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Posted by: Reena Jana on December 20, 2007
Big news today in the worlds of design, technology, innovation, art, and education: John Maeda, MIT professor and associate director of the school’s famed Media Lab (and author of The Laws of Simplicity), will be the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design.
John is widely known as a champion of simplicity. He kindly took time to answer questions about his forthcoming role at RISD, via e-mail and a lively phone conversation. Here’s what he has to say:
Where will you take RISD, direction-wise?
Well, it depends upon where RISD wants to go — and that’s going to be my very first job. I know that a great deal of my start up phase will be spent learning and listening about RISD’s unique strengths and using that base knowledge to figure where it could possibly go. Where can it go? Really the sky is the limit because RISD is perfectly grounded in the perfect traditions of the past.
Most of the digital revolution has wiped out a sense of the traditional core of art and design, but RISD stands strong as a place with the greatest Foundation Studies program on earth. Today art and design schools today are inundated with computers that run the exact same software as with every other computer around the world — thus originality has been lost because the DNA of arts and design is not entirely encoded in software systems today. Only a fraction of what we know about the visual domain lives in core systems like PostScript and so forth — so it is no wonder that anyone who makes something in Adobe Photoshop is immediately identified as having made it with Photoshop.
What do you think of the D-School model at Stanford -- where the university is working on formally merging design and business education?
The D-School is sheer brilliance. David Kelley is the most amazing public intellectual I know. The D-School is like IDEO.edu -- a good idea at the right time and the right place.
Do you foresee more of an emphasis in so-called "new media" versus traditional media (architecture, painting) at RISD in coming years?
It all depends what you think "new media" really means. Consider how photography used to be "new media," and later film. New media is an entirely relative term to the old. I think you will be seeing from RISD a focus on "better media" -- isn't that the point? We need to advance in significant ways, instead of just being tied to "what's new."
How will you expand RISD's presence on a global stage?
I'll use something called "the Internet" (smile). Sorry for the sense of jest, but it will likely be the core of RISD's future global presence as the preeminent institution of art and design in the world. As for how we plan to do that, call back in a year from now. Or email me too if you like.
What sorts of new relationships with corporations might you cultivate at RISD, if you are interested in doing so?
Corporations today, by their razor sharp focus on the "bottom line" and quarterly earnings, have lost their ability to innovate. You folks at BW talk about it all the time. But no solutions are proferred. People think that mixing design school mentality into a business school might work; or maybe mixing business school mentality into a design school might work. Add technology, shake, then stir. Voila! What do you have? Essentially a nice mixture of oil and water that, with the progression of time will naturally separate back to the oil and the water. What is needed is a more integrative approach to engaging business-thinking with creative-thinking. How this will be done? What a great challenge to work on. That's why I'm headed to RISD.
On that note, what sort of new relationships with research
universities do you foresee forging while at RISD?
Copious and integrative. Research universities need excellent means to communicate and express their results to regular people. I see it all the time. Artists and designers are everywhere as consultants to projects for the NSF and NIH -- they just haven't made it to "first class" status to be perceived as bona fide researchers themselves -- which they are. That will eventually happen I am certain.
So, what will happen at the Media Lab when you leave for RISD?
I’ve built processes at the Media Lab...All is looking good.
In the mid- to long term, I will imagine how RISD can reach out to MIT -- as well as Michigan, Stanford, the UC system.
Do you see an expanding role in the business world for designers -- and artists -- who graduate from RISD when you're the school's president?
Researchers [such as scientists and economists] are realizing they have to communicate. And visualization is in the equation. Look at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal's data pages. There's a need for great data visualization, along the lines of what [IBM-employed designer and programmer] Martin Wattenberg has done.
We haven’t even done enough work in this area. Information is expanding daily. How to get it out visually is important.
What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.