john maeda



I’ve been thinking a lot about value and values.

Design Humility and Counterpractice were first attempts to build a conversation around the value of design and our values as designers. They’re highly personal accounts where I try to articulate my own struggle with the dominant paradigm in design culture today, which I characterize as —

the relentlessness of branding
the spirit of the sell
the focus on product
the focus on perfection

and they include some techniques of resistance that I’ve explored in my recent work, like —

slowness (patience)
chance (nature, humility, serendipity)
giving away (generosity echo)

I’ve been calling them techniques, but they’re really more like values, available to any designer or artist. Work produced with these criteria runs cross-grain to the belief that we must produce instantly, broadcast widely and perform perfectly.

Hence, counterpractice. Cross-grain to common assumptions. Questioning.

And as I consider my options (what to do next), I’m seriously contemplating going back to this counterpractice talk as a place to reboot. Could these be seen as principles — as a platform for a new kind of design studio?

I’m not sure. Counterpractice probably need further translation. An idea like ”slowness” certainly won’t resonate for many, outside of an art context. And how does a love for print-on-demand and the web fit in here? Perhaps it’s more about “variable speed” and the “balanced interface” rather than slow vs fast. Slow and fast. Modulated experience. The beauty of a printed book is that it can be scanned quickly or savored forever. These aren’t accidental qualities; they’re built into the design.

John Maeda DE$IGN

I’m thinking about all of this right now as I re-launch Soulellis Studio as Counterpractice. But if there’s anything that most characterizes my reluctance to get back to client-based work, it’s DE$IGN.

John Maeda, who departed RISD in December, where I am currently teaching, recently delivered a 4-minute TED talk, where he made this statement:

“From Design to DE$IGN.”

He expands that statement with a visual wordmark that is itself designed. What does it mean? I haven’t seen the talk yet so I can only presume, out of context. These articles and Maeda’s blog post at Design and Venture begin to get at it.

Maeda’s three principles for using design in business as stated in the WSJ article are fine. But they don’t need a logo. Designing DE$IGN is a misleading gesture; it’s token branding to sell an idea (in four minutes—the fast read). So what’s the idea behind this visual equation? As a logo, it says so many things:

All caps: DE$IGN is BIG.
It’s not £ or ¥ or 元: DE$IGN is American.
Dollar sign: DE$IGN is money.

DE$IGN is Big American Money.

and in the context of a four-minute TED talk…

DE$IGN is speed (four minutes!)
DE$IGN is the spirit of selling (selling an idea on a stage to a TED audience)
DE$IGN is Helvetica Neue Ultra Light and a soft gradient (Apple)
DE$IGN is a neatly resolved and sellable word-idea. It’s a branded product (and it’s perfect).

In other words, DE$IGN is Silicon Valley. DE$IGN is the perfect embodiment of start-up culture and the ultimate tech dream. Of course it is — this is Maeda’s audience, and it’s his new position. It works within the closed-off reality of $2 billion acquisitions, IPOs, 600-person design teams and Next Big Thing thinking. It’s a crass, aggressive statement that resonates perfectly for its audience.

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 8.07.04 AM

DE$IGN makes me uneasy. The post-OWS dollar sign is loaded with negative associations. It’s a quick trick that borrows from the speed-read language of texting (lol) to turn design into something unsustainable, inward-looking and out-of-touch. But what bothers me most is that it comes from one of our design leaders, someone I follow and respect. Am I missing something?

I can’t help but think of Milton Glaser’s 1977 I<3NY logo here.


Milton Glaser I<3NY


Glaser uses a similar trick, but to different effect. By inserting a heart symbol into a plain typographic treatment, he too transformed something ordinary (referencing the typewriter) into a strong visual message. Glaser’s logo says that “heart is at the center of NYC” (and it suggests that love and soul and passion are there too). Or “my love for NYC is authentic” (it comes from the heart). It gives us permission to play with all kinds of associations and visual translations: my heart is in NYC, I am NYC, NYC is the heart of America, the heart of the world, etc. .

Glaser’s mark is old-school, east coast and expansive; it symbolizes ideas and feelings that can be characterized as full and overflowing. And human (the heart). It’s personal (“I”), but all about business: his client was a bankrupt city in crisis, eager to attract tourists against all odds.

Maeda’s mark is new money, west coast and exclusive. It was created for and presented to a small club of privileged innovators who are focused on creating new ways to generate wealth ($) by selling more product.

