The prolific John Maeda—whose career has spanned Cooper Hewitt, MIT, and KPCB—now leads computational design and inclusion at Automattic. In this conversation with Adobe VP of Design Jamie Myrold, Maeda shares his insights from a long and varied career on the history and current state of diversity and inclusion in the design industry, including:
- The traits in leaders and teams that promote inclusion
- How Automattic’s remote-work practice helps its teams develop empathy
- The surprising history of design’s impact on business
- And how he harnesses his “secret power” to make immediate change
Jamie Myrold: So, our topic today is diversity and inclusion and I just want to start off by saying, John, and most of the audience must know you’ve had an extremely prolific career. You have been at MIT Media Lab. You were president of RISD. You are a trustee for Cooper Hewitt, and you were also at Kleiner Perkins. So this is a very broad career, and today currently, you’re the global head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic.
Jamie Myrold: That’s a long title. There’s a lot of words in that title. So, anyway, I thought it might be helpful if you could kind of talk about how that role came about and also about the title. What is computational design? Why did you choose inclusion? So, what is all of that about?
John Maeda: Well, first of all, I think that design as a field has been designed so well that it became poorly designed. And when I think about your career as a designer in tech, you design stuff and, I think, you also remember when it came out of the ground. It was all in print and, any ’80s people here? ’80s people here? Okay. So, if you’re an ’80s person, you remember when touching the computer was bad for you.
John Maeda: They don’t remember. So, it was bad.
Jamie Myrold: I remember. I was a letterpress printer and I was never going to touch a computer.
John Maeda: And then once you made it over that bridge, you were dark and evil. You know. There was stuff in the ’80s. It’s not Googleable, because that was all in these things called books. And it was like, “People who use a computer are stupid. They’re just, they’re using the computer and they’re getting dumber and dumber and they can’t use a pen and they’re bad and evil.” That was the way it was, but they all died, all those people and it changed and you moved with that, right?
John Maeda: And what I love is, as an executive leader of design, you recognize that all that technology change occurred, all the tools changed a lot, the people doing the work changed a little bit, but not a lot. And that’s not just in tech, but also in education, because in education—and education indexes towards professors who are men in particular, presidents of universities tend to be Caucasian males, usually older—and so, there’s a kind of bias built in the system when we talk about the history of the Bauhaus, we can only remember men as Bauhaus people, but the Bauhaus was half women. So, there’s this flaw in the whole system that have probably gotten worse because of tech.
John Maeda: And so the reason why I chose to have such a long title was because I thought that I should try to be conscious of making a difference. So, that’s why I plopped in the word “inclusion” into my title and that caused a problem because people started thinking I work in HR. I love HR by the way and I’d be honored to be part of HR, which I used to call “highly regarded” in the place that I ran. But, HR. And I was like, “No, I’m not in HR. I care about product.” And the question is always, “Well, how can inclusion help product?” I think it’s kind of obvious if you’re just a designer, right?
Jamie Myrold: Yeah because I think as designers, I mean, design is inclusive by nature because we’re thinking about all of the different facets and all of the different people and kinds of people that might be interacting with whatever we’re creating.
John Maeda: Well, and you’re inclusive like you were doing letterpress, got all the ink, smelled good, you’d go out, you probably smoked back then. We all smoked. It was like, it was amazing, like, “Letterpress, you smell bad. It’s awesome. I know. I’m dirty. It’s great.” And you’re with a tribe, yet you knew that wasn’t enough and so you were inclusive of a different way of doing things and I think that’s what designers do. They recognize their fallacies of being stuck in a chamber and I think Tea’s talk spoke to this welcoming the unknown. And being inclusive means welcoming the unknown.
Jamie Myrold: Being curious.
John Maeda: Being curious, like you said, yeah.
Jamie Myrold: Always wanting to learn, always wanting to understand at a deeper level. I think creative people have that naturally.
John Maeda: Well, also, and being able to shed your past identity because I can imagine all your letterpress friends, “Jamie, what’s wrong with you? What happened?”
Jamie Myrold: “What happened to you?”
John Maeda: “What happened to you?” Exactly.
Jamie Myrold: “Where did you go?”
John Maeda: Yeah, “Where did you go?” Right?
Jamie Myrold: But being able to sort of translate one area of craft into another area of craft and being open.
