John Maeda Wants to Jump Start Your Brain

John Maeda is an artistic computer nerd who designed Reebok sneakers and is constantly challenging people’s ideas. But as RISD’s new president, the person he tests most of all is himself.

The new president of the Rhode Island School of Design is about to meet, for the first time, the mayor of Providence, his school’s home city. The president, John Maeda, has in tow two twenty-something-year-old men whom he wants to introduce to the mayor. More accurately, he wants them to introduce to Mayor David Cicilline the new product they’ve been working on, a high-tech invention that just may be the new, new thing—the Holy Grail of the venture capitalist. Maybe the city can find a use for this new technology, Maeda thinks.

And so the three of them—Maeda, Sean Moss-Pultz and Will Lai—plop down on the stuffed chairs in an anteroom of the mayor’s chamber and begin a discussion about Lai’s passion for creating music by snatching bits of tunes off old records and stitching them together into songs.

“I’m a samplist,” Lai says.

Maeda, as is his wont, whips out a digital recorder attached to his iPhone, and extends it toward Lai’s mouth to record the conversation. Maeda is forever recording his daily encounters with people, pulling from a bag his iPhone, or a digital camera that records video as well as stills, or a notebook that he uses to write down phrases that strike him as profound (i.e. “When does a form become a chair?”). Maeda, who is forty-two, likes to call himself “the old man of new media.”

“A samplist?” Maeda says into his iPhone.

“We only take samples from records, like vinyl records,” says Lai. Analog sound is warmer, he explains, not as sterile as digital. “It’s kind of like a way to respect old music.”

“Respect?” Maeda says, pushing for more information. He often does this; in a way it’s disorienting—no sooner are you introduced to the new president than he’s thrusting a recorder at you, pressing for your insights, your philosophy of your passion.

The conversation is interrupted by the news that the mayor will see them now. So the three men tromp toward the mayor’s chambers, and when they reach the door, Maeda stops to let the two younger men pass first. He invariably holds doors open for others when walking in a group, a habit from his childhood. His father, a Japanese immigrant, owned a small tofu manufactory in Seattle, and whenever a customer entered or left his shop, one of the five Maeda children would always hold open the door.

The trio sits at the mayor’s long, oval table, Maeda with his back to the window facing his younger, entrepreneurial friends; he has no business ties with them but is just interested in their project and, perhaps, getting RISD involved with it.

Cicilline sits at the head of the table, watching with curiosity while Moss-Pultz, a handsome redhead with sallow cheeks, opens a box containing the invention. He pulls from the box a cell phone, but not just any cell phone.

“This is the Hummer of phones,” Moss-Pultz says.

Looking at it, the most distinguishing feature of the phone—a nonworking prototype of their latest model, the Neo FreeRunner, which just recently went on the market—is a row of lights that arcs from the left side of the phone, around the front, to the other side. What these lights do is allow you to sniff out free wireless access to the Internet. If wireless, or Wi-Fi, is available to your right, the lights on the right side of the phone light up; point the phone right at the Wi-Fi signal, and the front lights burn, allowing you to walk right up to the source. When the signal is strong, you can use it to make free phone calls over the Internet.

The phone has a global positioning system in it, Blue Tooth technology that allows you to use it as a walkie-talkie, two identical computer chips in case one goes down. “We took the kitchen sink approach” to designing a telephone, Moss-Pultz says, as Maeda looks on like a proud parent; he is thirteen years older than the twenty-nine-year-old Moss-Pultz.

It’s the power of the individual to go into something and rip out all the barriers that exist.

A typical cell phone company, such as Nokia or Nextel, jealously hides its programming code, and subscribers can make calls only over their networks. That’s how they make their money, carrying calls. Moss-Pultz’s company, Openmoko, Inc., is bankrolled by FIC, a Taiwanese company that is one of the largest computer and consumer electronics manufacturers in the word. Openmoko does not operate a cell phone network. It makes its money by selling a piece of hardware—a cell phone—then encouraging people to type their own programming code into the phone to make it do all kinds of things—call up local street maps, for example, which people can edit to show which clubs have live music, or such Rhode Island-centric things as where the Del’s lemonade stands or duckpin bowling lanes are.

