Alma Maeda

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John Maeda, the artist/designer/computer scientist who has helped to steer creative brainiac incubator M.I.T. Media Lab and who decluttered our thinking with his famous Laws of Simplicity, is about to embark on his next challenge. In June, the Lab's associate director of research will be leaving Cambridge for the more arts-minded pastures of the Rhode Island School of Design, where he'll be taking the post of president. While preparing for his transition, Maeda took time to share some of the lessons afforded by his multidisciplinary career, as well as his thoughts on how higher education in the creative arena should position itself for the future.

Creativity: At M.I.T. Media Lab, what were some of the biggest lessons you learned about "living the future," about putting technology, art and creativity into practical use?
John Maeda: I learned that the future is about choice. Some people choose it. Others don't. I've always yearned to find a synthesis of technology and the arts/creativity somehow. The Media Lab once embodied these ideals but the future has moved past the needs of the average human beings into new exotic spaces. At my heart, I am an artist and realized I personally had to change directions in my life. I will move to RISD to push the needs of putting creativity and expression first and foremost as not only a means to realize global economic expansion, but also as the only means to realize a truly human-oriented world built upon what matters most—which is feelings, in my mind.

C: Your own background reflects a hybrid of technology, art and design. What do you believe are the benefits of integrated, interdisciplinary study, particularly when it comes to creativity and technology—and how, if at all does your upbringing inform your plans for RISD?
JM: Like the future, interdisciplinary approaches to one's personal development is also about choice. It's a tough choice to make because there's no clear paths to take when you go this route. If there weren't any disciplines, then you couldn't mix them. And if there were a clear cut discipline primarily built around mixing them, it wouldn't be as interesting as that itself would be a discipline frozen in structure. The benefits are clear however—you get to become someone/something new. But the downsides need to be considered at the same time—the world will always question what is "new" and attempt to classify it along with what has come before. As was said by one of the Bauhaus masters, "New man must have the courage to be new." Or as Kermit the Frog on Sesame Street would say in similar spirit, "It isn't easy being green."

My arrival at RISD does not imply that anything will change per se with the overall plan. The fact is that RISD is already one of the best art and design schools around. So my plan is quite simple: understand and observe. And dream together with the RISD community.

C: You are famous for your Laws of Simplicity. Which of the laws are particularly germane to education, especially in terms of preparing young people for future careers in creative fields and business?
JM: The second key to simplicity is "OPEN: Openness simplifies complexity." My own design challenge when I become President of RISD is how to sustain direct and open communication with all of the constituents. I call this an attempt to realize an "open source" approach to university administration—I'm just following my own advice from the Laws of Simplicity. When people don't have to guess what I'm thinking, and simply know what I'm thinking, I think that everyone breathes easier, including me. It can be applied to any aspect of business and creative relationships.

C: What do you believe is next in terms of education in creative fields? You mentioned in a video on the RISD site (www.risd.edu/president/) that "arts have to advance the culture of knowledge around technology...This has to happen." How will you make this happen through the curriculum at RISD?
JM: Change the paradigm of creativity in the business world—define shift from tech-led revolution to a design-based revolution in the global economy, fueled and led by RISD. RISD has masterfully preserved many of the traditions of art and design in ways thankfully unfettered by the last two decades of heady dotcom-ism, I believe it may be possible to look to the future in a totally new way grounded in classical thinking. Thus RISD represents more the "what is good" versus just the more technology-centered approach of "what is new." You see it today so often—we desire great experiences, not just new experiences. Building on quality of classical expression and vision, we can achieve quality versus just newness in the digital world.

C: What are your thoughts on nurturing innovation?
JM: RISD has a special obligation to play a leadership role in the world of art and design, nationally and internationally, to help shape and inform art and design in this century. Creativity and innovation are more important than ever. And it's not about the mastery of current digital tools, but the creation of new tools. There will always be new forms of new media. Think about what will be "better" media.

The road to leaping forward, versus just playing catch-up, is always to consider what lies further out into the future. Further out than any of your competitors or peers might be thinking. Often this means twenty, thirty, forty years out. You want to continually ask yourself the question, "How will what I do now impact the next generation in some significant way?" Every action you take has to be about the next, next, next, next step. Otherwise you are not innovating—instead you're just improving.

Innovation comes from having a comfort zone. This comfort zone might be an assured self-confidence like RISD's strong reputation, or else a natural knack for being tirelessly curious, as is the way of the artist and designer. A true culture of innovation is never happy with the status quo and thus is always somewhat tired and depressed because the passion that drives their psyche is constantly calling to them even in their sleep. Innovate. Create. Imagine. Do. Question. Plan. Inspire.

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