Profile: John Maeda

John Maeda wanted to communicate more effectively with his clients, so he decided to go back to college. That experience led him to rediscover a ‘simple philosophy’, a message that he is keen to spread, as he tells Liz Farrelly

When asked how he feels about being dubbed ‘the inventor of the screensaver’, John Maeda bats the question back with a mix of off-the-cuff humour and disarming reticence. ‘It makes me sound like an environmentalist. I’ve saved screens. A bit different from saving whales, of course,’ he says.

A clever retort is nothing less than you’d expect from the associate director of research at The Media Lab, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s hothouse of blue-sky thinking. A mix of graphic designer, visual artist, computer scientist and teaching professional, Maeda has also been named by Esquire magazine as one of the 21 most important people of the 21st century. Recently, however, he jumped the fence, sending himself back to school to gain an MBA, to learn the language of business and communicate more effectively with his global roster of clients, including Sony, Shiseido, Cartier and the United States Postal Service.

Maeda experienced a happy accident when he discovered that ‘the single most helpful thing for my teaching was to experience the other side of learning’. Setting out to achieve a clearly defined goal – and surprising himself along the way – highlights Maeda’s tangential approach to creative thinking. Another upshot of doing the MBA was the penning of a new book, The Laws of Simplicity, and the establishment of a supplementary blog, lawsofsimplicity.com, dealing with ‘design, business, technology, life’, which offers fascinating insights into Maeda’s application of his Ten Laws.

Setting out to defuse the stress many of us feel about the information overload that hits our desktops every day, this is a must-read for all creative practitioners. The book is beautiful – complete with iconic graphics and perfect packaging – and unlike self-help tomes that simultaneously bore readers with fictitious ‘true life’ tales while attempting to shame them into action, Maeda’s gentle honesty about the difficulties he faces in dealing with the same issues as the rest of us is refreshing and approachable.

In addition, we learn so much about him. Unlike his previous books, Design by Numbers, Maeda @ Media and Creative Code, which are all big, glossy, illustrated numbers, this little book of words, which Maeda limited to 100 pages, is intended to be read at one sitting, its mantra being so succinctly refined as to make perfect sense. While his previous books attempt to explain what he does, this book tells us how he thinks.

Maeda was raised in the US by Japanese parents, who believed in an ‘extreme from of Shintoism, which is the ancient Japanese tradition of animism… all things around you – rocks, rivers, mountains and clouds – are somehow alive’. Maeda recalls how, as a scientifically minded child, he found this mystical system impossible to grasp, but as an adult he found that he preferred the world ‘with its mysteries intact’. So, with such a heightened feeling of connectivity, it’s no wonder that Maeda is keen to spread his message of simplicity.

Turning connectivity of the digital variety into communities of the human kind was the starting point for Maeda’s current outing at Riflemaker Gallery, in London’s Soho. Curator Tot Taylor explains, ‘We saw John’s recent exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Fondation Cartier in Paris, and thought it would be an idea to take this “simple philosophy” and present it in a way most available to everyone.’ Hence Maeda/ MySpace.

A series of touch screens and customised iPods enable visitors to access an idea, before being redirected to another screen and a further idea. ‘MySpace is just a metaphor for an expression of human thought that is interconnected with other thoughts digitally,’ explains Maeda. When asked if he thinks MySpace is just another complicating factor in our busy lives, and if it needs simplifying, Maeda replies, ‘I think MySpace is fine the way it is. How humans relate to other humans – that’s a complex system that will never be simplified. And we wouldn’t want it to be [any other] way. In the history of humankind, when has someone had a “simple relationship”? [MySpace] is said to be a gigantic den of deviant people. If so, there’s probably some great art lurking in there.’

Maeda: MySpace, from 30 April to 23 June, Riflemaker Gallery, 79 Beak Street, London W1

The Laws of Simplicity, by John Maeda, published by MIT Press, priced £12.95

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