“These are all open source programming,” Maeda explains to the mayor. “Which means you can’t control them.” Once the phones are in circulation, people can make them do whatever they want.

“Open systems may be the ultimate expression of independence,” Maeda says.

Moss-Pultz adds, “It’s the power of the individual to go into something and rip out all the barriers that exist.”

“The idea of putting your own personal imprint on this,” Cicilline says, fingering the phone, imagining the possibilities.

Maeda: “People think of technology as something that is pulling us apart. Actually it gives us an unparalleled chance to be a part of something.”

John Maeda is a walking brainstorm. Whenever he’s walking, which is often since RISD’s campus is spread out over several downtown blocks, he is talking, probing, suggesting. As anyone who’s ever been forced into a brainstorming session knows, ideas are encouraged to flow unfiltered. And as a result, a lot of nonsense comes out. This is true of John Maeda’s musings—he spouts a lot of nonsense and he knows it.

He says of his own conversation: “Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t.”

To get a sense of Maeda’s walking brainstorm style, watch him at Click on “Tour With Maeda V: Stores of Creativity” and see as he enters the RISD art supplies store with a look of awe on his expressive face. As the camera pans across rolls of rainbow-hued masking tape, he says: “This gets me excited—tape. Because tape allows you to make perfect lines, like on the computer—you know, you can draw a line with your mouse, but uh, with tape you do a very similar thing: You sort of point and drag or you pull and drag. I love tape.” He plunges deeper into the store, looking at an array of colored felt-tip pens and tubes of paint and brushes.


“It’s like going to the market in Paris,” he gushes. “You see all these wonderful fruits and vegetables— things you just wanna—don’t eat this by the way. But uh [unintelligible] salads of creativity, new kinds of meals for the mind. This is how it all starts—you have all these, all these parts you put together.”

Somebody once told Maeda that the human brain cannot think quickly enough to process spoken language, thus the brain fills in gaps the way the hearer wants them filled. “Most of what we’re hearing is, we make it up on the fly,” he says. He uses this to his advantage by tossing out his observations on the fly, and probing people about their own. He purposefully delivers with enthusiasm and passion high-sounding, half-finished ideas and observations as a challenge for those around him—faculty, students, anyone who happens to be in earshot—to build on.

People in his presence often do pick up on his observations and expand on them. As a result, a lot of his nonsense accretes into pearls.

When editing the information he posts on his blog, “Our (and your) RISD,” Maeda allows some of his goofier observations to go through; he does not want to appear flawless, so he himself draws back the curtain to expose the human being behind the wizard projected by the president’s chair.

“The best way to be is to always be vulnerable because people know what’s real,” he says in an interview in his new office. “If you’re invincible, you’re saying: ‘Listen to me or else!’ When you’re vulnerable, people have a choice about how to feel about you.”

Maeda takes a risk in presenting himself as the always enthusiastic, sometimes goofy “old man of new media,” constantly photographing, recording, writing and posting his unfiltered observations; but the risk is not entirely his. In doing so, he is giving people a choice in how to interpret him, and those who choose to underestimate him are also taking a risk. Not for nothing has Esquire named him one of the twenty-one most important people of the twenty-first century. And his ratio of nonsense to pearls is good enough, at age forty-two, to land him in the president’s chair at RISD.

john maedaJohn Maeda does not own a necktie. He drapes his whippet-thin frame in gray or black suits, usually Issey Miyake, calculatedly rumpled, but nicely tailored, high quality and minimal. He likes to quote from comics, another habit that can be traced to his Japanese-American roots.

In Japan, a style of comic book called manga—usually printed in thick, black-and-white books—is widely read by people of all ages. Maeda’s mother, a third- generation Japanese-American born in Hawaii, was exposed to the custom, and she used comic books and word search puzzles to stimulate her children’s interest in reading.

