John Maeda Champions the Role of Design at STEAM Lecture

  • Before his lecture, John Maeda attended meetings with students and faculty to discuss the STEAM movement and the growing role of design.

Graphic designer and computer scientist John Maeda kicked off the third season of the Arts and Technology Distinguished Lecture Series on Oct. 15 with a discussion about the role of design in science, technology, engineering and math.

Maeda, who is a design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, made a case for how STEM subjects can benefit from taking design into consideration — a movement known as STEAM, and the “A” representing art.

“Design in many cases is all about meaning and the conveyance of meaning,” Maeda said. “Designers tend to be good at taking you from something that doesn’t make sense to something that makes more sense, which is valuable.”

During his lecture, Maeda detailed his journey — from a student at MIT, where he studied software engineering, to his role as president of the Rhode Island School of Design.

He recounted meetings with influential graphic designers such as Ikko Tanaka and Paul Rand, who sparked his shift from engineering to design.

He said his first meeting with Rand in the late 1990s helped shape his thoughts on the value of creative pursuits.

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P.W. Singer

The next speaker in the lecture series will be P.W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, who is considered one of the world’s leading experts on 21st-century security issues.

His talk, “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know,” will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12.

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“Creativity is a funny thing,” he said. “Creativity is about the surprise, while safety is no surprise. In the real world, you don’t want to mess things up, but in the creative world, you get to do that. It’s important to code what kind of situations enable creativity and when to just shut it down.”

Maeda also described design’s role in creating new technologies as paramount. He said that to make quality products, companies must prioritize design at the front end, rather than treating it as an afterthought.  

He cited successful companies with designers as co-founders, such as Airbnb and Instagram.

“This an industry of creating businesses, and a business is not won purely by beauty,” he said. “A lot of my work is showing that design is less about beauty. It’s about how relevant it can be and what its staying power is.”

Before his lecture, Maeda held more intimate meetings with both students and faculty to discuss the STEAM movement and the growing role of design.

“He expanded the possibilities within the Rhode Island School of Design to incorporate new technologies with the more classical methods,” said ATEC professor Cassini Nazir BA’02, BA’03, MFA’11. “I think ATEC is very much at the opposite end of that spectrum. One of the things that I took out of our discussion is we’re looking at what’s new in technology and rooting ourselves in the classical perspective of design.”  

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