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A captivating force at RISD helm

Digital guru shakes up campus

(Victoria Arocho for The Boston Globe)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / December 25, 2008
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PROVIDENCE - A lint ball.

This is how John Maeda, six months into his job as president of the venerable Rhode Island School of Design, describes his daily duties. But instead of dust, he collects information. The collecting began the week he arrived, when he asked 600 high school students attending a summer art program to applaud for the vision of the university that resonated most with them.

"A lifelong education in art and design" got polite applause. "Fostering the next generation of talent" did a little better. Then he suggested: "Building a justifiable case for creativity in our world."

"The response to that - it was like being Bono in U2," says Maeda. "I began to understand why this calling came."

To come to RISD, Maeda left his post as associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab, where he oversaw corporate partnerships in addition to performing academic and administrative duties.

At 42, he doesn't own a suit, preferring trousers and T-shirts and scarves. He blogs voracious ly and Twitters with gusto. With a resume that spans illustrious accomplishments in computer science, graphic design, and fine art, Maeda is, many believe, uniquely qualified to lead one of the nation's oldest art and design colleges into the future.

RISD rejected the obvious pool of candidates - vice presidents, deans, historians - in favor of an electronic media guru and advocate for humanizing technology in the service of creativity.

"John absolutely captivated us," says Merrill Sherman, president and CEO of Bancorp Rhode Island and chairman of RISD's board of trustees, who headed the presidential-search committee. "John said that he believes art and design will inform the 21st century as none other, that RISD has a real role to play in that. The analogy he used was MIT. Before World War II, MIT was a geeky science school. After World War II, with the explosion of science and technology, MIT's role changed. And right now he sees RISD in a similar position."

In the broadest sense, Maeda would like to erase what he sees as the culturally-sanctioned line between creative and commercial achievement.

"I believe that every Silicon Valley entrepreneur I've met is an artist," he says. "The ability to invent is at the core of both, and we haven't connected the dots."

That's a complex shift in perspective, even at RISD, and perhaps especially for the school's fine artists.

"RISD needed a strong catalyst to come in and reexamine how we were integrating new technology across the curriculum," says Deborah Bright, chair of the photography department and a 20-year member of the faculty. "On the other hand, you hear the words 'corporate funding' and it gets your radar up. Is he going to bring along things that may not be compatible with the culture here?"

Since taking the helm in June, Maeda has partnered with the online T-shirt company Threadless on their first curated series, designed by RISD professors from the graphic and industrial design and illustration departments; brought super-sleek lighting to an antiquated lab filled with 100,000 animal specimens, and joined forces with Samsung to install seven large-screen digital bulletin boards across the campus where anyone in the RISD community can post events, artwork, musings, raves, and rants.

The screens, and a reporter's digital recorder, were both on the fritz during a recent visit, a timely reminder of technology's limits. But the campuswide messaging system is a source of enormous pride to Maeda, and it's emblematic of his wish to cultivate an open-source administration and openly-engaged student body.

"I'm Twitterable, Facebookable, iTunesable, because everybody needs different access," he explains. "I can't do my job unless I can hear what the people need or want from me."

Maeda doesn't think he has all the answers. He thinks that everyone around him has the answers and sees his presidency - and the opportunity to empower the community he leads - as nothing short of a reestablishment of democratic principles.

According to Will McLoughlin, president of the RISD Student Alliance, it's not just lip service.

"Everyone is definitely talking about John," says McLoughlin, a senior in the architecture department. "No one is exactly sure what he's doing, but there's trust among the students that he's doing the right things - I think because he's willing to entertain all these conversations and go anywhere with any topic. At this recent meeting he had with students one said, 'Can you cc the student body on every e-mail you send,' trying to force a radical translation of this transparency thing. John said, 'It's a crazy idea. I like this idea.' We got into more detail about it, and it was clear it wouldn't work out. But his attitude, his willingness to listen and engage, is something the student body can appreciate."

Evidence of Maeda's uncommon approach to leadership (and ivory-tower decor) is pinned to the walls in his office. There are questions scrawled on paper scraps and epiphanies sketched on napkins. Mathematical equations hang next to meditations on imagination.

An Academy Award made out of LEGOs rests on a window ledge - a congratulations-on-the-new-job gift from the company's CEO - and in the middle of his desk sits the microphone Maeda uses to record podcasts. In a prime spot on his bookshelf: a "Star Trek" communicator.

"He's very quirky and it's not just a pose," observes Paolo Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art, who wrote the foward to Maeda's 1999 book "Design by Numbers."

"Meetings with him are not long, very intense, and never a waste of time."

Maeda grew up in Seattle, in a heavily African-American and Samoan neighborhood, the second of four children who were bused to good public schools and worked long hours in their parents' tofu store. Maeda excelled at math and art, but his parents only heard about their son's math skills. The American dream was alive and well in the Maeda household - "making pictures" wasn't part of the plan - and John ran with it. He attended MIT, receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science and electrical engineering, respectively.

He went to Japan's University of Tsukuba, Institute of Art and Design "to get in touch with my hands again," he says. He earned a PhD and returned to MIT in 1996 as a faculty member at the Media Lab.

Accolades and exhibitions began piling up; in 1999, Esquire magazine named Maeda one of the 21 most important people for the 21st century. Asked to name his most significant achievement, Maeda says it's his happy marriage. He divides his time between Providence and the home in Lexington he shares with his wife, Kris, and his five daughters, whose ages he declines to give.

"I don't talk about them much in the press," Maeda says.

Maeda begins his 2006 book "The Laws of Simplicity" with a tellingly bittersweet anecdote about his daughters opening their first e-mail accounts and his ambivalence about watching them "swim in the ocean of information." He describes himself as "post-digital" - in other words, a world-class technologist who has returned to the world of ideas.

That combination is Maeda's great strength, says Katherine Sloan, president of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. "In educating students, we're trying to create people who can create visual meaning," she says. "Having somebody who's a trained studio artist, a well-known designer, and so fluent in the uses of technology . . . John embodies this convergence. I think he can propel RISD and, frankly, other colleges and programs, to think about how to deal with this very interesting moment in our history."

The moment, and its potential, isn't lost on Maeda.

Shortly after his talk with the high school students in June, a girl tapped him on the shoulder on campus. "She said, 'I'm growing up in South Dakota and I'm the weird one, and you're telling me you're going to fight for us. I'm really glad you said that,' " Maeda recalls.

It's a piece of information that sticks with him. "I did great with math, I'm MIT-approved. Whatever," he says. "It's not what got me where I am. It was the ability to see an orange peel and make a sculpture out of it."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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