Clever design tricks aside, here’s my question, which I seem to have been asking for a few years now. Is design humility possible today? Can we build a relevant design practice that produces meaningful, rich work — in a business context — without playing to visions of excess?

I honestly don’t know. I’m grappling with this. I’m not naive and I don’t want to paint myself into a corner. I’d like to think that there’s room to resist DE$IGN. I do this as an artist making books and as an experimental publisher (even Library of the Printed Web is a kind of resistance). But what kind of design practice comes out of this? Certainly one that’s different from the kind of business I built with Soulellis Studio.


John Maeda’s six leadership principles.

Another inspiring talk brought to us by Creative Mornings — my first this year. John Maeda took the stage with Becky Bermont to talk about creative leadership. To help John with his new book (Redesigning Leadership) she’s been culling through thousands of his tweets, and they structured the short talk around six principles that emerged.

Knowing a bit about Maeda’s recent struggles at RISD, one can see that these mantras were written as guiding principles for educators or corporate executives who want to learn from artists and lead more creatively. But this is obviously a valuable and inspiring list for any kind of design professional or anyone engaged with creative growth.

1. Build new foundations.

“Artists have to get their hands dirty, starting with core foundations and basic principles.” He showed images of pages and pages of RISD data taped to his walls at home and spoke about touching and feeling the data, getting dirty in the data. This reminded me of Edward Tufte’s seminar, where he strongly suggests that data should be released from the screen — lay it all out on large surfaces and let the data interact in non-linear ways.

2. Craft the team.

“This is a principle I didn’t know from art or design. I was very ‘un-teamish,’ very lone-wolfish.” He gave the example of 1,200 year old temples in Kyoto. When he asked why they’re able to stand for so long, he was told that all of the wood to build the temple came from one mountain. The north, south, east and west sides of the temple were constructed from trees selected from the north, south, east and west sides of the mountain, respectively. Nature had pre-conditioned the wood for durability and strength, according to specific conditions. Selecting great people for your team is like the artist who finds the highest quality materials for her work.

I think this is a bit of a stretch (wood = team) but the poetry of the example is beautiful nonetheless.

3. Sense actively.

“Artists are always trying to sense something.” He showed a javascript project from MIT involving kites in the wind. “Kites help you see the wind. Artists make kites to help you see the wind. Why would you want to feel the wind? Because the wind is always changing.”

4. Take leaps.

He describes a paradigm shift within corporate structures — organizational trees have turned into organizational networks (with some beautiful diagrams to illustrate this). Trans-organizational networks are a radical departure. A “changing wind.” Artists ask questions and then they take leaps. They know when to leap. Another leadership diagram:

  • imagination — completely unstructured
  • creativity — rubbing two good ideas together
  • problem solving — constrained by reality
  • reflex — instinctive

Leaders occupy the lower half (problem solving, reflex response) and artists the upper half (creativity, imagination) — the most strategic space today.

5. Fail productively.

Instead of needing to be perfect, why not just jump in and try? Artists are risk-takers and artists productively fail. Artists have the ability to recover very quickly. Growing from failure means using it to birth another creative moment.

6. Grow from critique.

“Anyone who exhibits art or ships product knows that these are quick ways to get critique. Artists want to do this to change, to find out who they are.”

Maeda didn’t speak much about the controversies surrounding his presidency at RISD, but he did start the talk by saying “I’m in a different place in my life.” Which is a way of saying something, by saying nothing.

He ended the talk with: “It’s been a challenge to be president of RISD in a time of change. RISD has a history of creativity, resistance and pushing back its leaders. I’m the fourth president to get the faculty’s vote of no confidence…how do you stay centered and move forward, and be the artist who can productively fail? How do I be this new person and still be me?”

  • Q: Do you regret taking on the role of president at RISD?
  • A: “No regrets. I can take a stand for creative people. Art is being removed from education and the U.S. is in danger of becoming a test-taking nation like Singapore. I’m trying to inject art into the America Competes Act and I’m thrilled to be able to take this on.”
  • Q: Instead of speeding up, how can we slow down and have longer thoughts?
  • A: “Contemplation and areas of reflection have a history of being in higher education. We need to make more free space and create more time to think. This is critical. Make that space and manage your time. Control your time. The first step is making yourself conscious of this.”