The Art of Leadership and Learning – @JohnMaeda

I have to tell you – I haven’t been doing much reading in the last 6 months or so. Tell me, with a 12 hour work day and birding to do in free time and a life to lead on top of that, where’s the time for this? Anyways, I’m going to learn from an author today. John Maeda the author ofRedesigning Leadership is keynoting the conference this morning. I’m curious to know what the talks going to be all about – very exciting stuff since I’m always kicked about learning and I’d love to be an effective leader. Heidi says John can speak to us as a colleague but also someone who can bring views from a different sphere. Currently he’s the president of the Rhode Island School of Design.And so the keynote begins! John was mersmerised by Heidi’s intro because it was about us and not about him and that’s important as a leader. John is very interested in the idea of how to lead – he sees it as a practice. It began from his curiosity – eg his discovery of the lingo of financial terms. He did an MBA online to decode that lingo. He was a professor by day and a student by night. Leadership comes through living it and it’s quite uncomfortable.

Leadership has four stages/ aspects:

  1. Start from foundations
  2. Craft the team
  3. Sense Actively
  4. Fail productives

We’re living a lot longer than we did 30 years ago. So a four year college education or the two years masters add-on doesn’t cut it for our evolution in this world. So you need to keep learning.

Build the foundations

You can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. MIT was a very clean place for John – RISD is a very dirty place that way. People want to understand and play around – a very elegant thing in John’s view. John just got super-promoted and was at the top job of the school very quickly so he didn’t really know how to do his job. So he bought a lot of books and he’s been learning all the time. He’s gotten to learn about art and design at the very core. Take a look at who the Alumni is.

In the first year at RISD, people are supposed to unlearn what they know. For eg: they know how to draw, but the first foundational course is to break it down into drawing simple shapes such as black and white polygons. It helps all the artists understand their craft better by coming down to the foundations.

Maeda is talking about knowledge starting from direction moving to concepts but then experience going to change concepts and affecting direction. So while the first direction is about mastery, the second is about originality. This creates what the human race is all about – innovating and improving all the time.

Craft the team

Figuring out the team thing is quite a strange task. Maeda refers to the American basketball team which had Michael Jordan and the first two times the American team dominated, but then they couldn’t get gold. What was wrong?

You look at some oriental buildings in Japan, made of wood and these last several hundred years! In modern construction things don’t last even a decade. The secret is in the materials they use by selecting the right wood from the mountains. In your team, the materials are the people.

There’s no I in TEAM. There’s a lot of I in INDIVIDUAL. There’s a WE in WELCOME. John is talking about someone at the omelette station at the breakfast buffet and that server made him feel welcome with his omelette! That kind of power is human power – doesn’t come from a dialog box or hashtag. It was because someone believed hospitality and wanted to live that value.

He brings up Marshall Ganz’s book about the Power of WE. The book talks of a spiral emanating outwards – every leader leads about stories that lead outwards. It’s not about autopilot; it’s about engaging. Marshall’s book calls leadership a practice. It’s a practice that starts with Self – identifying yourself. Then there’s the story of US – the connections in the group. And lastly there’s the story of NOW, where the SELF meets the US and there’s a task to complete. Every leaders story fits this very simple pattern. The only time you need leaders is in times of uncertainty. Story is a critical component in this – they can’t hear you if they can’t feel it.

Sense Actively

Artists are always doing a wrong thing at the right time! He talks about people wanting to fly kites – what good is that? Well a good thing there is to see and feel the wind. Also it’s a good way to experience what it’s like from the wind’s perspective to see the person flying the kite or the kite itself?

If you look at growth in the last 20 years. Median family income is increasing at a linear pace, but cost of medical care and education has increased exponentially. So the ability to be educated is diminishing given that our capability to fund is becoming more and more difficult. So we need to sense this and find other ways to learn.

If you look at the monopoly in information with the number of printed books. The monopoly of universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale until 2000, their monopoly increased considerably. But post that, it fell quite a bit? Is there a disruption there because of the long tail?

It’s not longer a heirarchy in organisations these days – it’s more an organisational network. The bigger thing is now a trans-organisational network. You’re friends with your competitors.

Fail Productively

“Courage lies somewhere between fearlessness and recklessness”-Aristotle
John is showing us some of the scenes created using circuit boards. You’ve got to see this to believe it. It’s art created with circuit boards – showing deep situations like a single fathers, CEO-ness and possession; a guy showing off his new smartphone. He talks about an experience in London – a workshop that involved drawing on sand. He met people from various walks of life. People had several problems and varied situations.

There are two frames to leadership – Traditional and Creative. One being a symbol of authority, other being a symbol of inspiration. Traditional is about Yes or No. Creative is about ‘Maybe’ – the world is complex and you can be wrong.

“If you manage a team of 10 people, it’s quite possible to do so with very few mistakes or bad behaviours. If you manage an organisation of many more it becomes quite impossible.” – Ben Horowitz

When you’re an A player, your median is quite high on the other hand your median as a leader will be quite low given all the mistakes that you’ll make and you’ve got to be willing to make.

