Autumn 2000

Reputations: John Maeda

‘People can rely on one trick if they use a computer. Once you make that trick, you just press a button and it happens again. It can ruin your brain.’

Elizabeth Resnick visited John Maeda at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Laboratory, to discuss his career and his vision for digital media. Unlike many of his colleagues in I. M. Pei’s impressive Media Lab building, Professor Maeda is fortunate enough to have a window in his office, perhaps in recognition of the work he has done, as head of MIT’s Aesthetics and Computation Group, to take computing technology out into the design community.

What is most intriguing about Maeda is that he is both an artist / designer and a programmer able to realise his vision in the new medium without recourse to an engineer intermediary. Born in Seattle in 1966, he studied computer science at MIT, but dropped out in the middle of the doctoral programme at the Media Lab and went to Japan, where he completed his doctoral studies in graphic design at Tsukuba University’s Institute of Art and Design There he began to experiment with ideas on ways to bond the simplicity of good graphic design with the complex nature of the computer. Those experiments grew into a series of ‘Reactive Books’ – complete with interactive programs – that are today a worldwide standard for digital media design.

After a brief period teaching in Tokyo, he returned to MIT in 1996 to set up the Aesthetics and Computation Group, the research studio that succeeded the late Muriel Cooper’s Visible Language Workshop. One of its continuing projects is Design by Numbers, an innovative programming language/environment intended to introduce visual artists to computational design.

In 1999 Maeda published Design By Numbers (MIT Press), which outlines the theoretical underpinnings of his work as a combination of graphical examples and codes. His second book, Maeda@Media, ‘a retrospective of ten years of experimentation in digital media’ is scheduled for publication by Thames and Hudson later this year. With his wife, Kris Maeda, he runs the print and digital design consultancy MAEDASTUDIO based in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Maeda’s many awards include the 1994 Japan Multimedia Grand Prix for The Reactive Square, the 1999 New York Art Directors’ Club New Media Gold Award for Tap, Type, Write and the Daimler-Chrysler Design Award in 1999. His commercial work for Shiseido Cosmetics, Sony and Morisawa provided the basis for a 1996 exhibition, ‘John Maeda: Paper and Computer’, in Tokyo and Osaka, He was recently elected to national board of directors of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

Elizabeth Resnick: In 1984 you arrived as an undergraduate at MIT to study electrical engineering and computer science. What led you to this decision?

John Maeda: My father always encouraged me to take the biggest challenges. When I arrived at MIT, electrical engineering and computer science were known as the hardest majors. I wanted to study architecture, but my father said I would make no money. He said: “You won’t be able to feed yourself or your future family. Don’t waste your time.” He was a pragmatic man. He grew up poor.

ER: How would you describe your childhood?

JM: My father ran a tofu factory. My childhood was about working in the tofu factory. My family would work there every weekend and all vacations. It is a very laborious work. You wake up at 1am and work to 6pm continuously. After school we would work in the store that sold the tofu. My father believed it was unprofitable to have workers, so we were the workers. School became a wonderful place to escape.

ER: How did you become interested in computers?

JM: Since we were always working, I didn’t have any time to play. I asked my father for a computer so I could do things at night. I had a dot-matrix printer but didn’t like the way the default text looked, so I wrote a program to make it print better-looking text. This was in 1979.

ER: After you graduated from MIT, what inspired you to go to art school in Japan?

JM: It was a combination of three things, actually. First, I saw the work of Paul Rand. For me he was this mythical person who created all this work and could communicate in an elegant way. This inspired me to think about design as a career. Second, Muriel Cooper had told me to go away. I was a student in the PhD programme at the Media Laboratory but I didn’t like computers, so she told me to go to art school. Third, most importantly, my future wife had gone to Japan to work.

ER: And you didn’t like computers?

JM: I’ve always had a problem with computers!

ER: But did your computer science background help you when you attended art school?

JM: It didn’t help me very much. I found I had to loosen up. No matter how rational someone can be, if you love something or someone you tend to express yourself from the heart. I made a lot of gifts for my future wife, little pieces of paper with ink, little paintings, and that helped loosen things up for me, and having children also loosened up many things that were actually quite contained from a computer science standpoint.

ER: What is it about computer science that seems so rigid?

