A Dutch friend – an interaction designer – once told me: “If you believe in freedom of artistic expression, then you must love John Maeda.”
I could not help recalling these words, when preparing to meet John Maeda in Berlin recently, where he was summoned by the Raymond Loewy Foundation to receive the Lucky Strike Designer Award.
This is an award that acknowledges life long career achievements, and that for the first time in its fifteen years of existence has been awarded to a personality of the ‘digital world’.
It is difficult to frame John Maeda in a definition. Is he an artist, a computer scientist, a graphic designer, or an inspirational icon of the digital age?
Looking much younger than what he actually is, he likes to fill his words, like his work, with witty references and anecdotes, and with playful remarks. “People always ask me ‘what do you do?’ I like to say that I just think and I have the luxury to just think. I am many things, I can fix a toilet, I am actually a good plumber, I can cook. But I am paid to think.”
John Maeda is a Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – a place where thinking and exploring is allowed, and encouraged. “It’s wonderful to teach at the MIT,” he says.
“You learn from students, and from your fellow professors. It’s a place where you simply cannot stop learning or being creative – and for me, this is the essence of life. Life-long learning is what life is all about.”
The son of a tofu maker, Maeda emigrated from Japan to the United States, and understands very well the practical hurdles that creativity can encounter in everyday life. “At school, I was good at maths and I was good at drawing.
"But I was never told ‘You are good at drawing’, while everybody would always underline how good I was at maths. For my parents, there were only two schools worth going to: MIT, or Harvard. Simply because they were the best, and when you need to earn your living, that’s where you’ve got to go. I was good at maths, so I went to MIT.”
There, Maeda got a BS and an MS in Computer Science. But, after satisfying the paternal requirements for an academic preparation that would guarantee a job to make ends meet, he left the US for Japan, to specialise in art and design.
Maeda, who has a PhD from the Tsukuba University Institute of Art and Design, Japan, is Associate Director of the MIT Media Lab, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Associate Professor of Design and Computation, and Director of the Aesthetics and Computation Group (ACG).
“I have always liked to draw and to be creative. I still sketch all my work on paper first. Computer language is limited, and does not allow you as much exploration as the traditional means do.”
And this is really the essence of Maeda’s work. He uses technology and machines to satisfy his artistic requirements. In other words, he develops programs that allow the creation of a particular language and digital behaviour for each graphic work that he produces.
It all started because, as an Arts student, Maeda learnt that most artists do not actually make their works of art. “Most people think that artists actually make their works.
"I was upset when I realised that Alexander Calder did not actually make his “mobiles”. Christo does not wrap the buildings himself, but people in the street are convinced that he does. When I found this out, I actually felt cheated. I started to think that an honest artist should master his tools and do all his work by himself. For me, it was a matter of an honest projection of the creative process”.
Beyond the appreciation for Maeda’s work, there is obviously a strong message behind his “DIY” approach. “Let us not be driven by technology – or by the technology groups that dominate the scene – in our creativity. Let us use technology for what it really is: a tool, and nothing else”.
In essence, Maeda’s work is conceptually almost paradoxical, yet of fundamental importance for the long term: it allows digital art and design to free themselves from the technology that created them in the first place and from the practical constraints driven by businesses and software providers.
After all, it all makes perfect sense. It would be unthinkable for an artist to be forced to use means of expression that were conceived by someone else. Yet interaction designers and digital artists simply have to do with what’s available in terms of software.
By inviting artists to design their own software programs in order to be able to achieve exactly what they want, Maeda is actually applying an approach that in the Arts field is almost taken for granted but that is new in the digital arena: to “mix your own colours”, to think up your own tools, to twist what’s available according to what you want to say.
Although he always works alone – “I am solo, in my study there is just me, my hands and my brain”, Maeda likes to share. With his students, his prime source of inspiration, but also with the design community in general.
"A lot of his software is freely available and downloadable, and his teachings on how to develop it are simply published on the web or in his books. His weblog is like a diary, in which everyday experiences are treasured and used as triggers for deeper analysis of design and design-related issues.
