Co.Design

Why John Maeda Is Leaving RISD For A Venture Capital Firm

We talk to Maeda about his new job in Silicon Valley, what he regrets about his tenure at the Rhode Island School of Design, and the school's outlook for the future.

Rhode Island School of Design's visionary, digitally savvy president, John Maeda, announced Wednesday that he'll be leaving his position at the country's premier art and design school for venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where he'll be a design partner.

Maeda came to RISD from the MIT Media Lab with little administrative or fundraising experience in 2007. During his tenure, he has attempted to fold digital technology into the school's stubbornly analog approach to arts education, with mixed results. At one point, he earned a vote of no confidence from the faculty. At the same time, during the six years he's been at the head of the institution, the number of students applying to RISD has gone up, as have the number of financial aid packages offered, and tuition increases have been at their lowest in decades. In 2012, the school had a 97% job placement rate for graduates.

Reached by phone the day after he announced his departure, Maeda discussed his time at RISD and what's in store for the school's next leader.

What led you to make the jump to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers?
Well, it was the opportunity of the lifetime. It seems like right now more than ever technology needs design, and that’s in my mission to bring those two worlds together in the context of business. So what an opportunity!

How do you think your six years at RISD changed the school?
I think the role of art and design has changed outside our school, and in that happening, we’ve moved along with it in so many ways. We’ve been intersecting with our classical DNA with new technologies like Square, Kickstarter, Etsy and things like that. But we’ve kept our classic core.

Do you have any regrets about your tenure? What do you wish you could have accomplished?
I think every leader asks themselves that question. For me, I think I regret that ... Give me a second. Do I have regrets today? Everyone has a regret. Let me pace for a second--could you wait two minutes as I pace?

[Whispering in the background: I don’t regret that ... I don't regret that.]

No, I actually have no regrets. I’m very peaceful. I’ve had a great time with our students. So holy cow, I will say, at least right now when you’re asking me this question, I have no regrets. Call me in a year.

I’m definitely sad to leave--I’ve been president for six years. This is like my family.

Your time at RISD has been somewhat controversial. Is there anything else you wish you could have accomplished?
The nature of leadership is to take on change. That’s what leadership’s about. And I think, if anything, I--as a creative person--learned how to lead. I have to say that I’m happy to have understood what creatives do and feel as leaders, and I hope in the long term I might be a role model for other creatives who are searching for what leadership is about.

I like to always say artists and designers are extremely agile. Agility is what I think I have learned as a leader, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.

What do you think is in store for RISD’s next president?
RISD’s in great shape. At the [MIT] Media Lab, one of my mentors was a man named Stephen Benton. He once told me, "John, the role of someone in a job is to make the job more attractive for the next person.” I’ll never forget what he said to me. In that spirit, I have worked to make this job a better job for the next person.

And I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished: to raise the spirits of the school, to be known as the No. 1 design school in the world, to at the same time lower costs, so we’re no longer the No. 1 most expensive art school.

What do you think will be RISD’s biggest challenge going forward?
Oh, that’s really easy. The problem with being No. 1 is, there’s nothing above No. 1. So that’s a constant challenge--once you are No. 1, how do you stay No. 1? Not a bad problem to have.

Add New Comment

11 Comments

  • Peter Fisk

    Come on ... this is fantastic news for the design world! ... It shows that investors (and business leaders) are recognising the true economic potential of great design (in all its forms) ... John is a great design ambassador, his Simplicity book has inspired millions of business people across the world to rethink their products, customer experiences and even business models ... I'm sure John will be well rewarded, and I hope the RISD finds somebody as good or even better you continue making design thinking an even more powerful and creative force in our changing world ... You can see how design is increasingly changing business at Gamechangers.pro ... Well done John making the leap, and well done VCs in having foresight!

  • Peter Fisk

    Come on ... this is fantastic news for the design world! ... It shows that investors (and business leaders) are recognising the true economic potential of great design (in all its forms) ... John is a great design ambassador, his Simplicity book has inspired millions of business people across the world to rethink their products, customer experiences and even business models ... I'm sure John will be well rewarded, and I hope the RISD finds somebody as good or even better you continue making design thinking an even more powerful and creative force in our changing world ... You can see how design is increasingly changing business at Gamechangers.pro ... Well done John making the leap, and well done VCs in having foresight!

