John Maeda

“I see the world’s pendulum swinging back away from technology to something more human, more authentic.” Designer, author and educator John Maeda speaks to Garrick Webster

Respected in the worlds of both technology and creativity, John Maeda has some rare skills. When he wants to create an image, he doesn't turn to software such as Photoshop or Illustrator. Instead, Maeda's a man who can program exactly how he wants an image to look using Python or C++.

At the same time his design sense is such that he's doing shoes and apparel for Reebok. On 1 May, Google carried his 'Theme' design and his creations have appeared on magazine pages and in art galleries around the world. Complete mastery of his computers and his creativity puts him in a unique position among digital artists.

At a time when emphasis is shifting from the technology to the quality of work, we asked John about his current mission, and how he sees design evolving.

CA: The big news for you is that you've left the MIT Media Lab to join the Rhode Island School of Design. Why the move?
First of all I believe that technology is slowing down, and culture is slowing down because of it. I think culture has to pick up the pace for the economy to expand. I think that expansion will come from creativity centres such as art and design schools more than technology schools, and I want to make sure I'm where the action's going to be.

I think that the beauty of going to RISD is that they still make glass, ceramics, jewellery and textiles and they still do metalsmithing, stone carving - in schools in the UK it's still done as well. A kind of attention to craft still exists and I think that's going to be the decider.

CA: Do you feel like you're changing your own paradigm or swinging with a pendulum?
It's kind of twofold. It's my own pendulum but it's also the world's pendulum. I see the world's pendulum swinging back away from technology to wanting to see something more human, more authentic.

CA: What do you base that on? The handmade aesthetic? The way people are looking for local produce?
Exactly. People are trying to get back in touch with the world beyond their BlackBerrys and the internet, because they've had too much of the technology. At the same time they don't want to give up their technology. They want both.

CA: In the design world we have Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash and so on. Some say they're the greatest innovations in creativity ever, others think they make all design look the same. What's your view?
I've been thinking about this since the 80s really. I was confused about software and whether it would result in a cookie-cutter aesthetic. But software also encourages people who would never have previously considered getting creative.

You have the whole spectrum of things: you have the people who can make things like the experts, even though they're novices; you have experts who can make things slightly easier now, without chemicals; and you have experts whose work now looks exactly the same as the other experts. So it's the good and the bad.

The problem for software companies such as Adobe is they're not sure what to make anymore. They've mined the entire creative-expression landscape, so it's like there's no more plants left to grow. Now art and design schools have to lead the charge more than ever to figure out what we have to invent next. And it won't come from technologists.

A computer program is like a tree, and we need artists and designers who can think like separate branches again. That's coming.

CA: One trend at the moment is using Processing - generative artwork. What do you think of this and where is it going?
Processing was done by my two grad students Ben Fry and Casey Reas. It's funny because I always say I was the one who told them not to do that.

I think the potential is limited, because programming languages are very limited. To bring up the work of William Latham, I think Latham's best work was his sketches on paper, not the actual programs. The programs could not include the way Latham was thinking. Thinking is so much more evolved than programming, so I don't think you have to become a better programmer. Programming itself has to improve.

This has been my entire point for the last ten years - that programming is stuck in logic and mathematics whereas our brains don't work that way.

CA: You've been championing simplicity for a long time. Today's visual messages are fast and complex. What's been driving your mission?
I think there's just too much of everything. I think that because of it, it's hard to see the reason behind all the efforts of the last few years. We find it by retreating, understanding again.

CA: How should a designer working in a busy London agency cut themselves off from a world that's too complicated and full of distraction?
That's complex! I think it's a question of feedback. Once you know, once you're aware, you tend to change your own habits. It's kind of like what you were saying about local produce. I never knew about local produce until someone brought it up to me. I guess I never wondered about what I was eating. In the same way with simplicity, we were so used to wanting more: wanting a faster Pentium, or a faster Titanium, or more megabytes, or more memory. We were so used to it, and at one point I realised I never used any of my capacity. I have a 10GB whatever but I only use 200KB.

You have to wonder why I was doing this. It's because we humans are naturally programmed to gorge whenever possible. We're programmed for survival. Like cavemen. We never knew if we were going to eat tomorrow, but today we can. Today if you only have a 200KB thumbdrive your friend next to you probably has a 4GB in his pocket. We're so programmed into thinking it's going to go away.

CA: Do you have a creative method?
Everything I do I draw on paper first and I also write the program onto paper. Then I'll type it in.

CA: Do you get what you expect?
Usually, yes. Because I've been doing it for a while I can make some expectations, but of course during the process things do change and I can find creative inspiration from the change of media.

CA: Which artists and designers have influenced you creatively?
Definitely Marcel Duchamp, El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich. These people were very important to my development. Duchamp because I think he was crazy, and Lissitzky and Malevich because they were so pure. They were Russian Constructivists.

CA: What's your favourite restaurant and what do you order?
My favourite restaurant is Al Forno. It's a few blocks away from RISD and it was founded by RISD students. The food is Italian and they serve a mushroom pizza that doesn't look like any pizza you've ever seen. It's so delicious, it's crazy!