John Maeda: Right. It’s a thing, but that isn’t universal in design. I remember when I was in art school. I had this professor I loved. He was my typography professor. I loved him. He was like this crunchy croissant, like, you know, the French bread, the crusty crust. It’s like, ugh, he’s so crusty. And I used to love going to see him. So, I would go to his office in the morning. I would show up early to see him, but I made the mistake one day because the other professor, I didn’t like—he was a composition professor. His office door was open and anyways, he saw me waiting to see the one I liked and then as, when he saw me, the other professor, said “Oh, Mr. Maeda.” This is in Japan. “Come to my office.”
John Maeda: I said, “Oh, what does he want to tell me?” So, I went to his office. He sat me down. He closed the door, and he spent an hour telling me how much I sucked. Like “Oh my gosh, the stuff you’re doing is so stupid. It’s so bad. It’ll never become anything. You’ll never make it anywhere in the world.”
John Maeda: And he was like a serious beat-down. And when I left his office, I said, “Well, that’s a downer”. So, there are some people who want you to stay in the tribe and don’t want you to leave because it’s like the Shire.
Jamie Myrold: What do you think that is? Do you think it’s fear of the other person seeing you do something different?
John Maeda: I don’t really know. I mean, it depends who you are and how you see that manifest. On the one hand, it’s pride. It’s like, “I believe in this.” On the other hand, you can see it as someone holding onto something for no good reason, but it always is different, right? That’s this need about this sort of asterisk wild card star world. I don’t know. It’s this curiosity thing. I have no idea.
Jamie Myrold: It’s curiosity.
John Maeda: Yeah. So, I actually really appreciated that he did that because I was like, “Huh, it really kind of made me think. Maybe I do suck.” It was helpful.
Jamie Myrold: That’s great. So, can you just talk a little bit about sort of the difference between classical design and computational design? So, you’ve put “computation” in your title for a reason.
John Maeda: Yes, very, very important, yes. Because I saw in tech that the word “design” was difficult to understand for people who maybe have not been educated in design. But even if you’re educated in design, you may not know that there’s different kinds of design, and when we think of design we think of like a cool chair, a cool graphic, an awesome textile pattern, a great hat. “Oh, those glasses, well designed. Oh, your hair is so well designed.” And so you can’t really take it seriously if you’re a developer or a business person.
John Maeda: You’re like, “Oh, you’re here to decorate. Thank you. My office is so, can you recommend a knick knack for my office? You’re a designer. Are my glasses the right one? I’m so self-conscious what I’m wearing around you. You’re a designer.”
John Maeda: So, that kind of design is a classical perspective: physical bound, history bound, museum bound, culture bound, and that’s a kind of design, and then there’s-
Jamie Myrold: And there’s like a physical object that comes-
John Maeda: It’s a physically grounded culture, yeah. And then there’s computational design, which has to do with the impact of Moore’s Law and how it’s changed so much in our world so quickly that we don’t understand fully because Moore’s Law is not linear. So, the computer we used 30 years ago, it ran at a certain speed. It cost a certain amount. The computer we used today is like 24 billion times faster and it costs roughly the same thing, which doesn’t make any sense.
Jamie Myrold: Right. Yeah. So, also with computational design, there’s this notion of “It’s never done”. We’re always continuing. And I think for designers sometimes—and I have a large team of designers that design products and the products are never done—but there’s often this tension between perfection and being open to continually being curious and making it better or it gets worse and then it gets better. So, any thoughts there?
John Maeda: That is sitting at the crux of the problem that designers have today because designers have been largely educated in physically based design and studio-type classrooms where there was never any data. “So, what do you think Jamie?” “Well, I think that it’s not right.” You know, critique it. “I think it’s like that or it’s like that in history.” “Thank you, Jamie. It’s going to get better now.” Whereas now, when you ship it and everyone’s using it. You have real hard data coming back that says, “I don’t think so”. And that was never accessible in the past.
John Maeda: Second thing was there’s this thing called museums and museums are the apex of, like, “I did it”, right? So like, “Oh my gosh, you made your cookbook and it’s so incredible.” “Yes, it won an award”. Or like, “Oh my gosh, you designed that thing.” “Well, it’s in the collection of whatever”. I think in the tech world, you don’t get to be in the ‘collection of’. You don’t get to win an award for something.
John Maeda: So, you feel like a failure. And the institutions people come from treat those people also as failures. Nine times out of 10, the institutions will say “So and so, our graduate, just made it to the cover of whatever for their new chair.” And like, if you’re shipping something that’s iteration 27 on day whatever, you’re like, “I didn’t get into the alumni magazine.”
Jamie Myrold: “I didn’t get the award”.
John Maeda: “I think I should go and make a chair.” It’s like that, seriously.
Jamie Myrold: It’s like that.
John Maeda: So, I write to presidents of all universities, departments all the time. They’re like, “What are you doing?” “I just met this person. Why don’t you talk to them?” They’ve also got some money. So, there you go.
