John Maeda: Unconventional Design Thinking

By Shlomo Maital


     John Maeda has had a remarkable career, in computer science at MIT, and MIT Media Lab, then as head of the famed Rhode Island School of Design, now as a partner in Kleiner Perkins. He is also a famed video artist Here are his views on design, as told to McKinsey’s Hugo Sarrazin.

     Design was once largely about making products attractive. Today it’s a way of thinking, a creative process that spans entire organizations, driven by the desire to better understand and meet consumer needs. Good design is good business. This came from T.J. Watson Jr., in a 1966 memo to all of IBM.   Moore’s law (computing power doubles every 18 months) is dwindling…   so now we have to buy [things] because of how they make us feel.

     Whenever someone has come to me asking for the ‘silver bullet’ (for great design), I say, “There’s only a silver ray…and you have to know where to point it, you might get lucky”.

     I was talking to a CEO startup —   I offered my opinion, “Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it. If you think about design adding value, a lot of what people don’t understand is that sometimes the best design consultants will tell you NOT to design it.

     [Consulting for e-Bay companies]…   I observed that the designers were all spread out. …So I connected all of them together, some 380 of them, into one community that could see each other. And the CEO could see them. ..the CEO said, “oh, so design itsn’t about this pixels thing, it’s about systems thinking!”   He totally got it.   [Sarrazin: It’s getting the right people together, creating the sense of community. It’s also reframing what it is!].    

     Maeda: Reframing: Exactly!