The provoking statements that you can find there (and there are many!) seem to emerge almost naturally from some personal pondering over apparently meaningless daily matters, such as sitting behind a reclined seat on a domestic flight, or observing health club fanatics in a hotel fitness room. It is as if Maeda was trying to tell us that every moment in life can be enriching, and be part of the “life-long learning” that he so strongly advocates.
Among Maeda’s most well-known works are The Reactive Square, a black square that changes shapes if one yells at it; Time Paint, in which paint flies across the screen; and the Reactive Books series, in which typed letters react by growing, spinning or otherwise changing on the screen, following ten thematic modes.
He has created innovative, interactive calendars, digital services, and advertisements for companies such as Sony, Shiseido, and Absolut Vodka. In his work, Maeda stimulates the user to discover the graphic work following his or her own pace.
Experiencing his work thus becomes a journey of discovery, in which we are forced to reconsider the traditional means of interaction with the computer. He is author of Design By Numbers and Maeda@Media. His most recent exhibition was in Paris, at La Fondation Cartier, in November.
Maeda’s graphic work and his approach have inspired a whole generation of graphic and multimedia designers, and more. Richard Devine, producer and composer of electronic music, was directly influenced by Maeda when composing his album Lipswitch, acclaimed by critics as an extremely intellectual, challenging piece of work.
“I used a similar approach to audio programming in that I designed my own audio applications to carry out real-time manipulations and sequences,” Devine said.
“I built up these small applications within MAX/MSP and then had several computers control them as if they were separate instruments. So in essence I created the environment for what could happen. The artwork for Lipswitch was also conceived with the same idea, and is very similar to John Maeda’s visual works,” Devine said.
Professor John Bonnett, of the CNRS in Canada, an expert on technology history, believes that Maeda’s book Design By Numbers “will press historians to reconsider the desirability of letting software companies design and produce their tools for them”.
Graphic designer Yugo Nakamura admits to believing that computer graphics only meant creating “pretty pictures using Illustrator or Photoshop”, until he first experienced John Maeda’s work.
Maeda is aware of the influence that his work has had on a whole generation – for whom he definitely is an icon. But he is not going to let this go to his head, one way or the other!
“It is nice to hear that the work I do is considered useful by other people. But that’s not the point, for me. I hate to say it but I do not care how my work is received. If I knew that some people were not happy with what I do and I stopped, then they would be controlling me. So I do not really care.
“I used to want to convince graphic designers and artists to get into programming, because I thought that was the best method to create innovative work”, continues Maeda.
“But now I have changed and, honestly, I no longer care. I believe in an honest creative process, so I do everything by myself, but I do not want to impose this thinking on others...”
Contrary to what you might expect, Maeda actually does not like computers. “In an ideal world, they would be like lamps. You would be able to turn them on or off. At the moment we have so much technology everywhere that it is difficult to turn it all off.
"I think people should be in control, rather than technology.” Which leads to the issue of Simplicity – a real buzzword at the moment, at least in the world of technology design.
In 2004, the MIT launched a major Simplicity research program, of which Maeda is co-director, aimed at redefining people’s relationship with technology. “In the US, more is still perceived to be better. But this is not necessarily true”, he says. “We cannot keep doing more, we have to do better”.
Designers and product developers have a big role to play in this strive to make technologies more human. As Maeda suggests: “First of all, they have to understand people, and always relate to people when they create. But they also have to understand business, and marketing, because without them there will be no development of new solutions.”
According to Maeda, this does not necessarily mean multi-disciplinarity. “It could all be done by one person, if he has the right training,” he says... I personally doubt it! But then, again, the value is in the message.
“The world is driven by businesses and money, and creative professions are still very much looked down upon and undervalued. When you are a parent, and your child tells you that he wants to be an artist, you kind of worry about whether he will be able to make a living... So you automatically end up discouraging artistic development.
"It’s as if creativity should only be a hobby rather than a force that moves the world – which it actually is. I’d love to change this, which is a mentality issue, more than anything. It’s a matter of evolution, rather than revolution.
"It will take time, but every day I try to plant seeds, and hope to see them growing. Steered by creative thinking, the world would be a better place. It may take up to thirty years from now, but we will get there...”
It’s the word of John Maeda – creative programmer, artist, professor, communicator. The digital craftsman.