  • Bradbury Thompson

    Am I missing something from the above article? Because it seems to me that RISD has been the leading Art and Design school for many decades. If RISD hasn't been No 1 then surely it had be considered to be the preeminent Art and Deign School for a very long time. It seems disingenuous for Mr Maeda to claim in any way that he was responsible for RISD becoming No1. After all RISD isn't the NCAA where colleges are ranked by their football programs. And as far as his claim about lowering tuition I'm wondering percentage wise what he's really talking about. As far as income from alumni anyone with a working knowledge of financial data knows full well you can skew the numbers any way you want to achieve the desired results. I do know for a fact of one interesting tidbit that is pretty interesting regarding Mr Maedas' status on the RISD campus. Anyone who has heard of John Maeda knows full well how he loves to trumpet his being a world class designer and a AIGA Gold Medalist. But here is the interesting fact; during Maeda's six year reign he never once gave a lecture at The Graphic Design dept, nor did he influence the curriculum in any way whatsoever. That said, it would seem on the face of if that if Mr Maeda was indeed everything that he claimed to be, then the Graphic Design Dept would of welcomed him with open arms. I would like to suggest that when you are part of RISD the best way to get true recognition is by doing, not by talking. So perhaps in the final analysis Mr Maedas' undoing was simply too much talking and not enough doing. I'm personally amazed that he lasted six years and would like to go out on a limb and predict that there won't be a statue erected in his honor in front of Prov/Wash anytime soon. In fact just the opposite, which would be that his administration will be remembered for what it truly was, which was leadership by intimidation and fear and that certainly is not what RISD has ever been about. No 1 or not.

  • yopeter

    It's obvious how guarded his answers are. They are carefully constructed bits of PR bait designed to sustain his public image of being a leader of technology/design. My view of him as a current RISD student is that the man cares more about his career and image than he does about addressing the needs of the faculty and students that was supposed to serve. His term was marked by short-sighted changes that look good on paper but will ultimately bring no long term benefits to the students or faculty here.

  • Lee

    This article is a piece of PR whitewash crap. Maeda left RISD giving only two weeks notice! There is something big not being reported here.

  • A Richardson

    The headline suggest that we will learn why Maeda is leaving RISD for a venture capitalist firm, and what he regrets. Not only do we not really learn why he is leaving (except that it is an opportunity of a lifetime) and he says he has no regrets. Don’t you think that‘s a bit misleading?

    It would have been interesting to learn more about what he wants to do as a venture capitalist. How does he see design working with technology in the context of business? What role does he think he can play as a designer and thought leader in the business world?

    This article asks about his thoughts on RISD. While it’s nice to read he considers it a positive experience, what is most surprising about his departure is the reason he is leaving. It would have been great to learn more about his thoughts on design, technology and business, and what he hopes to accomplish as a venture capitalist.

  • Bradbury Thompson

    Oh my where do we start on why JM is REALLY leaving. Perhaps its the sacking of almost every single important player starting with Jay Coogan who was fired B4 Maeda even officially started on. Then there's Hope Alswang, RISD Museum Director, Arnie Yazinski head financial Officer, Lou Beda head of the very successful head of RISDs CE Program and the list only goes on from there. One of John first big initiatives was to install as series of "interactive" screens all around campus which would constantly be updated with live feeds. The thinking being that it would create a more "inteactive" student body/faculty/admin. What actually happened: Never got off the ground and was permanently scrapped in less than six months. Of course what remained untold was how much the dysfunctional programming that was done by non RISD alums cost. Then there was the disastrous "Start Here" program that was used ad nauseum in hot pink type to prompt alumni to get all excited about Maedas new "direction" for RISD. What actually happened. The new head of Alumni relations flamed out within a year and the school virtually had no income from alumni, despite her "big idea" that it would be cool to charge alums in cities across the US to hear President Maeda speak at their chapter. Needless to say that didn't last long. I would go on but I think the reader is getting the picture that Maedas idea of "Leadership" is not what most people at RISD would consider his strong point. As far as putting his departure on youtube that in my opinion is quite humorous. He makes it sound like RISD was some sort of non-entity in world of Design B4 his arrival. As a RISD grad and lifelong designer I can assure you that misguided notion is very far from factual. What would be interesting and I will try to get my hands on is a complete list of everyone that got fired and from which dept, THAT would be a lot more telling to as why Maeda is leaving RISD with a 2 week notice. Not the propaganda that he is spewing. And as a final testament to his total lack of respect for RISD he left giving only 2 weeks notice and leaving the school midyear. I mean what college President has ever done that?

  • artdrectr

    Leaders do tend to sweep out the old and bring in new thinkers. You left out that he doubled the scholarships and diversified them, also kept the tuition from rising...those are pretty great things. I've read elsewhere that Hope Alswang resigned--not fired (due to clashes with Maeda I suppose). That he left so abruptly, 2 weeks notice, is not cool, but we don't know the circumstances surrounding that yet. I'm not an apologist for him, just looking at the record.

  • dreyfus1

    Thank you for telling the truth, Bradbury! His departure now makes sense to me, something the article did NOT achieve.