JM: The nature of the subject is so rigid and strict and cold. The students here at MIT are a good example. They are excellent at creating things but they can’t express themselves. I always ask them: “If you were doing this for your girlfriend or boyfriend, it would be different, wouldn’t it?” And most of them say they wouldn’t make anything for their special person, they would buy it. At this point I say: “The thing you make is the most important.” It’s about love expressed through construction, although it sounds a bit corny.

ER: Do you feel your visual work has been influenced by Japanese aesthetics ?

JM: Oh definitely. Before he was a tofu-maker, my father was a cook. In Japanese food, it’s not about the flavours, it’s about the presentation, the illusion of being natural. I learned my basic layout sensibilities by helping him lay out food. Those sensibilities disappeared when I came to MIT because I was embarrassed about being from a blue-collar family. But when I told my Japanese typography teacher about my background, his response was: “You are the son of a craftsman, my father was the same way.” I realised then that the cultural aesthetics could be a source of strength.

ER: Do you find that Eastern and Western design sensibilities clash?

JM: I have noticed that many modern, high-end designers have Japanese-style houses. The precept here is minimalism. Japan is an island nation and has no resources so it has to be minimal. In the us people want more, more, more. Europe also has a minimalist take, because its resources have been depleted. I really think this is an issue of American style versus non-American style. American style is based on the fact that this is such a plentiful land. I think these two styles don’t work well together because they are two different types, like a fruit and a vegetable. There are people who are sensitised to both or one or the other.

ER: I have always found it a bit strange that the Japanese use Caucasians in so many of their advertisements.

JM: Japanese people have a self-effacing nature and believe themselves not so appealing-looking. They have constructed this mode that Western people are more attractive. On the other hand, you can recognise this as a phenomenon of all societies. If something is different it attracts more attention. The use of Asian women by American advertisers is no different.

ER: What were your earliest influences?

JM: Japanese dishes. My parent’s house was filled with dishes. My mother is a collector of any kind of dish, mainly ceramics and lacquerware. I’d look at these dishes and think they were remarkable.

ER: Do you feel your work has a signature style?

JM: No, not really. My works keeps changing. I’ve been lucky because as soon as I develop a certain style, my wife will say: “Oh, you’re doing the same thing over and over again. That looks pretty silly now, doesn’t it?” It’s a challenge, because I can’t rely on one trick. People can rely on one trick if they are using a computer because the trick is so instantaneous. Once you make that trick, you just press a button and it happens again. It can ruin your brain. I like to think about making the trick. then discarding it and starting over again. I might be influenced by it, but not be stuck in that same mode. It’s a goal.

ER: New mediums have a tendency to adopt the previous conventions of older mediums. Do you think the Web can be innovative visually or has it just adopted past conventions?

JM: The computer has only been around in the design community for ten to fifteen years. Compare this to painting in its infancy – at fifteen years, it was obviously still crawling about. And there weren’t big paint companies and entire industries hoping that someone will make a great painting. But on the Web, everybody is depending on someone to come out with that “thing”. That is why there are so many new media competitions, but the work is always poor because it’s so new. The only way it can develop is for the schools to get better. But the schools can’t get better, they can’t teach new media because they are stuck in old media.

ER: What can you suggest to remedy this situation?

JM: New media requires new people, young people who are masters in using this material. And these people are having a problem now. The problem is they can become extremely wealthy without much effort. They can become wealthy before the age of 25. What is their interest in building schools, an intellectual infrastructure? They have no reason. Where’s the gain? The gain isn’t monetary, and the gain isn’t even status, when you consider the fact that old media tries to kill new media. Oh bad, bad, bad. In that case, why would you waste your time? Every cool website that I encounter, I’ll email the people asking if they want to study in the graduate programme at MIT. The usual reply is: “I didn’t go to college, I went to art school but the teachers didn’t know anything about this new media stuff. I can just pick it up by myself with my friends.” There are all these mini-cliques who get together over the Web and talk about new things, but it’s a bit wild right now, like little cults, little packs, and I’m not sure they can formalise into a school per se.

I don’t believe that we can develop the potential of new media until there is a new type of school. Everybody wants a new school, but there has to be something that happens, something that clicks. I believe it’s about the myth. Unless you have the myth of a great school of thought in new media, you are not going to have great new media. I think about Paul Rand and how he did all that design work and I’m motivated to get off my butt and do something. Unless you have these myths, who’s going to want to get up in the morning?

