. So thank you for being part of this experiment. What are the key skills of a designer? (audience) The fundamental skill is talent. Talent is a rare commodity. It’s all intuition. And you can’t teach intuition. Now, this is controversial to many people, I think. But it’s actually not controversial, I think, because he says he can’t teach intuition. But he doesn’t say you can’t learn intuition. And if anything, those people who lead learn to not only hear the world around them, but learn to hear their own voice inside themselves. And if you pull these out as like four bullet points, I’d like to note that it looks like an HBR post. And why is that? It’s because I think that this idea of creativity being intellectually curious, being able to execute, are timeless themes. And I think that the work that’s been done, by Behance and 99U taps into that timelessness and brings it into the creative now. Now, last time I spoke at 99U, it was just after President Obama was elected and the financial crisis had occurred in the world. It was a bad time. And I remember the time, everything I did, I tried with a magical-like poof wand– poof design, poof computation, poof. All the magic I had did not work during a financial crisis and running a college. And I have to say that I unpoofed myself because I realized that in the end, there is no magic to anything. And what gets you through anything dark and difficult? And if anything, I think it’s this idea of hope, the audacity of hope. I received this book from Becky Bermont in the audience I should hope. And hope is a powerful thing and guides you to do crazy things. And I know when I first became president at RISD, I addressed a group of students. Look, see, this is interesting. I see a parallel. But you don’t have green hair. But I asked them what I should do in the future as president of RISD. I went through some ideas. But the one that they stuck to was this one– building a justifiable case for creativity in the world. The students there asked me to fight for creativity, to fight for creative people. And so in my six years as president at RISD, I focused on this question– how do you bring the country’s interests back to creativity. And the STEM to STEAM caucus that launched last year began that process in Congress. And it continues to this day, which I’m very happy with. But I’m not talking about STEM to STEAM today. I’m talking about the dinner I had last night, lovely speaker dinner. I sat next to Hank Willis Thomas. And he was asking me about what I do now. And I was trying to describe venture capital but couldn’t explain it very well. So I made it into pictures yesterday. And people ask me, why did I go to venture capital. It’s because I’m a big fortune cookie buff. And whatever that fortune cookie says, I follow. So in the 1990s, I received a message from a fortune cookie that I’ve kept with me to this day. It said, the great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do. And you have to admit it, that feels good. So I thought, why not. I didn’t know how to be a president. OK. I don’t know how to venture capital. I’m going to figure it out. So venture capital, in my four-month-old sort of education, is quite simple. It’s about the idea of a company that is self-sustaining and operating at a billion dollar scale. If you think about it, it’s like a satellite that’s been launched into orbit, and it stays there. Not an easy task. And how does that happen? It happens in different ways. Because, if you think about it, if you start a company and you spend 50 years on it, that’s a really good way. It’s a slow way to do it. But the venture world believes it’s possible to take a company and make it gigantic size in just a few years. It’s basically like super-growth hormones, essentially. And how is that done? Well, it’s done through experimentation, really. Because, in essence, to get something into space isn’t easy. What you have to do is you have to try to launch it. Launching rockets is not easy. If you ever remember the history of rockets, many of them don’t make it to the sky. Many of them crash. And how do you get better at that is the question. So venture is all about taking that rocket and trying to figure out how to make it stay in the sky, but explode so often. So how do you make it work. Better venture capital firms are better at having it take off. That’s a difference. And there are ones that are less good at it and it makes them explode too often. So let me look at it this way. So you have this mythical thing called the garage. It’s where the rocket is built. And then you pop it onto the launching pad. What occurs there is interesting because, if it explodes, that’s OK. And that very first stage is called the seed venture stage. That’s a good thing. You made a rocket that can launch. OK. Now show us if you can make it like actually launch and like not explode. And then what you’ll get is what’s called a Series A funding. You get to experiment even more. The rocket can make it reliably to that height. And then what happens is Series B funding takes it even further into the sky. And this happens in multiple successions. For those of you in this space who know this already, I apologize. But for me, it’s all brand new. And it’s all about the different series of money. Think of it as rocket fuel that can take a small company and artificially move it to outer space. And I am at one of these rocket fuel companies, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, often called Kleiner Perkins, called Kleiner, called KP. It has a branding issue, we know that. But it’s many things. And this was my first day at Kleiner Perkins– Nest. If you all know Nest, the thermostat company. Kleiner Perkins backed Nest and it made a gazillion dollars, literally. And I was there that day where it was announced. And yes, that is actually Al Gore there. So there are surreal moments. And he’s not on TV. He’s actually there. So it gets very interesting at Kleiner Perkins. I learn a lot there, I have to tell you. And one thing people ask me is why am I there, why did they hire you. Well, it’s for a simple reason. It’s for the fact that Moore’s Law was really a great way to imagine that future technology as getting faster, doubling every 18 months in size, scale, et cetera. And what’s happened is we enjoyed technology and we needed it for a while. And now we’re kind of like full on it. We’ve had enough of it. And so the