Jamie Myrold: Cool. Alright, so let’s go back to inclusion of it. So, there’s been a number of different reports around teams, diverse teams making better products. National Endowment of Arts did one. AIGA did a design census. Adobe did a creativity and diversity disconnect report and then you of course have your annual design and tech report. And so, in that report, you state that inclusive design is actually really good for business. So, let’s talk about that sort of business aspect for a bit.
John Maeda: Thank you. Well, I mean, look at what you’ve done. You’re a successful design executive. You didn’t get there by picking the right color all the time.
Jamie Myrold: No, mostly not.
John Maeda: You were able to look at the business. You looked at how design could have a material impact on the business. And you delivered. I mean, that’s how you succeed, right? So, you did it and I think that when we start from there. Design is useful for business and the problem with the design field is it’s infected with the part that says, “No, it’s not. Design is more than that. I read it in the Bauhaus blah, blah, blah thing. It says design is about the highest standards of whatever kind of thing, or like the spiritual whatever.”
John Maeda: But, if you look at the history of all of design. It’s always been about business. Why did the Bauhaus form? The Bauhaus formed because the German economic ministry funded the Bauhaus to be created because the industrial wares, the manufactured wares, were not competitive with the British. The British were competitive because in the mid-1800s, they were scared of the French. So, they founded the Victoria and Albert Museum and also the Royal College of Art to raise the standards of British constructed wares.
John Maeda: The French have always been like kicking ass. So, they were like okay in the 1700s. But, so design’s always been about economic advantage and impact. So, when I looked at inclusion and how it was sort of put into this space of, I don’t know, like diversity inclusion initiatives, which are all very important, I didn’t think it really got a lot of attention because it was put into this sort of “do the right thing” space, which we all know we should do. But, if you work in a business, it has to translate to value. I mean, quote-unquote monetary value.
John Maeda: So, the design and tech report has always been about money, which is the reason why it’s been criticized. It’s like, “Oh, John, you care about money”. I said, “Well, I don’t care. But the world cares about money.” And I wanted to put a…connect inclusion and money together because, if it’s profitable to be inclusive minded when you make products, I think everyone will realize that, “Hey, this is like a good idea”.
John Maeda: Is it a good idea? Absolutely, because better products are being created in tech when they’re inclusive minded because the total address of the market increases. It’s as simple as that. It’s like a customer base is X and you can only design for that group X and this Y is bigger. And Y is people you’ve never met before or hang out with. If you go hang out with them and actually invite them into being part of the product team too or building product, it’s like, “Whoa, we’re making more money”. Not a bad thing.
Jamie Myrold: Yeah. So, if we look beyond the walls of the Bay area and New York, there’s a lot more people.
John Maeda: There’s lots of people.
Jamie Myrold: And very different people.
John Maeda: There are.
Jamie Myrold: Yeah. And so, do you want to talk about some of the people that you’ve met along the way?
John Maeda: Yeah. Well, thank you. So, I visited Appalachia recently and there’s a coal mining, it’s an ex-coal miner incubator and they’re all learning code and building apps and things like that. And Rusty runs that. I forget his last name. He’s in all the magazines now. He’s amazing.
John Maeda: He was saying, “You’re from the 3D world. You come from skyscrapers. It’s a three dimensional world.” Or if you come from a smaller place, it’s two dimensions. So, like, here in a town, it’s in a 2D grid. And he said, “Here where we live, we live in one dimensions. We’re off of one long street and we all live off of it.” And when he said that, I realized, “Oh, I live in a zero-dimensional world because I live in an all remote company.” And so we can be anywhere like within an instant if we choose to be and we can do that.
John Maeda: So, we’ve been working in different parts of the US. We drop into cities and work with communities there to learn from them, whether it’s Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle, Miami, and also Appalachia, East Kentucky. And what we learned is how dumb we are, how like, literally smart-stupid we are, because it’s like, “Oh, I thought you think like this, and like, you think like that.” Duh. Because we’re conditioned around stereotypes of these different regions and attitudes and these data reports that say 25% of whatever are this, and like well therefore, you’re like this. But you’re not.
John Maeda: So, I’ve enjoyed becoming awake in all kinds of neighborhoods and in the process, what happens is I believe that we design products for more people.
Jamie Myrold: Yeah. And we were talking about this backstage as well and I think that there is great value in the diversity and inclusion initiatives around teams and team makeup, but also this notion of getting out into the world as designers creating product, and seeing all different shapes and sizes and go globally because our products reach beyond our own place where we live, and seeing all those different things is really going to help us make better product.
