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Man and machine

John Maeda talks about technology — and his quest to understand RISD
By IAN DONNIS  |  September 24, 2008


Leave it to John Maeda, the Rhode Island School of Design’s new president, to invoke the long-term value of art at a time when global financial markets are gripped by chaos and uncertainty. He made the point last week on his blog,, pointing to the high level of interest in an auction featuring the work of British artist Damien Hirst.

Maeda, 42, brings a hefty reputation to his new perch. Esquire recently named the internationally recognized designer and author (The Laws of Simplicity) among the 75 most influential people for the 21st century.

We talked this week in his sparsely decorated Providence office.

What is most exciting to you about what’s happening right now with technology?
I think the most exciting thing now is that technology has sort of plateaued — development around it, the world’s kind of had enough of it. We’re looking for the next step. That’s what I’m excited about. I’ve found that most things I used don’t really work anymore, and I’m lucky if they do.

Even to maintain them is not just a Geek Squad thing — you need like 10 Geek Squads now, and I’m a bit of a geek myself, so what does all this mean? What it means is we’re entering a world where people will want to have the benefits of technology, but they’ll demand a higher quality of experience from it.  

I think it has to do with defining technology on its own terms, and on new terms, on real terms. It was great at the inauguration where [Nicholas] Negroponte spoke about how the birth of the Me-dia Lab at MIT came from artists and designers who were trying to get computers to do things they wanted it to do, like, for instance, show a typeface called Helvetica on the computer that would show only one typeface. That was actually designers demanding that the computer be more visual, more like the media that they used. But now, like 20 years later, I’m not sure that we’re looking at it anymore, so I think artists and designers have to take control of it again.

You pointed to a recent auction of works by the artist Damien Hirst in noting art’s enduring value, even at a time of international economic upheaval. Rhode island, when it made stuff, used to be a prosperous place. So what lessons does the enduring value of art offer as Rhode Island continues to struggle with economic development?
Well, one of my favorite places is the country of Italy — Rome, Milan, Venice. You should never dig in your backyard, because you’re bound to find something. And once you find something, they’ll actually come in and not let you live there anymore because there’s something. You dig this much into your soil, you’ll find an ancient rune or something great. By the same token, I think Rhode Island’s the same way.

If you dig a little bit in the history, there’s something really fascinating about what’s there. And I think it’s about making that into the new equity of what Rhode Island stands for. It’s like seeing The Beverly Hillbillies — you know, Texas tea?

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Related: Brave new RISD, Limits of non-traditional leadership, RISD redefined, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Business, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Seth MacFarlane,  More more >
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