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Ex-RISD President John Maeda: “Money Is Quite Useful, Actually”

“You have to think about large, messy systems,” the design guru says. It wouldn’t hurt to make some money, either.

Ex-RISD President John Maeda: “Money Is Quite Useful, Actually”
[Photo: Nicholas Calcott for Fast Company]

Former Rhode Island School of Design president and current Silicon Valley venture capital design guru John Maeda shared a tidbit of wisdom he gathered from legendary designer Paul Rand at Fast Company’s Innovation By Design Conference today: “Make lots of money.”

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Maeda, the design partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, focused his brief remarks on why designers and the engineers of Silicon Valley need to combine forces and learn from each other. One answer? That’s where the money is. (Maeda, who relocated to the West Coast after leaving RISD earlier this year, has been living in Airbnbs and taking UberX everywhere, he says, “living like a millennial.”) “The money is quite useful actually,” he said. “Because you can experiment much more with more money. It’s quite an advantage. The advantage is the money advantage, the money lets you experiment.”

Maeda discussed the way design’s role in business has changed over recent years. “Design is something you usually add at the very end,” he noted. “You put the lipstick on the proverbial pig.” The reason, typically, is that “design is very costly. But as more and more companies are discovering, you put design in from the beginning, you get a better product. The problem is, it costs more to put design in the whole process. But the fact is, it’s moving from being costly to being worth the cost.”


Unfortunately, according to Maeda (formerly of MIT’s Media Lab), education has yet to catch up to a world where design jobs are as likely, if not more likely, to involve building apps than creating bespoke furniture. “MIT was about large systems, and RISD was about things we love that are small and short-run,” he said. “We’re living in an area where the politics of fields matter less than the speed of the world. I find it difficult how design schools control the beginning, the engineering schools control the end, and there’s this chasm in between.

“For designers who are eager to reinvent themselves,” he said, “this is the best time. But you have to get out of this short-run point of view. You have to think about large, messy systems.”

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About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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