John Maeda: And especially experiencing or coming closer to the pain that people feel is so powerful. Like, whether it’s in—like I was saying how we were in Detroit—we were in a neighborhood that’s known for urban blight and needing to get some cash for something. We discovered that you can’t use the ATM in the neighborhood. And we’re like “The ATM’s right there.” “Well, it’s too dangerous to use that one.” And we drive 20 minutes away for the safer one, which you still have to wait till it’s safe to go to. And so, things we take for granted.
John Maeda: Or in Appalachia, where I was biased against for a long time seeing all the images on the press, whatever. And I remember arriving there and really kind of thinking, re-thinking everything I thought. Like, I got there, small airport, tiny airport Appalachia. So I forgot there’s no taxis at small airports. And I got there like, “Oh, how am I going to get to the restaurant where there’s a meeting? They had a rental car station, like, ugh.”
John Maeda: So, I opened up my Uber app, whatever, like, “Oh, there’s Uber here.” So, I call Uber and it says, “Meet in the 20 minute parking lot” and of course you had that first, you had that thing where, like, “Oh, where is that parking lot?” And so I’m waiting and looking at the tiny airport. It’s about the size of this stage and then this man starts walking towards me with like mirrored sunglasses and a cap and long hair and he’s gaunt and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, this man’s gonna come and kill me.” And he says, “Hey, I’m your Uber driver.” And then we walked to his Uber, walked to his car and then he says, “Sit in the front, sit in the front, it’s much better there.”
John Maeda: I said, ” Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen to me here?” And then as I sat with him and I learned about the coal miner legacy, within a half an hour, I understood why you wouldn’t like Obama and just listening to what is happening in different parts of the country, it’s just kind of like, “Wait, I thought it was this way, but wait, is it this way?”
John Maeda: When you go one level deeper, it tends to make you think differently, but it requires you to invest the time to listen.
Jamie Myrold: Listen, empathize, and just be able to shift your perspective into someone else’s shoes.
John Maeda: Because we believe in long…I think the smarter you are, you believe in long distance knowledge. Like, everyone who I said…I was in all these neighborhoods that are primarily African American. I wanted to visit this Caucasians, whatever, thing over there, that I kept reading about. And people would say “Well, just read the New York Times best seller J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy. It’s amazing.” And I was like, “Have you been there?” “No, but the book’s incredible”. So, I wanted to go there and it was like, “Oh, wow, okay. This is a different way to see the world.”
Jamie Myrold: That’s awesome. Okay, I wanted to talk a little bit about education. We touched on it earlier, but, so you were at MIT for several years and then you became the president of RISD. Can you talk a little bit about that journey and the thought process and how that happened?
John Maeda: Oh yeah, it was very simple. I was at MIT for a long time and I made it to the top of the Jedi ranks, you know, the Jedi. It’s like a Jedi thing. I made it to the top of the Jedi ranks, like wow this is awesome. And once you get there, you never have to leave your job. It’s like a lifetime employment. And it was like, “I made it.” And I was at this meeting where we were talking about future careers for MIT students.
John Maeda: In the ’90s if you were in computers, you had to be at MIT because that’s where the best computers were, but by the year 2002, the computers are better everywhere. So, it’s the year 2002, I was like, “Oh, I think you have, I think the freshman have better computers than we have in the research labs.” I was scratching my head. And there was a student at this meeting and something about freshman advising came up, about how like, “Oh my gosh, this is terrible, MIT isn’t, MIT professors aren’t advising freshman. They had these professional advisors helping them now with their careers and stuff and this is terrible.”
John Maeda: All the Jedi are saying, “Oh my gosh, this is so bad, this is so bad, we have to help the students.” And then there were two students in this meeting and they got up and they looked at all of us, the Jedi, and they said, “What do you mean you’re going to help us with our future careers? You all don’t have real jobs.”
John Maeda: I was like, “Huh.” And so, it was like in The Shawshank Redemption. I found my spoon. And so I got my MBA as a hobby. And I thought, I want to figure out how to run something and then let’s call to run Rhode Island School of Design and it was the middle of the financial crisis, so I really had to run the business. I had to rebuild the business. So, I was like, “Oh, oh, I can do this.”
John Maeda: And then I came on to Silicon Valley to work in venture capital. So, I was able to escape that world because I stopped believing it.
Jamie Myrold: But as part of that, I think I read or when you and I talked about this, when you sort of had this revelation that you’re an Asian man.