This was perfect training for a future RISD president; it’s arguably more important for the president of RISD to be familiar with manga and animation than to be able to quote Longfellow and the Transcendentalists of Concord because RISD is an unusual place, an incredible incubator of genius. Its hottest graduate is currently Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated series “Family Guy,” who recently signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox TV for more than $100 million. Other graduates include famous musicians (Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz of the Talking Heads), film directors (Mary Lambert, Pet Sematary, Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting) and artists in many mediums (four of the twenty-five winners of MacArthur Fellowships, aka “genius grants,” named in 2006 were RISD alumni.)

The school’s been around for 131 years, since a group called the Centennial Women—formed to raise money for the Rhode Island exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exposition—discovered that they had $1,676 left over after meeting expenses, and decided to use it as seed money to form the Rhode Island School of Design.

A primary objective of this group, some of whom were the high-class wives of mill owners, was to teach artisans to apply “the principles of art to the requirements of trade and manufacture.”

Maeda at first resisted his call to practice “the principles of art” in his own life. In fourth or fifth grade, he painted a mural of King Tut for his classroom, and “my art teacher went crazy!” he recalls. The teacher told his parents that their son really could be an artist. “My parents kind of ignored that.”

He says that his parents hoped that one of their five children would attend Harvard or MIT, a realistic goal in young John’s case because he always was a good student. He liked school because it was so much less demanding than his time out of it, much of which was spent in his parents’ tofu manufactory, “Star Tofu,” where “you keep moving around this mashed bean substance in various ways.” His hands would go numb from reaching into vats of cold water to press the tofu; then he’d drop it into vats of hot oil and spitting grease would burn his arms.

So school was a nice place, a respite. “Going to school was like ten times better, and the teacher doesn’t yell at you,” Maeda recalls. “I loved being at school. I excelled at it.” In fact, he did well enough at it to win acceptance to MIT.

As gruff as his father was, he was also humble; and John’s acceptance to an elite eastern school made him very proud. He practiced an extreme form of Shintoism, which Maeda sums up as: Do no harm, and be grateful for what lies around you and inside of you. It is a philosophy that has shaped Maeda’s own world view. “It’s as simple as that,” Maeda says. “My father is a man without a high school education—yet his basic philosophies led me to where I am today, to lead one of the top learning institutions in the world. When I try to figure it out I really can’t. I’m just grateful that I can have an impact right now at this ripe time in the world that is ready to embrace hope for the future, and co-designing the changes that will get us there together.”

After freshman year at MIT, Maeda landed a summer job working for Tandy computers in Fort Worth, Texas, where he worked on an alpha version of Microsoft’s Windows, designing an alarm clock that Windows users could set to remind them of future events. The next summer he also spent in Fort Worth, this time working for Texas Instruments, handling some complex assignments until his boss figured out he was not an MIT graduate but just a sophomore, and his workload suddenly became less complex.

“I found that interesting, if people think you are a certain age they have different expectations.” He vowed not to do that in his own life—he would base expectations on observations.

And a funny thing happened that summer: Maeda discovered that, when pre-paring a project, he loved designing the graphics for it, much more so than the writing. One of his professors, Muriel Cooper, encouraged him to explore the artistic side of himself that he’d shelved in fifth grade, and he soon discovered a talent for using his programming knowledge to make art. This was a radical idea in the mid-1980s; he was not programming for a specific application, such as a word search. He was programming to make art.



“I made a series of books in the early nineties called The Reactive Books that demonstrated how you could make the computer respond and behave in fluid, visual ways,” Maeda wrote in an email. “This led to the rich vocabulary of Flash as seen today on most websites….” Adobe Flash technology allows websites to have animation and interactive features, which he now believes are way over-used.


He felt something like guilt about helping to clutter up the Internet with too much “eye candy” and wrote as atonement a small book called Simplicity, which argues for a less-is-more approach to design —at least to a point.

“Simplicity is knowing when less is too little and more is too much,” he writes. “Simplicity = Sanity.”

Maeda earned a master’s from MIT in the late 1980s, then enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the Tsukuba Institute of Art and Design in Japan. After graduating from there he joined the MIT faculty in 1996; since he was living in New England, he began paying visits to the Connecticut studio of Paul Rand, the great graphic designer whose work everyone is familiar with whether they know it or not: he designed the logos for IBM, ABC, UPS. By offering himself as kind of a gopher, Maeda wound up getting a credit in Rand’s last book From Lascaux to Brooklyn, published just before his death in 1996.