John’s book is about an honest recount of what it’s like being a leader. He describes it as leading without all of the answers and being open to the critique. It’s been a fairly inspirational talk and I enjoyed some of the ideas he threw out though the points I noted down were a poor replacement to his talk.

The point John makes right at the end is that the economy is at a downturn in America. The innovations we’re looking at come from Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). But a lot of the innovation also needs to come from Art. Yes we have more technology – it’s everywhere. We’re in a strange race with ourselves. We’ve always been in this evolution. We used to have a technology called the coffee table. This was before the TV. After the TV, coffee tables became defunct – now people stopped sitting around the coffee table, they sat around the TV now. And in the computer and mobile age, everyone’s got a television in their face. It’s the reality of the world. Technology realises progress at light speed. Electrons travel at light speed, people don’t. We’re stuck in a bit of a loop. When computers came first, they were awful and then there was the amazing invention of the CDROM – ability to store and share full colour images; great sounding audio and then movies on your computer. Then we had the web, and the web could do everything in the browser that we did everything we could using the CDROM. And then the mobile came and went through the same evolution as computers and the web. The evolution pattern is the same, culture hasn’t moved forward though.When Maeda compares his time at MIT and contrasts his time at RISD with it. He looks at the combination of Design (making solutions) and Art (making questions). Artists are bold to be cultural entrepreneurs. The intersection is where cool stuff happens. Design is about balancing form and content. John shows the word FEAR written in different typefaces and it’s quite amazing how the form changes the way we perceive the content.

And then there’s art. Art is harder – by definition it is. People who don’t ‘get’ art are actually getting it because they recognising it is hard. It’s about questioning authority. Artists ask ‘Why’ or ‘Why not’. Why would you make art out of glass than drink from the glass? Why would you paint every day? Why not? By forcing us to think and question, we evolve our culture.

VUCA is how the world feels today – volatile, uncertain, complex ambiguous. The anti-VUCA is visioning, understanding, clarity and agility. It’s the new VUCA. A new creative way of thinking that changes the way we approach life.

Scientists and artists both ask big questions, but they have different inflections. Both types of questions put together create powerful combinations. Artists are often inspired by scientists to see anew. There are artists who are scientists and vice-versa nowadays. There are designers who are scientists too. Designers are helping us see patterns in complex data. Art is merging with science. Policy makers need artists to help with sense making!

Innovation is the combination of Art and Design. STEM needs to become STEAM with the Art popped in between. Check out


John Maeda: STEM to STEAM

STEM to STEAM: The past and future of the arts, design, and the STEM fields
Wednesday, October 26, 2011 | 2:00pm – 4:30p

John Maeda

In the current moment of economic uncertainty, America is once again turning to innovation as the silver bullet that will guide us forward. Yet in the eyes of many leaders, innovation seems tightly coupled with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math–the STEM subjects. We need to add “Art” to turn STEM into STEAM.

Artists and designers make information more understandable, products more desirable, and new invention possible through the project-based inquiry that has long been practiced in the art studio. By investing in art/science collaborations in research and education we can keep America at the forefront of innovation, ensuring our sustained global leadership and cultural prosperity in the 21st century.

The Media Lab has a history with the interdisciplinary thinking that STEAM represents. Come hear RISD president John Maeda speak about the history of the arts and design at the Media Lab, and the power for future innovation that he sees in the RISD studios.

He will be joined by RISD professors Andrew Raftery and Nancy Skolos.


John Maeda is a world-renowned artist, graphic designer, computer scientist and educator whose career reflects his philosophy of humanizing technology. For more than a decade, he has worked to integrate technology, education and the arts into a 21st-century synthesis of creativity and innovation. A recipient of the National Design Award and represented in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Maeda became president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in June 2008.

At RISD, Maeda seeks to champion the necessary role that artists and designers play in the 21st century creative economy. He sees the traditional, hand-crafted techniques that are fundamental to a RISD education as increasingly relevant in an overly-digital world as people seek to reconnect with what is real and authentic. As President, he seeks to connect RISD to the political, economic, social, and business spheres where artists and designers will make a difference, and has prioritized fundraising for scholarships to ensure the broadest possible access to a RISD education.

A former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Maeda taught media arts and sciences there for 12 years and served as associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab. Maeda’s early work redefined the use of electronic media as a tool for expression by combining skilled computer programming with sensitivity to traditional artistic concerns. He has published four books including The Laws of Simplicity, now translated into 14 languages. His new book, written with Becky Bermont, Redesigning Leadership, expands on his micro-posts on leadership and innovation as @johnmaeda on Twitter. In 2008 Maeda was named one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century by Esquire magazine and in 2010 he was called the “Steve Jobs of academia” byForbes magazine.