ER: Are there no myths yet for new media?

JM: The myth is represented by big companies such as Razorfish, Sapient and Rare Medium. They are like the Deathstar in the Star Wars movies. The individual does not matter when compared to such awesome collectives of power. The individual cannot aspire to best a Razorfish or a Sapient in the way an earlier generation aspired to best a Paul Rand or a Saul Bass. The organisations will say to you: “Oh no, no, no, our big organisation is not what you think. We believe strongly in design principles, the best kind of layout, typography, etc.” It isn’t about how good the company is, it is about the fact that this stands for nothing. It just stands for big business. People will say: “Oh, think of us like a giant Pentagram.” But Pentagram had great people, like Alan Fletcher, and people who stood for great design. That doesn’t exist in the middle of a deathstar! If there is no great evil lord, it’s just a bunch of guys wearing the white costumes. I believe in the heroes, and without the heroes it’s hard to create that reality.

ER: I can’t think of any one school that’s on everybody’s lips right now.

JM: My long-term goal is to see that school developed in the next twenty years. I believe my research group is a training ground for these future teachers. Teaching is a giving profession, it’s like being an intellectual mother or father. You can be a prima donna but as long as you have that giving part, that’s the basic ingredient.

ER: If the Web is a radically new environment requiring new behaviours, new relationships and a new consciousness, what are the biggest challenges for designers today?

JM: The challenge is to get people to stop believing that they have a specific role. People are taught to have roles – it’s like a big movie-making production. People come to me and say: “I’m a designer and I can’t understand the computer at all, because that’s the way I was taught.” They think: “I am a whatever, and therefore I can’t,” limiting everything they can do in the future. For them, the Web is about html. The notion of being immersed in the craft of creation does not exist. Everyone talks about how the Web is fast and omnipresent. People write about the philosophy of it, but nobody ever talks from the viewpoint of “my hands are extremely dirty right now” or “this is what I’m thinking.” The person “making” things is not there. The voice is not there.

ER: In an article published in 1998 in the MIT Technology Review, you referred to yourself as an aspiring true artist-engineer with the computer as your medium. What do you mean by this?

JM: I set out to develop myself as a true artist-engineer but I’m not there yet. I don’t think it’s possible. I like to set goals that are unattainable.

ER: Is computing an artform?

JM: That’s a difficult question because computing is difficult to define. If you think of it as sitting in front of a computer, then I would say computing is not an artform. In the New York art scene, everyone is going digital now. Everyone is making gigantic iris prints. It’s commercially viable, it is really easy to do, it’s a big hit in New York, and the scene will keep on going like this for some time. But it’s just a print. It isn’t digital per se, it’s just a print. If you think about a digital print, what does that mean? It means there is something that it began from. Take architecture. You can photograph a building and make a print from it. The print isn’t the subject, though, the building is. It’s the building that is important, the print is just a representation of it.

I like to use the metaphor of a computer as ten-mile cube box. A giant machine. We can’t see it. We sit in front of this little box. We see a window, the window is looking on to a giant ten-mile cube box. In that invisible domain, that we can’t see, is the remarkable thing. But it’s a person-made machine. Someone made that big machine. Humans can’t make complex machines – just look at cars, cars break down. Every day we sit down to the computer, we have this illusion of elegance, however we are sitting in front of this giant broken machine. And that is the problem. Now, if that machine can be abstracted into a cloud of thought, if that cloud of thought could be something we could call a digital art form, now that would be exciting.

Why is it exciting? It represents the holy grail of conceptual art. It is the abstraction of a pure concept. It isn’t a white dog on a red plane, it is actually the representation of that idea. Once it is seen, it is trivialised, because it is only one facet in that conceptual space. It’s like talking to someone’s imagination and having that person’s brain as your art, because you are taking an idea and imparting it into that consciousness. When a computer is on, it has an electrical consciousness and that space itself is truly a new area.

ER: Why did you choose to teach when working in industry is so much more lucrative?

