Innovation economy

Running a college on the avant garde

Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Kirsner
February 10, 2008

Explaining John Maeda is not a simple job.

Maeda makes sculptures out of iPods, designs shoes for Reebok, and helps Samsung Electronics create engaging retail environments. He speaks at Google and Yahoo about the value of simplicity in the tech world. His artwork, much of it taking the form of software that produces kaleidoscopic imagery on a computer screen, has been shown in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo.

In June, Maeda will leave his alma mater, MIT, where he has taught at the Media Lab since 1996, to become the next president of the Rhode Island School of Design. He's already showing signs that he'll bring the same kind of fresh, playful, "why not try it?" thinking to college administration that has guided his career in art, design, and technology.

When RISD announced last December that Maeda, 41, would become the school's 16th president, it posted to its website a short video in which Maeda stood in front of a stark white backdrop, donned a black RISD sweatshirt, and introduced himself to the RISD community. "I think the one thing you learn after you leave college is that you're immediately obsolete. You have to keep on learning," Maeda said to the camera. (If Apple made ads for higher education, they'd look something like this.)

A few days later, lying in a Boston hospital bed after minor surgery, Maeda was pecking at the keyboard on his iPhone to create a new blog for the RISD website, where he intended to collect ideas about what ought to be changed or improved at the school, founded in 1877 and considered one of the top places in the world for artists and designers. The result, "blog w/maeda," asks members of the RISD community to post ideas using their real names (except on dates that end in a 1, when they can submit anonymous thoughts or gripes). Maeda calls it "open source administration."

Maeda knows that as someone new to the job of being a college president, he'll inevitably make mistakes. "I wanted there to be a place where people could freely tell me, 'John, that's a dumb idea,"' he says. He even hopes to make the process of budgeting more transparent to the school's faculty and students.

But Maeda, who grew up working in his family's Seattle tofu factory, doesn't plan to stop creating just because he'll be holding the president's post at RISD. "I want to keep on making things," he says. "They say 'lead by example.' It's as simple as that. If I have an hour or two, I can make an illustration or write a computer program."

In the past few years, Maeda's highest-profile project has been a book, a blog, and a series of speeches focusing on the merits of simplicity. Too often, he believes, creators of consumer electronics, software, and other products skirt the hard work and ruthless paring required to make something simple.

Maeda spreads his gospel of simplicity in the corporate world: Paul Kim, a senior marketing manager at Samsung, says that Maeda and his colleagues at the Media Lab have helped Samsung design a more streamlined interface for a new line of televisions that can display blog entries and other Web content on their screens. (Maeda also worked with Samsung on the launch of its flagship retail space in Manhattan, which sought to connect the physical and online worlds.)

"If you want to make things simple, you have to work a lot more," Kim says.

Maeda also worked with Google to create a theme, or background, for the site's customized home page; it changes hue throughout the course of the day, based on what region you're in and how light it is there. He also designed a "gadget" (a small software application that sits on a user's desktop) for Google. It showcases the work of winners of the National Design Award, along with commentary from Maeda. Both projects launched last month.

"What he advocates is very much in line with what Google strives to be," says Irene Au, Google's director of user experience. "I believe design is all about making choices - what do you put in, and what do you leave out?"

A shoe that Maeda designed last year for Canton-based Reebok, the Timetanium Ventilator, features handwritten software code on the interior. The exterior is a colorful, abstract design that was generated by the code. One-hundred pairs of the limited edition, $150 shoe sold out in less than a day. A second shoe, for women, will be released in March, and Maeda says he is very interested in collaborating with Web users to design custom shoes - but he won't say much more than that.

Somewhat pricier is Maeda's original artwork. For an exhibit in London last year, titled "Maeda: MySpace," he created a sculpture in the shape of a fish, made of 16 silver iPods. The screens of the music players cycled through 60,000 of Maeda's "visual memories." Memories, he suggested, were like fish - always flitting away. The piece sold for nearly $50,000. (Maeda donated the proceeds to charity.)

"One of the most wonderful things about what John does is that it's so unpredictable," says Bradley Horowitz, who studied at the Media Lab alongside Maeda, and is now vice president of advanced development at Yahoo. "It's a thankless task to try to capture him in words, or in an article."

Thankless, and certainly not simple.

But Maeda did the job for me, in his introductory Internet video for RISD. "I want to try new things," he says. It's the mantra of innovators and artists everywhere - and we'll soon get to see how well it meshes with running a college.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at

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