A native of Seattle, Maeda earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and electrical engineering from MIT, followed by a PhD in design science from the University of Tsukuba Institute of Art and Design in Japan and an MBA from Arizona State University.

johnmaeda (@johnmaeda)
11/5/11 2:20 AM
1.5 hr talk at the MIT Media Lab with @RISD Professors Skolos and Raftery on

Art & Design Matter: Rhode Island School of Design Leads Public Forum

September 28, 2011  |  

John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, led a public forum on September 26 with Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) and other Rhode Island leaders to discuss the intersection of art and science. Titled STEM to STEAM, the event examined the importance of integrating arts eduction into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields: STEM + Art = STEAM. This event follows a recent briefing in Washington where Langevin and Maeda discussed RISD-led initiatives that demonstrate how STEAM promotes more effective workforce development.

RISD Stem to Steam

Congressman Langevin told leaders of Rhode Island’s arts and education communities that our country must integrate art and design into efforts to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and research to reach our full potential for innovation and economic growth. Langevin, highlighted the state’s opportunity to capitalize on its extraordinary resources in these areas to be a national leader in preparing a workforce with the combination of creative and technical skills required to excel in the 21st century economy.

“Art and design are critical components of innovating products that are both effective and appealing to consumers,” said Langevin, who has made workforce development a top priority and co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus. “RISD’s work under President Maeda’s leadership has shown the benefits of this integrated approach. We must bring it to other educational and training programs if we are to succeed in closing the gap between the skills our students are taught and the abilities that employers need.”

As one example of the potential application of art and design education, RISD artists recently worked with researchers to design toys specifically for disabled children. In addition, the school’s work on “STEM to STEAM” was recently part of an effort that won Rhode Island a $20 million National Science Foundation Research Infrastructure Improvement grant. These funds allow artists and designers to work collaboratively with scientists to advance research on effects of climate change and build institutional, technological and communications infrastructure.

“I believe art and design are poised to change the world now like science and technology did in the last century,” said Maeda. “Art and design humanize those developments, and fuel true innovation, which ultimately leads to both economic recovery and cultural prosperity. Apple’s iPod is a perfect example of technology that basically existed for a long time as an MP3 player, but that nobody ever wanted until design made it something desirable and useful in a way that you could integrate it into your lifestyle.”

In his presentation, Maeda explained that the studio method taught at RISD, which emphasizes project-based experiential learning, is a model for teaching the kind of creative problem solving, flexible thinking and risk-taking required to challenge conventional ideas and innovate in today’s fast-changing world.

For example, students in the school’s Industrial Design department recently worked with Progressive Insurance in a partnered studio to develop “Snapshot,” a user-friendly gadget that helps monitor driving habits to afford consumers lower rates. Snapshot was recently touted in Progressive’s national ad campaign.

The Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) has also positioned the state to be a leader in STEAM training by incorporating design into the state’s Science and Technology Strategic Plan. Its strategy envisions Rhode Island’s excellence in design helping to lead the state in the next wave of “technology-powered growth and job creation.”

“Rhode Island has a long legacy in craft and design and a time honored reputation for turning ideas and knowledge into products,” said Christine Smith, Executive Director of the Rhode Island STAC. “Solutions to the many complex problems facing our world will be found at the convergence of multiple disciplines. The creativity and collaboration inherent in art and design is the connective tissue that will join fragmented ideas into an integrated solution.”

Other speakers at today’s event included Rhode Island College President Nancy Carriuolo; Saul Kaplan, Founder and Chief Catalyst at Business Innovation Factory, and member of RI STAC; Andrea Castaneda, Chief of the Department of Accelerating School Performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education; Charlie Cannon, Associate Professor of Industrial Design at RISD; and Stephen Lane, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Ximedica.

The event took place at the Rhode Island Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has prioritized grants to support programs that use art to prepare students with the technical, academic, creative and innovative skills to succeed.

“The Foundation is committed to working with other community leaders to support professional development for educators and improve student achievement. We invest in innovative proposals with these goals in mind, and STEM to STEAM initiatives that add art and design methods to science and math classrooms have shown positive results,” said Neil D. Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. “I thank Congressman Langevin, President Maeda, President Carriuolo, and the other supporting organizations for their efforts on behalf of Rhode Island students, who we all agree deserve the best education possible.”

Langevin is working to make STEAM a national priority, recently introducing a resolution that urges Congress to include art and design in the STEM fields as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In addition, it calls for the creation of a STEM to STEAM Council, which would bring together artists, designers, education and business leaders, and federal agencies to facilitate a comprehensive approach to incorporate art and design into federal STEM programs

Read more:

johnmaeda (@johnmaeda)
04/07/2011 15:24
#RISD undergrad @carlyayres account of our steps taken here in the US to turn STEM to STEAM.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011
3:00-4:00 PM

Rayburn House Office Building, Gold Room (2168), Washington DC

About STEAM: America’s ongoing focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) as an essential component of national innovation needs art and design to gain STEAM. STEM + Art = STEAM. Artists and designers humanize technology, making it understandable and capable of bringing about societal change. The studio method that is the hallmark of arts education teaches the flexible thinking and risk-taking that is needed in today’s complex and dynamic world. The tools and methods of design offer new models for creative problem-solving and interdisciplinary partnership, introducing innovative practices of design thinking into STEM education and research. To realize this potential, scientists, artists and designers must develop new ways of working together and new modes of research and education.

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