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John Maeda – Drawing new pictures for art and design education

John Maeda by Robert Scoble on

The Rhode Island School of Design is one of the top art and design schools in the United States. Over the years many famous alumni (including artists Dale Chilhuly, Jenny Holzer and Kara Walker,  author/illustrator David Macaulay, fashion designer Nicole Miller, Talking Heads Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, film director Gus Van Sant to name only a few)  have gone on to create things that have had an impact on many of our lives.  Artist musician David Byrne, one of my personal favorites, attended one year and then dropped out after forming the Talking Heads with Franz and Weymouth.

RISD Logo After an international search for the 16th president in the school’s 131 year history, in June 2008 RISD appointed Japanese-American graphic designer, computer scientist, university professor, and author, John Maeda to the post.  While having little administrative experience in running an institution the size and complexity of RISD, Maeda, a technologist/artist was an inspired choice for the job.

Fast Company senior writer Linda Tischler wrote a great profile of Maeda for the October 2008 issue titled The Double Vision of John Maeda – Digital Thinking at the Rhode Island School of Design. (The October 2008 Issue of Fast Company is themed Masters of Design – Build Your Creative Capital.

About the culmination of the president search, Tischler writes:

Then, in December, in a decision that stunned the clubby academic design world, trustees of the 131-year-old Rhode Island School of Design unanimously picked Maeda (pronounced my-AY-da), the former associate research director of MIT’s famed Media Lab, as its next president. “Early on, we decided to be open to somebody not in the normal path of college presidency,” says Rosanne Somerson, the head of RISD’s furniture department, who served on the search committee. “John certainly fell into that category.”

Maeda came from the fabled MIT Media Lab whose tag line accurately states “inventing a better future.” Artist, designer, technologist, author, geek, it’s tough to characterize Madea other than as Tischler does as “the closest thing to a Renaissance man the digital world has produced.”

RISD simple logo There was originally a lot of trepidation about Maeda’s appointment with primary concern that he was planning an aggressive makeover of RISD, scrapping the Foundation Studies and replacing it with a technology focused one. But in typical Maeda style, he used some simple communication tools to dispel the concern. He launched a new blog, as a platform to share his vision for the schools future which included a collaborative planning and leadership style.

There is an interesting contrast between Maeda’s work at the MIT Media Lab (flickr) and his fondness and fascination for RISD’s Nature Lab (school / flickr):

The Nature Lab at RISD is a relic of a kinder, gentler, analoger time. The 71-year-old facility, with more than 80,000 stuffed and mounted moose heads, human skeletons, and dung beetles, is a treasured artifact in an institution that celebrates its history like some schools flaunt their juiced-up sports stadiums or slick computer labs. Freshman drawing classes are held here, and you can check out an armadillo or a tarantula for your homework.

Maeda loves the lab — its history, its tactility, its randomness. For a guy who has spent most of his career in front of a computer screen, the sheer physicality of the place is exhilarating. “I’ve been an IT guy in a sensorially deprived space,” he says. “All these things can’t be replicated so easily. This is our basic competitive advantage. If this were all Googleable, it wouldn’t matter so much.”

As design thinking becomes more and more important in business, Maeda seems to be the perfect leader to make sure RISD will be at the center of it all without losing sight of it’s history and heritage. Please make sure you read the entire article.

For another perspective, check out Dominique Browning’s essay in the Cultural Conversation column of the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 2, 2008),   Design for Learning: RISD Gets a New Type of President

John Maeda is charming and witty during this 2007 TED Talk on Simplicity:

John Maeda’s additional web presence:

RISD’s president’s page

Laws of Simplicity blog

Photo credit: Robert Scoble on

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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