Authors: John Maeda and Becky Bermont

Publisher: MIT Press, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0262015882, 104 pages


Designer, artist, writer, engineer, scientist, academic and computer scientist John Maeda is a thought leader and Renaissance man who has lectured at the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference. His elegant and insightful book, Laws of Simplicity, is an influential bestseller, and Esquire magazine named him one of the 21st century’s most important people. He is a National Design Award winner and president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Maeda is an unconventional thinker who looks at matters differently – and acts accordingly. getAbstract recommends this enjoyable, provocative read to anyone who wants a refreshing take on, and insightful perceptions into, the demanding universe of leadership.

A Special leader

John Maeda left his comfortable, prestigious and rewarding sinecure as a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to become president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), America’s leading art and design college. This was not an easy change. At MIT, Maeda had broad academic freedom to say or do pretty much whatever he wanted. As RISD’s chief executive, Maeda’s communications and activities are more circumscribed. At MIT, Maeda was a big success; at RISD, his achievements depend in large part on politics. As an MIT professor, Maeda understood exactly what the university and students expected. As RISD president, he must figure it all out as he goes forward, without a playbook.

Maeda is an accomplished designer and artist. Many creative people don’t respect leaders, but he avoided such stereotypical thinking thanks to Naomi Enami, a multimedia producer Maeda knew when he was young. While Enami possessed a megawatt sense of showmanship, he could function as an aware, serious businessman. Enami was famous for his signature line, “If I am here, everything is okay!” Upon entering his studio, he would make this fulsome announcement, find a spot in the middle of the floor and promptly go to sleep. Enami taught Maeda that leaders come in many different forms and with different methodologies.

Maeda’s creative background shaped how he views leadership. Maeda’s willingness to cover his hands with paint while making art enables him to approach leadership in a similar, hands-on, embrace-the-messiness fashion. His sense that action should happen in “the moment” drives how he performs. Maeda works hard to balance his creative instincts with his formal training in engineering and business management.

Maeda’s artistic eye helps him see how things look from different vantage points. To gain perspective, he worked as a food server in RSID’s cafeteria, as a breakfast cook for faculty members, as a donut deliverer for campus security officers and as a luggage carrier for new students. He does not hide in his executive office. As an artist, Maeda is accustomed to applying “superhuman intensity” to his work. This aligns well with the creative students at RISD, where, according to many of the university’s attendants, the acronym “stands for [the] ‘Reason I’m Sleep Deprived’.”

Strive to see the big picture

When he was new at MIT, Maeda sought advice on “faculty politics” from his mentor, Professor Whitman Richards, who told Maeda not to focus on MIT, but on the world beyond…


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