Spring 2001

A renaissance man’s mission


John Maeda
Thames & Hudson, £19.95

Is John Maeda the new millennium’s successor to David Carson? Or the Leonardo da Vinci the twenty-first century didn’t know it needed? A talk at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts caused a near-crush as design youth implored box office staff for returns, while back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was elevated to associate director at the MIT Media Laboratory.

On both sides of the Atlantic Maeda@Media has broken new ground in design publishing. Comparable with Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau’s S,m,l,xl, Maeda@Media provides a marvellous overview of the author’s work, and its production is a story in itself. While digital pieces, such as Reactive Books, should be experienced in their original form, Maeda goes some way to capturing the quality of a dynamic medium in print.

Maeda’s short history (he is 33) which threads through Maeda@Media, has been told and retold. Partly, this is because Maeda uses his story to illustrate his ideas, although there is also an element of the American Dream-meets-designland. He is also one of the few practitioner-theorists working today, and his instinctive approach to analysing a problem and devising a strategy for addressing it should be celebrated.

Maeda’s critique begins with the observation that while we have created a new digital medium, we approach it using ways of thinking derived from other media. He believes that the separation of form and function in the computer is partly responsible for us forcing the computer into familiar metaphors in spite of its “metaphysical properties”.

“I feel the need to explain the future of technology through art, that’s my mission. We can’t sit back and let this tidal wave wash over us without attempting to make sense of it,” he explained to Design Week.

Maeda envisages the digital as a multi-faceted conceptual space, a “ten-mile cube box” into which we gaze, a “shimmering material of pure electric thought”, where computer programmes are “continually folding, collapsing, growing, and evolving at unimaginable speeds”. He considers that traditional notions of digital art don’t do justice to this vision. Talking to Elizabeth Resnick in Eye (no. 37 vol. 9) he explained that “once [the computer output] is seen, it is trivialised, because it is only one facet in that conceptual space.”

For Maeda there is an acute disparity between his vision of the digital and the reality of the software tools and design thinking applied to it. He sees an unholy alliance between software makers who have no idea what the future holds and designers who substitute mastery of their software for mastery of the skills it is supposed to facilitate, leading to creative impotence. While this might appear to be justified by example, his belief that “in order for design to evolve, art has to evolve first because art is the mother and father of design” is harder to substantiate.

Writing in MIT’s Technology Review he noted that the model of collaboration between the artist and technologist is flawed and that what is needed is “a true melding of the artistic sensibility with that of the engineer in a single person”.

Maeda deserves all the credit he receives for his attempts to understand the digital medium in its elemental form. However, his description of design as a discipline is one-sided, and this undermines the value of his insights to that audience at least. While his mentor Paul Rand stated that “Design is the method of putting form and content together . . . Design can be art”, Maeda appears to subsume design into art, as some kind of applied art or craft. There is little room in his description of design for the client or the person who will use the product of the design process. “The most difficult concept to master in design is not the actual execution of a design itself but finding a client willing to take a risk on your ideas and, in the best of circumstances, leave you alone,” he writes.

His perspective is most eccentric when discussing Web design which, he said at the ICA, doesn’t exist. “It is doubtful that there will ever be great Web designers in the manner that there were great print designers . . . designing for the Web exacts a curse with each project,” said Maeda. “[While] a print piece is finished . . . a Web piece is never finished. Making sure that it [continues to work] is another set of creative shackles that prevents your mind from running free.” Viewing design in terms of things rather than processes doesn’t make sense if you believe design is about solving problems and creating products that work for their users.

Maeda is right to argue for experimentation and a thorough-going investigation into the true nature of the digital medium. But this doesn’t invalidate a practical, relevant and client-focused practice of design; rather it complements it and provides a grounding for new ideas and insights. He rightly identifies many of the factors that have thus far restricted this investigation, though some, such as the developed world’s fetish for it, are social rather than design problems.

Maeda’s elevation in the design world indicates a need among designers for a serious discussion of creativity in the digital domain. In this sense, Maeda can’t be compared to David Carson.

And Da Vinci? This may not be an age that spawns people of his calibre, but if Maeda’s “post-visual” experiments can kick off in the twenty-first century what the Italian Renaissance painters, with their development of perspective, did for the visual 500 years ago, we will make some great strides.