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Nov 24, 2008

John Maeda is more than the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design. Graphic designer, author, engineer, philosopher and family man, he always does at least two things at once.

By Amy Van Vechten

A compact, slender man, John Maeda moves with purpose and speaks efficiently. As we talk, his fingers tap lightly on the table. He is obviously not used to being idle.
We are in his office at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I. on a chilly fall morning. It’s his 42nd birthday and the day after President-elect Barack Obama’s victory. Maeda declares, “it’s time for a change.”
aeda is the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
Running one of America’s top-ranked fine arts schools is hardly the only thing he is doing: Maeda is a computer scientist, artist, author, professor and academic leader.
He studied software engineering at M.I.T and completed a Ph.D. in design at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. In 1999, Esquire named him as one of the 21 most important people of the 21st century. He was only 32.
Throughout his career, he has moved between media, focusing at various times on computer design, clementine-peel sculpture and visual collages of scanned McDonald’s French fries. He can also be credited for some Reebok shoe designs, a cover for The New York Times Magazine, a variety of computer logos and programs, and eight books on subjects ranging from design concepts to philosophical laws.
At heart, he is a relentless innovator with tremendous passion and energy.
“He is a commanding presence in both the fine arts and corporate design worlds,” former RISD president Roger Mandle comments. “Just as important, he is a humanist. He is a genius—and he gets things done.”


“The world is coming to a place where it wants to be human again,” Maeda says. “We’re tired of the mass-manufactured and the anonymous, designed for millions of people. Technology and business have gone to their maximums. It’s all about you, and what you’d like to be in this world.”
That optimism and determination translates into jam-packed days. Maeda is a consummate multitasker, often seen drawing on napkins while leading meetings with faculty, attending lectures and working through word puzzles.
“I blog, I work, I organize, I manage and also I draw,” he says. “Right now, RISD is my medium. I look at it as my big art installation piece.”
In his new role at the school, Maeda reminds himself that a leader is nothing without followers. Once a month, he invites students and faculty to tag along with him one of his regular jogs, and he regularly has lunch with students in the cafeteria.

Watch FLYP’s video interview with John Maeda, in which he discusses everything from patterns to his influences to technology.

Maeda strives to remain available to the faculty and students in order to encourage openness and dialogue. He calls his leadership strategy a sort of “open-source” communication.
“The open-source approach that I’m taking is meant to get everyone to be a part of the voice,” Maeda says. “The hierarchy is important—it’s how decisions are made. But, I make sure all voices can be heard. I’m there to listen and understand and to shape the whole picture.”
His decision to take his career in this direction was in part inspired by the chance to do something different.
“When this came along I thought, ‘that sounds interesting, difficult and challenging,’” Maeda says. “And I figured, I’m young enough to try things.”

Maeda grew up in Seattle, Wash., where his father ran a tofu factory. While joking that family businesses are synonymous with child labor, Maeda applauds the environment for giving him an indefatigable work ethic.
His mother instilled in him a love of patterns, and an obsession with word searches, which Maeda claims suit his visual nature. She also loved The National Enquirer, gleaning life lessons from the tabloid; she may be the cause of his fascination with symbolism and half-serious attention to omens.

“It’s this awkward moment when, suddenly, the new generation has the responsibility of being in charge,” Maeda says. “It’s a brand new feeling. And you have to lead for all those people.”
The ever-present designer sees a global wave of change afoot: shifts in popular culture, technology and even in the American political landscape are fusing to form a particularly important time.
“You have to be able to think in both the younger and the older framework,” he says. “It’s about everyone, not who we are as leaders.”

Maeda’s Media: An award-winning designer, Maeda uses visual imagery to redefine and simplify users’ interactions with technology. Check out FLYP Media’s interactive feature to see some of his best designs.

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