Artistic Licence

John Maeda’s knowledge of both computer science and digital art has given him revolutionary insights into the future of digital design.

John Maeda’s Japanese immigrant father, who runs a small tofu-making business in Seattle, was concerned for his son’s welfare when he heard of his artistic ambitions. “You will never be able to eat drawing pictures,” he said. Maeda Senior could scarcely have guessed at the level of distinction his son would achieve in his chosen field, digital design, nor that he would become fêted as an international cultural icon by the age of 32.

Maeda has pioneered many of the key expressive elements found on the Web today, among them The Reactive Square – a simple black square that changes shape when you shout at it – and Time Paint, in which colour splashes across the screen. To this end he wrote Design By Numbers, an introductory text in computer science aimed at encouraging “visual thinkers” to be more adventurous and experimental.

From elementary school age, Maeda’s mission was to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which for years he thought was in California. When he did eventually find his way there to study computer science, it was his discovery of the work of US graphic designer Paul Rand which prompted him to retrace his roots to Japan, where he studied fine art.

Eight years after graduating from MIT, he returned as a professor of design and latterly as director of the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the institute’s Media Lab. When he is not lecturing, writing or shaping the future of computer science, Maeda has found time to create a portfolio of beautiful and striking computer images, many of which are reproduced in a sumptuous new book, Maeda@Media, which is part autobiography, part manifesto.

Maeda likens the challenge of trying to create art with existing design software to “Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel with a mop”. He is highly critical of the software manufacturers’ lack of vision, as well as designers in general for their reluctance to innovate and be different. Uniquely equipped with dual training as both an artist and computer scientist, Maeda has set about uniting and reconciling the two disciplines, producing a unique body of work. “John Maeda deconstructs the digital world with the earned authority of an MIT-trained computer scientist and a card carrying artist,” writes Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, in the book’s foreword. “Being ambidextrous with Eastern and Western cultures, he can see things most of us overlook. The result is a humour and expression that brings out the best in computers and art.”

NS: You’ve bridged the gap between art and design in a lot of your work. How do you see the relationship between the two?

JM: I used to believe design was something apart. My hero was the graphic designer Paul Rand, but it was only after he died I realised that basically his life’s work was art, not design. In order for design to evolve, art has to evolve first because art is the mother and father of design. So I intend to spend the next ten years pushing my art forward in relation to technology. Art changes the way you think about the world.

NS: So where are the digital artists and designers of tomorrow to be found?

JM: I’ve lectured at a lot of art and design schools in the States and most of the students don’t have any sense of design history because they spend so much time working in the here and now. I think that’s a tragedy. In order to understand the future you have to understand what’s gone before. What’s needed are people who believe in the spirit of design, believe in the materials at their disposal, and are willing to do things that are arduous and take time.

NS: Does lack of time account for what you perceive as sterility in Web design?

JM: Yes. Everybody in the commercial sector is running really fast and making lots of money, so there is no impetus by industry to invest in good education. The industry wants Web pushers, but after three or four years they become expendable. Someone younger costs less and knows Photoshop 12. So nobody wins.

NS: You are also critical of available software.

JM: Software companies are unable to create innovative software anymore. It’s risky to make something new. The economy pushes you towards creating messages that corporations want, and the customer is king. Unless experimental design expands, commercial design will continue to be uninspired.

NS:Which is presumably why you developed Design By Numbers?

JM: Our culture has been conditioned to wait for the latest software. When it comes, it’s not much different from the last one, apart from being more expensive and more difficult to use. Because the creators of the software have no idea what the future holds, we’re stuck in a loop. They understand the existing vocabulary so they recreate and modify what’s gone before. What I’m attempting to do with Design By Numbers is to get more visual thinkers to challenge themselves, to reconsider the whole future of software. I know a lot of designers find it daunting. They say “I’m a visual person, I can’t think like this”, but it takes time. You can’t write great literature in an afternoon. It’s not rocket science, it’s based on a 1960s concept called concrete art. I’m interested in changing the way we think about software. How can it be made more natural?

NS: So it’s not just laziness on the designers’ part?

JM: The biggest misconception of most designers is that they are in control. The tools you use lead you to believe you’re in control, and the marketing makes you think you’re in control, but you’re not. You install the new software, it crashes and you can’t fix it. Control can only come through understanding the system, knowing why it breaks. The majority of digital designers and artists have no idea about the technology they’re using. It’s alien to them. It’s more like a spaceship than a bicycle in terms of its capacity. We’re using less than 1 per cent of its true potential. At present we’re just taking existing disciplines, such as printing and photography, and computerising them, without any real notion of what that means.

I think it’s more important to realise what didn’t exist before, and what can only exist because of the computer.

NS: You say that the digital medium requires a new kind of mind. Isn’t that elitist?

JM: There is a very clear elitism within digital design. You know, there are people who believe the computer is the future, who always have the latest and greatest software tools. But I doubt if there will ever be great Web designers in the way that there were great print designers because designing for the Web exacts a curse with each project. Once printed, a print piece is finished. A Web piece is never finished, even after it is officially launched. The new mind I referred to is actually borne out of the old traditions of hand-based skills and wants nothing to do with the software that exists at the present time. These creatives believe in the spirit of design and working towards a better understanding of the tools that are at our disposal. You have to be able to understand the tools in order to misuse them to your advantage.

NS: In terms of digital progress, where are you going to be in 2020?

JM: Everything will be computerised. Imagine eating your breakfast cereal and the spoon suddenly pipes up “It’s time to clean your teeth!”. Technologists want everything computerised, don’t they? It’s not an idea I relish. Only art can stop that. 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. n

John Maeda talks about his work in digital art and design at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 12 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1, on 19 October. An exhibition of his work is at the ICA from 19 October-16 November. Maeda@Media is published by Thames & Hudson on 19 October, priced £19.95

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