Despite pouring rains as Hurricane Everywhere made its way through Providence last Friday, crowds cloaked in RISD ponchos flooded North Main Street to celebrate the inauguration of RISD's sixteenth president, John Maeda (My-ay-dah). Following a brief ceremony at the First Baptist Church with speeches by Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, Providence Mayor Cicilline and Brown's President Ruth Simmons, among others, festivities continued in the streets. Colored projections scaled the walls of RISD buildings, local pop band Triangle Forest performed and a seemingly endless supply of noodles was provided in dapper, white takeout boxes. Boyish and lanky, Maeda is surprisingly unintimidating. As he strolled through the bustling tents in a ceremonial black robe replete with presidential medallions, crowds of eager students introduced themselves and posed for photos. His presence has created a frenzy of expectation on the RISD campus.
Friday's inauguration was unmistakably branded with the catchphrase "START HERE." Coined by alumnus design firm 2x4, the mantra has been plastered over t-shirts, posters, and publicity materials since the start of the semester. Sans serif, bold and in all-caps, this pithy expression fits Maeda--his name has become inseparable from the concept of simplicity.
Just 42 years old, Maeda has spent the majority of his education and his career at MIT. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees there in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. After getting his PhD in Design Science at the University of Tsukuba Institute of Art and Design in Japan he returned to MIT in 1996, where he served as a professor of Media Arts and Sciences and Associate Director of Research at the Media Lab, a design-minded technology think-tank. Yet Maeda's influence--and prolific output--extends far beyond MIT. As a designer, Maeda came of age just as the Web took off. He created an innovative series of Java-based, interactive calendars and cards for Shiseido, a cosmetics company, at a time when the programming language was still emerging and undefined. His artwork has been in solo exhibitions all over the world and is included in MoMA's permanent collection. Maeda designed two custom editions of Reebok high-tops. He developed the computer game Second Life. He has authored seven books and has been published in 14 languages.
Slogans are one of Maeda's trademarks. A handful of aphorisms appear repeatedly in his writing, interviews and public appearances; this set of mottos has remained consistent through more than a decade's worth of published materials (see side-bar). His 2006 book The Laws of Simplicity is a manifesto on design, business and life in general that boils sanity down to 10 simple rules. See Law 1: "The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction." Or Law 7: "More emotions are better than less." The Laws of Simplicity, a succinct statement about bringing technology to a human scale, is only one example of Maeda's constant and laconic self-authored philosophy. Indeed, 'simplicity' is characteristic of his design work, which is often immediate, systematic and visceral--in a way it is quite egalitarian. In simplicity lies a straightforward and necessary goal: accessibility. Maeda's simplicity offers a pragmatic strategy for stepping back from difficult, overwhelming, complex problems to make them meaningful, approachable, and exciting--intricate problems like running a large, private university with numerous departments, trustees, and investors.
When Maeda speaks about RISD, he portrays it with humbled excitement. In a conversation with the Independent he described it as a place, "where heart, mind and hand work in concert, without question." This romanticized relationship between tradition and craft is at the root of Maeda's vision for RISD. He continued, "I'm not planning to change RISD's fine arts disciplines, but rather to take on the important challenge of preserving RISD's incredible legacy while looking towards our future together." As a RISD student, I felt Maeda's delivery was strategically vague on the details of what "our future together" might entail.
Maeda's predecessor, Roger Mandle, came to RISD in 1993. An art historian and former museum director, Mandle's presidency was marked by the rapid expansion of RISD-- expansion of its endowment, its enrollment, its name-recognition and most apparent, its campus footprint. Since Mandle took office, RISD acquired 8 buildings on South Main street, expanded into downtown with two graduate buildings, opened the elaborately renovated 15 West (now known as the Roger Mandle building for Living and Learning) and constructed the Chace Center--scheduled to open later this month, it is a 43,000 square-foot building on South Main Street designed by renowned Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo. Also during his presidency, RISD and Brown University developed an official dual-degree program that began this semester with 13 entering freshmen. Mandle left RISD as the newly appointed executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority in the Persian Gulf.
Regarding Mandle, Maeda told us, "Roger did an incredible job of expanding RISD's campus." With the grand opening of the Chase Center only weeks away, it seems as if Mandle's infrastructure driven vision for RISD has reached a point of closure, and Maeda says he has no plans to continue construction. So what might Maeda's vision, beginning with a newly renovated campus and almost tripled endowment, entail? In a recent interview with AIGA he said, "I aspire to become the Steve Jobs of university presidents...I envision RISD as the Apple brand in the university world." This is an audacious analogy to be sure--in the best light, it means iconic, elite, bearing an undeniable cool factor and a devoted fan base. Certainly "branding" an institution will mean upping its name-value--a pursuit that can attract investment and endowments, increase admission and benefit alumni through added prestige.
As far as Maeda becoming the Steve Jobs of RISD, signs of this transformation are apparent. Featured in Esquire magazine as one of the 75 "most influential people of the 21st century," his name already caries an esteem that RISD will only amplify. Even before the first full week of classes, Maeda appeared to attract more celebrity than Mandle ever did.
His morning jogs with students and blogging habits have received plenty of press and a significant mention from Brown University president Ruth Simmons during the inauguration when she noted that she "found the freshness, immediacy and simplicity of this medium effective and endearing."
Maeda told the Independent, "My focus will be primarily about building a sense of community together with the RISD faculty, students, staff and alumni, and opening up the communication so that everyone's voice is heard--and of course, engaging with the unique city we're in." This reasonable goal, which he has labeled "open-source administration," seems to be underway. Yet some of Maeda's goals for RISD's future are considerably more complex. I asked him to clarify how he wants RISD to "engage with the unique city we're in," beyond the RISD community. He said "As technology growth slows, the economy--both in Providence, and beyond--is moving from a world where art must survive through patrons to one in which art and design will drive future profits for the local, US and global economy."
Indeed, some of Maeda's ambitions surpass complexity and verge on prophetic. I could only make sense of this answer by remembering another of Maeda's slogans--this one from his inauguration speech--"Glocal." He explained his neologism in this way:
"Although technology continues to advance at a blistering pace, the power of personal, face-to-face interactions is more real than ever before... there is still no believing like touching. Hugging. Kissing. Local still matters... Art and design has a powerful role in this expansive glocal universe¬≠--to take all of the complexity and make sense of it on a human scale."
It seems Maeda is suggesting that art's role in humanizing technology can make it a powerful and necessary business tool for both understanding and stimulating local and global economies. In his speech, he also asked this ambitious question: "What if RISD is the one institution that will rise above all other art and design schools in the world to place creativity at the core, central to the global agenda, the way that MIT did for technology?" While this paradigm-shift excited audience members, its feasibility was not addressed.
One of Maeda's missions is to break down the essentializing terms that separate artists from designers, or designers from technologists. In a school like RISD, the prospect of dissolving the boundary between art and business, or artist and economist, frankly, worries me. It is definitely not what I signed up for while applying to art school.
After his speech, Maeda told the Independent: "I want to change the paradigm of creativity in the business world¬≠--a shift from tech-led revolution to a design-based revolution in the global economy, fueled and led by RISD." Really, I would prefer RISD take a different quote from Maeda's inauguration speech as its slogan: "Together, we need to assume our responsibility as an advocate for the inspired, as a champion of the beautiful, as a collective voice that will build a justifiable case for creativity in our world."
Download the code for EVE ESSEX RISD '09 at notforsale.com