Looking at the intersections: John Maeda at TEDGlobal 2012

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John Maeda

When he was a child, John Maeda‘s father came to a parent-teacher meeting and was told that his son was good at math and art. His father nodded. The next day, at his tofu store, his father told a customer that his son was good at … math. “That’s stuck with me all my life,” Maeda says. “Why wasn’t art okay?”

Maeda is here today to talk about technology, art, design and leadership, four factors to which he has dedicated his life. In particular, he wants to think about how the areas overlap.

Technology makes possibilities
“Technology is a wonderful thing,” he says, remembering his first computer, the Apple II. When it came out, he recalls, it could do nothing but show some text. Then after some time it could show some images. Then, later, it could play some sound. Eventually, it could play movies via CD-ROM. “Remember that excitement?” This development has become a pattern, replicated by the browser, the mobile phone, the iPhone, the iPad: text, images, sound, movie. “We’re stuck in a loop,” he says.

With that, he unleashes a quick design lesson, showing us experiments in typography to demonstrate how the same content can be completely different when considering its context or form. The word “fear” written in 6-point Helvetica ultralight is a whisper, but in 166-pt Helvetica black it’s an order.

Design makes solutions
Here’s a treat for longtime Maeda fans. He shows some old work from the early 1990s, when he first began experimenting with design and technology. For instance, he shows a square that responds to sound. “People ask me why I made that. It’s not clear,” he says. He shows a keyboard that throws up different effects depending on where you type. A keyboard that re-balances itself as you type. “Hit ‘G’ and it goes back to center,” he says happily. He stopped making interactive graphics, he says, because his students at MIT outpaced him. “I had to hang up my mouse,” he says. (This writer frankly disagrees.)

Art makes questions
“When people say they don’t get art, that means art is working. It’s supposed to be enigmatic,” he says. He tells us about the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab at RISD, which contains 80,000 samples of animals, minerals, plants, you name it. Because at RISD, he says, students are not allowed to draw from an image. The thinking is that you should look at an object to perceive it. To people who wonder why they don’t just digitze everything, Maeda replies, “There’s something good to how things used to be done. We should figure out what is good about how we did it, even in this era.”

With that, he recalls his friend, designer Tota Hasegawa, a new media artist who used to chafe at the title. “It isn’t about new or old–it’s about something in between,” he says. It isn’t that old is dirt and new is the cloud. It’s about what is good. The combination of the cloud and the dirt is where the interest is at.

John Maeda

Leadership makes actions
Things have changed; the world has changed. As we’ve already heard at TEDGlobal, we don’t respond to authority in the same way we used to. Hierarchies have been disrupted and today’s leaders are faced with how to do things differently. Maeda’s goal is to see what traditional leaders might learn from artists or designers. How might creative leadership manifest itself? For one thing: While traditional leaders want to be right, creative leaders hope to be right. It’s a subtle nuance, but an important one.

He concludes by recalling a show he put on in London recently. He spent four days literally sitting in a sandbox, taking one-on-one meetings with anyone who might come along. “It was hard to figure out what I was doing,” he confesses. “But by the end of the experience I realized why I was doing it. Leaders make improbable connections and hope something will happen. I found connections between all sorts of people across London.” Connecting people is the big question today — and it’s a wonderful design challenge. He shows a sketch application built in Python that shows how leaders might visualize their organizations to understand the connections within them — and how they might find the right person in every department to have coffee with. Understanding social systems within organizations is a critical focus of the future, he says, and art and design helps us to understand just such ideas. Beautiful.

Photos: James Duncan Davidson