Maeda, too, has done graphics for large corporations—Reebok, for example, hired him to design a shoe that features Maeda’s handwritten computer code on the sock liner, while the graphics generated by the computer code decorate the outside of the shoe. He has also made strange and wonderful art by marrying computer programs with food: He once scanned into a computer a small packet of sugar, discovering in the process that there are 70,000 crystals in a single packet, then used every crystal in creating a design; he loaded Cheetos into something like PhotoShop’s paintbrush, then used “strokes” of Cheetos and his own fine, black hair to make realistic-looking monarch butterflies; he scanned French fries and turned them into a forest —good creative work, some of which has wound up as part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

In 2006, Maeda earned an online MBA degree from the University of Arizona; so when RISD was looking for a new president to succeed Roger Mandle, who had run the school for fifteen years, they found a perfect candidate in Maeda—an artist and designer who understands business and technology. They hired him away from MIT where, as associate director, he had headed a program with a $30 million annual budget, the MIT Media Lab.

Curiously, John Maeda is not always an “early adopter” of new technology. He’ll sometimes let the latest gadget, such as the Nintendo Wii, languish on the market for a couple of months before he buys it. “Every time I adopt something new, it hurts me,” he says, so he avoids it. But then he steels himself and plunges in, for he feels it’s important to adopt new technologies in order to earn “trust” from his college-aged students.

That implicit trust is obvious as Maeda banters with the twenty-something developers of Openmoko, Inc., Sean Moss-Pultz and William Lai. After their meeting with the mayor, the three of them rendezvous in RISD’s administration building, giddy with the post-adrenaline high of actors who have just been onstage.

“The mayor was geeking,” Moss-Pultz says as a compliment to Cicilline. “He was totally geeking!”

And as three men stand in a room cluttered with boxes of Maeda’s books, they kick around some ideas for the phone—not for its applications but for its design, what it should look like, feel like, in the palm of the hand.

Maeda is a big believer in what he calls nude electronics, that is, designing gadgets to be “smooth, seamless and small.” He pulls from a bag his iPhone, smooth and as polished as a mirror. “It looks expensive,” he says in praise of it.

The prototype of the phone, Neo, in Moss-Putz’s palm strives for a different look; the back half of it is seamless, but the front incorporates a design that looks like trees and has a roughened texture. Maeda likes it.

“Maybe the message here is people are tired of perfection,” he says of the design. “This feels like a pebble. And what are pebbles? Pebbles are imperfect.”
He encourages them to continue that look and texture farther down the phone’s edges. “Complete the story,” he says.

As the three of them talk, animatedly, Maeda looks up and sees Roger Mandle, the outgoing RISD president, standing in the doorway. Mandle is going home onhis last day as RISD president, passing through the administration building on a farewell tour. He wears a pressed shirt the color of raspberry sherbet, shades of which are nicely repeated in his tie. The conversation stops; it feels as if youngsters have been caught playing with dad’s things.

“The office is all cleaned out,” Mandle tells Maeda—he hasn’t left a scrap of paper in it.

“I’ll find out where the leaks are,” Maeda jokes, but Mandle doesn’t take up the badinage.

“I don’t know of any,” Mandle says. Then he adds, “Good luck. I’ll see you at graduation.”

Maeda and his young entrepreneurs return to their lively discussion of their cell phone’s design. Maeda opens his iPod with a click to show an image of a nice look he saw in New York: a mirror covered with a smooth, opaque surface. Perhaps they could use that look on the cover of Neo?

If the Centennial Women who founded RISD in 1877 were passing by, they might not recognize a tie-less college president who quotes comic books and occasionally spouts nonsense to stimulate conversation. They certainly would not recognize the product in his hand—an open source cellular telephone. But had they been in that room, the Centennial Women would have seen their first new president of the twenty-first century doing what they incorporated their school to do: helping a new generation adopt “the principles of art to the requirements of trade and manufacture”—or “geeking.”