JM: My teachers in Japan were the important teachers. They told me that if I were to do what I did, I would make a lot of money and be the only one doing it, and that I would never know if I were any good or not. They said: “Why don’t you create more people who can do it, and see if you are any good.” So I did that. I created this group of people who can make all these things, and I found out that I’m not very good. I strive to be better by knowing that.

ER: What led you to accept a teaching job at the MIT Media Laboratory in 1996?

JM: I actually never wanted to come back to the Media Lab. I was a drop-out, I had a bad experience here. The lab was never about art or design, it was always about technology. What brought me back was Professor Whitman Richards. He became head of the Media Lab after Muriel Cooper passed away and he realised that the design segment was important to the laboratory. His vision was to make MIT a quality place devoted to issues of the humanities. I found that vision resonated with my goals. It seemed like the right thing for me.

ER: In a recent lecture you referred to your desire to find students who are multi-specialists – who have both the ability to think about technology and an idea of what to do with it.

JM: The younger generation realise that they can make a lot of money working in small Web companies or interactive start-ups. It’s hard to attract them to come back to school. I try to convince them to take a vow of poverty and attend school, although the blessing is that the programme is fully funded. The students get full tuition and stipends. It’s a good deal when you think about it, and better than being the isolated genius at some small Web start-up company. Here they’re a community of extremely talented people working in a critical environment where they can grow. I tell my students they are engaged in a form of community service that involves a long-term investment and changing the world.

ER: Is it your hope that many of these students will teach after they complete the programme?

JM: Yes, at least in my programme. Perhaps not right away, but in five or ten years.

ER: What is the educational philosophy of the Aesthetics and Computation Group?

JM: It is based on a simple concept: everyone in my group is independent. I’m independent from them. I just complain once in a while that something isn’t very good. In general, they have their own projects and the credit goes to them, not to me. Generally when art and technology people become professors they want to become more powerful and they will ride their students to greater success. The teachers stop making things and have their students make things for them. So they can make at least one-and-a-half times as many things as they could have made themselves. This causes a culture of disillusionment. After students spend three or four years making things for the “boss” they don’t want to make anything any more, even for themselves. They forget why they wanted to make things in the first place. I didn’t want my group to be that way.

ER: Do you think that reliance on the computer has impaired the design process for students?

JM: There is no doubt that it has. I heard Matthew Carter say that typography is so much easier to teach with this tool. I don’t question that. You are using a finely crafted tool, and it is the same tool that everyone uses all over the world. You are linking into the bloodstream of the entire world. I don’t think this is a good idea. It should be more about the locale you live in. Computers are about internationalism in the style of American software companies, which do not aspire to greatness of quality in any sense.

The computer makes things that look finished. But finished things are not necessarily the best things. If the process that brought us to this is homogeneous, the whole point of being an individual is gone. Design or art is about making the unimaginable imaginable. This can never happen if everybody climbs the same tree.

ER: Has your teaching influenced your design work?

JM: In essence the teaching killed everything I’ve done. Everything I’ve done or everything I’ve thought of doing, I’ll make into a class, and then everybody makes stuff. Then I’ll get depressed and realise I can’t make the same stuff. I don’t ever want to copy anything the students have made. That is why I am trying something new this year.

ER: What excites you most?

JM: The belief that my students can stimulate some change that will inspire more students, causing a domino effect away from digital tools, effecting more people to be creative.

ER: You publish MAEDA@MEDIA, a new book on your visual work soon. What comes next?

JM: I am working on more books, actually, sequels to Design By Numbers, a pedagogical approach to teaching computation to designers. And I am creating software for children to understand maths and reading as design objects. I am also making acrylic sculptures. They are still in the developmental stage but I will be having an exhibition of them in New York this autumn.

ER: Does this mean you are moving into fine art?

JM: I never really understood this whole commercial world. With print media it was something different. Print finishes. I can deliver a book, I can deliver a brochure, and I’m done. But Web work is never finished. It’s an albatross around your neck when all you hear from clients is “the website doesn’t work any more”, and “can you fix it?” Or a new browser has just been released, and the site doesn’t work any more. A sense of completion on the Web doesn’t really exist. That is creative death because you are carrying around everything you ever made and at any moment, it may not work any more. That will kill you and your dreams of making a difference.

Elizabeth Resnick, design educator, curator, writer, Massachusetts, US

First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000


Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.