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John Maeda’s work has crossed many disciplines — design, technology and business — and now, he works at the intersection of all three. Former president of Rhode Island School of Design, Maeda is now design partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and chairs the eBay Design Advisory Council. In both roles, he’s tasked with helping organizations build design into their company cultures.
Maeda also spent 13 years at the MIT Media Lab as a professor and head of research. His books include The Laws of Simplicity, Creative Code, and Redesigning Leadership and he was named one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century by Esquire “because design will be the technology of the 21st century.”
I caught up with Maeda to ask him his thoughts on how news organizations can create a design culture, why he’s skeptical of “design thinking,” and how art and design can affect a company’s bottom line.
You’ve worked at the intersection of design, technology and business for a long time now. How has this space changed over the years?
I look at everything through the lens of Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law was defined in 1965 after Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel. I think you’re familiar with the idea: the doubling of transistors every month, which is pretty abstract.
I remember in the ’80s when I used to worked on chip design, we were working with real transistors. Every year, you’re trying to push more of them inside silicon. How do you push those things into smaller surface areas and smaller volumes? In the beginning the computer was kind of meaningless, but because of those scientists and engineers, after a few years, after a decade of that kind of logarithmic growth and power and transistor doubling — you get a computer that can help you write your paper. Or you get a computer that can help you distribute knowledge, you get a newspaper that can be searchable. We can search newspapers from all over the world in milliseconds. So we’ve live that, over the last few decades.
What’s changed is that, it’s just gotten so fast that it’s gotten past our own abilities to use all that power. It’s kind of like having a car that can go 10 mph, 15 mph, or 100 mph, speed of sound. But unlike vehicles — remember that jet that flew from Paris to New York, the Concord? The Concord was faster and it cost a lot more. You had to be fairly wealthy to fly on a Concord. The difference is that, in this day and age, computers get faster but they stay the same price.
We all get the benefits of the technology revolution, at the same time, at the same speed. So what’s happened is that it’s so fast now and we can all afford it, that we’re all kind of confused. The business world’s confused, academia’s confused — what do we do with all this power? — that’s what’s changed.
You’ve mentioned the iPod as one of the first examples of a perfect storm of good design sense and good business sense. Do any new technologies meet that standard?
The thing I like to point out is that, when you think about the iPod, people think it’s how it looks is what makes it a great design. Like “Oh my gosh, it’s so beautiful-looking.”
My interest is not the physical design. It’s the fact that there are two things. There’s the iTunes ecosystem, which allows people to pay for downloaded music. And number two, there were all kinds of business models built around the iPod.
For instance, there was a 34-cent chip that you had to buy if you wanted to connect your box to the iPod. The cable had a chip inside it, so you had to have a chip inside the cable for it to talk to the iPod.
Those are examples of great business models that can pay for the quality of design, the finish. I think sometimes we forget that it isn’t how it looks or how it feels but how does the company pay for that better look and feel? If you don’t have that, all you’ve got is a pretty thing that costs too much. So it’s companies that understand that it’s really about the business model and how do you build enough margins to afford thoughtful design. It isn’t design first.
Are there any startups in media or otherwise that have embraced this concept? What do those companies have in common?
When you ask about companies or startups that are doing the right thing, they have one very simple pattern.
Let me give you an example — Flipboard is an example of a company where one of the first few hires was a designer, a guy named Marcos Weskamp. When a startup has a designer on its founding team, it tends to make a product that has technology and design intertwined, of equal importance. It’s built concurrently versus after the fact, where the normal pattern is that you do the technology and then you spray the design at the end.
Why is that important? It’s not important because of design. It’s important because it puts design culture into the team culture of the startup early on. If you think of the first year when the startup starts up, and if a designer is in there, what happens is 1 year, 2 year, or 3 years in, you have three years that has had design culture inside of itself. That’s sort of money in the bank in a way because you’ve invested in design culture, just people that are in there.
People always say Apple’s so successful, but actually the only reason why it’s so successful is because it’s had design culture for over 30 years. It isn’t like suddenly — wow, they’re really good at design. Great content takes great people and it takes time and it takes culture.
I imagine if I was writing for The New York Times versus me writing for my local community blog, I would bring my A-game to writing for the Times. So that’s culture. That’s built over time. That’s the human magic. Startups, when they start with designers, with one or two, they’ve added to their corporate culture these kinds of people.