John Maeda: I do, yeah, I had that. That was in Silicon Valley, not the TV show. Yeah. I was running and I was running. I was there for my year three and I was jogging down, El Camino Real. It was dry. It was like 5am. I was jogging and then—same area I jog all the time—and then I was thinking about this thing I had to do and then suddenly I was flying in the air. So, who’s ever had a bad fall? Bad fall? Raise your hand. Isn’t it terrible? It’s like, you’re in it and it’s like a super slow motion. You’re like, “Wait, the concrete is coming towards my face and I don’t like that” moment. But it’s like bionic senses or something. And then suddenly, bam, and I landed on my face and my arm.
John Maeda: And so I turned over and I could tell my arm wouldn’t move and I could tell there was blood all over the place and I was like, “Not good” and it was dark in Palo Alto and I just got my Apple Watch as a late adopter. But, then I realized, I forgot my Apple phone, which made it useless. I’m lying there. I have no ID. I got my Apple watch. I’m wearing my black sweats, whatever. I’m going to get picked up. Where am I going to end up? I was wondering. It was dark and quiet.
John Maeda: And then I thought of Mars, you know Mars Rovers? They have these redundant systems. Like, “I’ll be a Mars Rover.” So, I kind of like got up, and when I got up I would like sort of faint. So I would get up and lie down, get up, lie down, like a Mars Rover, like a broken Mars Rover. And so, I was getting up, so like 10 blocks, lying on people’s lawns. It felt so good, and then I kept going and going and going.
John Maeda: And then I got to my Airbnb because I was Airbnbing and Ubering everywhere to be a millennial. So, anyways, I got into my Airbnb, I called my assistant and she found a hospital. So I got an Uber. It was, I was like Michael Jackson Thriller but he couldn’t see luckily. So I got to the hospital and then the ER and then ER person says, “You got to fill out the thing.” And I’m a righty. I was like, “I can’t fill out that thing.” “Well, you gotta fill it in or you can’t come. You can’t get in.”
John Maeda: So, I was like this, you know, my kindergarten scribble. And so I give it and then like an hour later, I’m in a room. And when you’re hurt, you want to see a doctor really badly, don’t you? It’s like, “I want to see a doctor.” So, everyone who came to the door: “Are you a doctor? Hi doctor. Hello doctor.” Finally, the doctor came in. Or I think he was a doctor. Anyways, he looked at me and said, “You look pretty bad. Can you move your neck?” And I said, “Yeah.” “Wow, you’re lucky.” I said “Yeah, I am lucky. What if I couldn’t move my neck? I couldn’t have walked Mars Rover style to escape, huh.”
John Maeda: And then a half an hour later, a nurse comes in and looks at me and is like, “You look really terrible. What were you doing?” I said, “I was jogging/” And he goes, “Exercising is bad for you, you know that?” And he said, “Were you wearing a reflective vest or a light?” And I said, “No, I was wearing all black.” “Well, that was dumb. You could have been hit by a car.” And I thought, “Yeah, I could have been hit by a car. That would have been way worse.”
John Maeda: So, it all became all better and better and as I was being carted into the OR with the anesthesiologist, I was like, I had this revelation, a light occurred like this, and I realized, “Wait a second, I’m Asian,” which sounds…I was like, “Oh, I’m Asian.” Because most people that realize…when you see everything around you, I thought that I might be like a white guy because that’s what you see everywhere. You just see and so like, I was like, “Oh, and I’m Asian. Oh, interesting. I’m an Asian person. Hmm. I’m an Asian guy, okay, what does that mean?” That’s when I discovered that I had a super power that I had to use for the remainder of my life because once I got hurt so badly, it was also because I could foresee how my body would feel in roughly 10 years from now. And it was like a thing where like, “Wow, I have this. I have more time where I can be physically functional. I gotta use this.”
John Maeda: So, by realizing that I’m an Asian man, I realized that I’m like a Type O minority. I can go everywhere. I can hang out with everybody because they kind of don’t hate me. “Are you okay? I think you’re kind of okay. I think you can hang out with us.” And so I can go everywhere and I didn’t know why I was always in like an advocate for everyone. And I realized, well it’s because I’m a Type O minority.
John Maeda: So, I’ve been using this special power to say things that people probably don’t usually say, because I can get away with saying it. So, that’s what I’m doing.
Jamie Myrold: Yeah, which is why we all really like you.
John Maeda: Oh, thank you. It’s Type O.
Jamie Myrold: And we only have five seconds left, which is—
John Maeda: On time.
Jamie Myrold: Super sad because we could be having this conversation, there’s so many more questions to be had. But thank you very much. I appreciate the conversation.
John Maeda: Thank you Jamie.