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Artist, graphic designer, computer scientist, educator and president of of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), John Maeda explains his design thoughts, and why sometimes, the dirt is just as good as the cloud.
When I first stopped using computers in 1989, I had a hard time adjusting. I would draw things in pen and ink and, when I made a mistake, my hand would do a phantom reflex for the ‘undo’ command. I had to learn how to deprogram myself, and to understand that I could make as many mistakes as I wanted to.
Computers mess with your brain. There is a great book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, which is all about how the way that we interact with information is so shallow. Sometimes it’s like we eat little candies versus eating a meal of information, which conditions our brains to really skim, surf and ‘shallowise’ ourselves. Remember the days when TV had a few channels and then 20 channels and then 30, and then 200? We keep looking for the right thing and never find it, because we’re skimming everything, and can’t concentrate or focus.
I will always remember Paul Rand giving me the advice to: “Make lots of money.” I was at his studio when he was 81, working there by accident. Rand’s assistant hadn’t arrived that day, so he told me to work for free, and I said OK. I sat down at the computer and said I’d do it for him. He was a grumpy guy, but really brilliant. All of a sudden, he got real quiet and said, “I have something very important to tell you, young man,” and I was xcited for a moment. He said, “Make lots of money.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He replied, “It isn’t how you think it is. If you’re not independently wealthy, you’ve got to figure out how to live. The things that you love to do will not make much money. The things that you actually don’t like to do will make more money. You have to make money to do things that you would actually like to do.” His advice was very pragmatic, and very helpful. That’s how he lived his life.
I think technology is magic. We can do things that are impossible to do. For instance, I have office hours for students that can come and see me, but at the beginning, the system was chaotic because it was hard to schedule the appointments the right way. So, I took a hair salon system, and reappropriated it, so students can come in and can choose a time, just like a hairdresser appointment, and schedule it. I like the fact that this saves my assistant so much time, and it took me just an hour to figure out. However, I don’t like it when technology becomes the goal. If technology is just a ‘wow’, it isn’t good enough.
Design is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a ‘need to have’. I think people see design as added expense. ‘I made my thing and now I’d like you to pour design gravy all over it. But, don’t put too much because I don’t have that much money.’ They think design is a nice to have, it’s a spray you put on things. I firmly believe that it should take more of an essential view. People love Apple, they loved Steve Jobs, but I think that less than five percent of people actually noticed it was about design, rather than just technology and marketing. People couldn’t locate the fact that there is this ‘design thing’ that Jobs believed in, and that he also believed in art as well. A lot of agencies I used to consult for were starving for innovation, and unsure how to make it happen. They think the left-brain approach is innovation, but, in actual fact, right-brain innovation, art and design, is lead-based thinking. Some of them get it, some of them don’t. That’s why we all have to work on this particular issue.
Creative people are the most adaptive people on the planet. There is this great article by Bob Johansen, of the Institute for the Future. It talks about how our world is now VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, and that the way you can really address or combat that is with a different kind of VUCA: vision, understanding, clarity and agility. This behaviour is indicative of how artists and designers exist.
Everyone is relying on this notion of the cloud. It’s a variation of putting something far away from you, so it feels simpler. Technology is, of course, enabling it, so it feels really good. We don’t understand it, but that’s great. I coined the term ‘the dirt’, which is just a kind of a joke, but also a pun for illustrating how we are so fixated in moving in software as a service. The dirt in the world is what we enjoy, it’s what makes things smell bad, but there’s a good smell in dirt too, it comes with growth and you have roots. I like this idea that we have lost touch with the dirt, and ‘calling it out’ to the cloud helps ground ourselves a bit more. I’m in art school; we’ve got a lot of dirt.
Traditional and handicraft techniques are increasingly relevant. Because everything these days is ‘push a button’, people are becoming more curious about how to push the button really well. We know that there are ways to elicit a varied response from a machine by engaging it with the physical world, and I think that when we ‘throw some dirt in the cloud’, it smells more human, and that comes from interactions, people interactions, which makes the cloud more cloudy. It’s a more human interaction with the medium, versus a very septic one.
Mixing art and design creates a powerful hybrid. The hybrid approach is very important. We can call it interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, grey, whatever, but it’s very common to engage in multiple centres of thinking. That said, though, if you don’t have purists who do their work in the pure fashion, you don’t have the reference points. It’s OK to make your own grey, but it’s good to have the different colours. Someone once asked me: hat is the ideal interdisciplinary program? And I said, “Well, there is none, because once you make one, you are making a certain colour of grey, which violates the whole thing of having something that’s randomised.” So, you can’t have the two parts of this and one part of that, which some schools try to create, which I think goes against that need. RISD, the school that I run is a school that really focuses on pure approaches to art and design, and the students really mix on the edges; they hybridise around their education.
From desktop magazine.