How can a legacy news organization apply this design-centric approach and infuse this design culture?
If you think of an older journalism-based entity, it has huge design culture. If you think of any great magazine or any great newspaper, there were probably some of the best designers that ever lived that worked on it — that worked on the masthead, worked on the typography, worked on the layout over multiple generations to make it more readable, making better ads. I think it’s a question of how to reveal that culture. That isn’t done so often because the business can’t see the design that drives its success and you don’t have good design without good content. It’s all interlinked.
I don’t think large corporations do a good job of helping the organization itself see its excellence. It’s very common. Larger organizations forget that. At eBay, that’s why I’ve been doing a lot of that work — revealing the quality of the designers inside — and it’s kind of amazing what happens when you do that. You mobilize the most important thing, which is the human capital of the organization, not the computers.
You’re skeptical of “design thinking,” which has been popular in the corporate world thanks to Ideo and is also gaining popularity now across innovative newsrooms. Why are you skeptical? Is it an effective way to infuse design into the newsroom culture?
I think back then and even now, I don’t think there’s any silver bullet. I think that once people start thinking of design thinking, they bring out the snack packs and the Jello and all that stuff and “Look, we’re all going to be better.” It’s just hopeful thinking.
Whether it’s design thinking or better IT or whatever, I think that design thinking has pervaded so many parts — not just journalism but governments are trying to use it and everyone’s trying to use it — and I don’t really know what it is.
All I really know is it’s asking ourselves to choose a path away from convergence towards divergence. Convergence is how we get things done, it’s the classical phrase of execution. Businesses have to execute; they have to converge, see the goal and execute it. Design thinking is basically a legalized form to say it’s OK to diverge, it’s OK to experiment, it’s OK to take risks, it’s OK to go off the path.
I sat next to a great journalist in a bus in Korea somewhere. He was saying how in the old day when there were more reporters, some of them could just go off on a month-long or half-year long investigation with no guarantee of a big win. He was the “junk-yard-dog reporter” who could go on a mission to find that thing that no one else could find. That’s design thinking. That’s the history of great journalism. We just forget it.
My only criticism of design thinking is that we forget that we’ve always believed in diverging. So we want to embrace that even if there aren’t designers there in journalism organizations, but there’s always been creativity and divergence. We want to celebrate creativity, that’s all.
Your career has spanned the MIT Media Lab to the Rhode Island School of Design. Now you’re at a venture capital firm helping the tech industry embrace design. How can art and design affect a company’s bottom line?
In the old days, if you just had a better technology, you’d win. If you had more megahertz or more RAM or whatever, you’d win. That no longer is good enough. People will not use your product just because it has better technology — it needs better technology and better design.
How it translates to dollars is that more people will download your app if it has great technology and great design, more people will buy your product like a Nest thermostat, if it has great technology and great design. It’s just a better business case. You can no longer make great technology and hope people will buy it. But, as I said, if you just have great design and good technology and poor business models, people will not buy your product. I want to be very clear, it isn’t just about great design.
How does that translate to news organizations now?
I like watching David Pogue and his career. I like watching the fact that you have content creators who understand the shifts in the medium and see how they can diversify, take their content creating and curating skills and learn how to apply it across mediums and find new opportunities and innovate. They have agility.
I think that designing is about improvising, it’s about agility. You can say the same thing for science and engineering and I bet you can say the same thing for journalism. The digital medium makes it confusing for people when trying to answer the question “How do I be agile?” It’s because many people who are not in the technology world refuse to try to understand it. I would say the simple answer is, it behooves everyone to understand what’s happening, it doesn’t mean you have to like it or adopt it, but understanding it is a good thing.
Let me give you a closing example. It was around the late 1900s, I was very active in designing for computers and for the web. People were beginning to take on the web, but I was already at the tail end of that because I had done a lot of that early on.
I was giving a talk at a school and I was saying how I’ve designed for the web and did this and that and I’m going to stop doing it and do something else because I find it all not interesting. And a student came up to me, maybe she was 19 or 20 years old, and she came up to me and said, “Oh wow, I loved your talk, I’m just like you. I don’t understand all this technology stuff. I don’t understand this web thing and I’m going to be just like you and I’m not going to do it.”
And I said to her, I understand its limitations, I understand what it can do, so I’m making a choice not to do it, which makes a big difference. My point is that you can’t hide from it. You don’t have to do it. But you have to understand it.