John Maeda seems to be an individual striving to understand the world about him in a hands-on, experimental way. In Redesigning Leadership, he claims he has found the best way to provide clarity on a topic is a simple “for example.” His TED talks, books, and many of the little web programs on his studio page seem to ultimately follow this principle, being examples offered to illustrate his thoughts as he tries to reconcile the topics at hand himself.
I’d originally been drawn to research his works by the simple little web programs on his studio page. Instead of presenting a concept through an abstract work of art, they seemed to be tools that offered a way to help visualize and understand that concept, yet still letting the viewer generate their own meaning from it. As I read some of his books and listened to some of his talks, he seemed less interested in beating in a single argument, and instead simply offered his observations and thoughts he drew from them without forcing his conclusions on the reader or audience. His books even mention that the topics were still evolving, and he would post more thoughts and observations on their related websites.
This conversational method of conveying a point felt odd to read, having been trained that papers and talks should try to convince others of the certainty of your conclusion. However, it felt somehow more engaging because of this—not quite the distant, emotionless essay, but a personable conversation trying to understand a topic.
Though some of his observations seem a bit tenuous at times—such as finding ‘MIT’ in ‘Simplicity’ and ‘Complexity’ as a reason for studying them, or ‘Raison D‘etre’ being a reason to take the post at the Rhode Island School of Design—it seems as though his literary works are a reflection of their times. Design by Numbers came out in the late 90’s, when home computers were becoming popular yet poorly understood, and seemed to be a way to illuminate just how complex and detailed a computer’s function has to be for a simple task like drawing. Fast forward to 2011 with Redesigning Leadership, when computers have become ubiquitous and electronic communication the norm, he feels that in order to have an efficient team and real meaning in communication, being physically present is paramount.
On the other hand, I have to say I haven’t been quite as engaged by his work, as his TED Talks seem to waver from topic to topic, and the material in Redesigning Leadership and Design By Numbers didn’t really resonate with me. Part of this might stem from the very nature of his works which appealed to me—it’s more conversant and opinionated, presenting as something that has worked for him, but may or may not apply to the reader. Many of the examples he presents in his works are personal experiences and anecdotes rather than numbers, studies, or other more traditional pieces of evidence in papers or talks, which somehow seems to downgrade its importance in my mind. Perhaps, in future readings of his books, I might latch on to something.
Despite these problems, however, I don’t think I chose the wrong person to research. Maeda seems to have a very inquisitive and observant nature about things around him, looking at things which others might consider unimportant and musing on them. While he may not be the best at communicating his discoveries—some commenters claiming he talks about himself a bit too often—he brings curious topics up for consideration, and provides a basic groundwork from which to begin examining the topic.
Overall, I’ll admit I have been a little unsure of where to go with writing summaries of the various topics here–though as stated earlier, it may be the conversational, weaving style in Maeda’s works that might have left me unsure of what to say. Perhaps the two items that caught my interest the most in this research were the laws held within the Laws of Simplicity, and the story of the no confidence vote at RISD. In the former, I’ve been interested in the mix of complexity and simplicity in my own drawings and have been trying to find a happy medium, while in the latter, it provides a bit of a conflict and mystery to delve into, without feeling entirely lost.