question isn’t one of technology, it’s how to inflect that curve so we like technology, again. We love it, instead. That’s where design plays a huge role. And people ask me why would venture capital care. Well, it’s because it’s about money. It’s about DE dollar sign, design. It’s also compatible with the euro system. So it’s also a DE euro sign design. So it’s an international language of design. And economic growth. I’m also involved with eBay. I’m the chair of Design Advisory Board. I started two jobs at the same time. Not recommended. And eBay has been amazing. It’s like a gigantic corporation. Who’s here from eBay, eBay-verse, somebody here? Thank you. I’ve been having one-on-one meetings with as many people as possible to understand design in a large corporation. It’s been fascinating. When you think of eBay, you think of a certain thing. But eBay is many different micro-cultures. This is John Couch’s space in LA. It’s a funky company, from all shapes and sizes of technology and culture. And a lot of my work there with Becky Bermont, who’s here as well, has been to really take the culture of eBay across the 383 designers and enable the company to see its own community of designers. Now someone asked me, is it about elevating the importance of designers. It’s actually not elevating, it’s revealing the importance of designers. And so just making that community evident has been the task, and it’s been exciting to do so. This is John Donahoe with his best buddy Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb, an RISD alum, and how I met John Donahoe, actually. Now people are asking me a lot about what’s the difference between eBay and Kleiner Perkins companies. A couple years ago, I did this piece with Becky called “Start-ups versus End-ups.” And start-up is like a start-up company. It’s agile, brand new. And end-up is a start-up that grew up. It’s a company that’s already working. It’s no longer young and agile. It’s a successful thing. A start-up wants to end up successful. And at the Media Lab, I could feel a start-up. And in large institutions like RISD or even MIT as a whole, I knew what an end-up is like. And again, start-ups need end-ups. End-ups need start-ups. And when you think about it, the fundamental difference is, the start-up is agile. It’s small. An end-up is big. It’s operating at scale. It’s flying around the Earth. It’s in orbit, at scale. A start-up has nothing to lose because it has no reputation. Whereas, end-up has everything to lose because it has built up its reputation over time. A start-up may come and go. It can just go away. But an end-up has to orbit the earth. It has to sort of stay in flow. So it is a different kind of design motivation and different raison d’etre. It’s important to make the distinction because they both want to be like each other. A start-up wants to end up successful. An end-up wants to figure out how to re-catalyze itself. And by going from MIT to RISD, I learned an important lesson about leadership, and that’s leaders have to lead differently in different spaces. And that was the fact that the Media Lab, you have to understand, was a start-up. It was a venture inside MIT. It’s decades old. Whereas, RISD is 133 years old, and more now. A leader who leads an institution with a past has to sort of notice the past. The past is huge. And I think of a leader as someone who bridges the past, present, to the future. And any institution with a past, the past is a very important thing. And what happens is that a leader becomes a fulcrum. You know, a fulcrum, like a seesaw. Someone told me once that a woman’s high heel, has the pressure on the ground, it’s the same as the weight of an elephant. I’m not saying women weigh like elephants. But I’m just saying that they have that pressure point. So you feel all that pressure. A leader feels all that pressure. And there are three scenarios for the future of the leader, being at that pressure point. Scenario one is a good one. It’s where the future wins. The ball moves to forward. The seesaw leans in that direction. Scenario two is less good because it goes backwards, because you went backwards into the past. It’s very common. And it’s usually that it can often gravitate itself to go backwards. And that’s a problem because, as all start-ups know, you’ve got to move forward right now. Stuff is happening. Scenario three is the worst scenario, you might think. It’s where the leader flames out and dies. And like, bad, game over. And people say, oh, this is terrible, it’s like, oh my gosh, people walk around it and kind of like, all bad. But I’m a big believer that the whole idea behind failure is the ability to come back. And when Nelson Mandela passed away, there were such great quotes shared with the world. And my favorite one was, don’t judge me by my successes, judge me by how every time I fell down, I got back up again. And so, I’m a believer that any leader who chooses to lead is choosing to ask themself, how much failure can they take and how much can they bring themselves back. And so I think of this scenario as a very much more placid scenario. It’s a notion that the leader is able to renew themself and come back out of that, and also to be able to become someone new. For those people who are design oriented, we love the Paul Rand type of stuff. But if you’re beginning to become a leader, a great person to reference is John Gardner, kind of like a Paul Rand of leadership.

I strongly recommend you read his book called “Self-Renewal.” It’s all about how leaders find the courage and find the humility to find a new person in themselves. And what happens when you find a new person in themself, sometimes things go well. Sometimes they don’t. But you’re guaranteed to get through something. So I think of that renewal point as that point where you kind of like suit up and you get back in the sky is the idea. So that was the theme of my talk. I think I’ve covered– I have two minutes left to give to the program. I want to thank you for your attention. And thank you, Jocelyn. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Comments (2)
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  • stotion

    Nice presentation. Thanks for championing and revealing the value of creativity & design. And, now I understand a little more about venture funding. It’s always been a bit nebulous to me as a designer.

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