Pure Genius

Q&A: John Maeda, president, Rhode Island School of Design

Q&A: John Maeda, president, Rhode Island School of Design

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As an artist, designer and higher-education leader, Maeda is on a mission to infuse science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with art and design.

While some have touted science, technology, engineering and math (often shortened to "STEM") as the foundations for a high-achieving country, John Maeda believes that true innovation requires an additional letter—an "A" for art and design. Since becoming president of the Rhode Island School of Design in 2008, Maeda has championed a "STEM to STEAM" movement in education and research. He recently spoke with me about what he's accomplished so far, what still lies ahead and why Apple is the best example of STEAM at work. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.

How did you become interested in changing STEM to STEAM?

I always wondered why art and science were somehow [considered] different, and more recently here as president of RISD, I began to think about art and the relationship from art to all kinds of spaces: government, economics, industry. I noticed that people think innovation comes from the STEM space—at MIT, that's how we used to feel, or at least how I felt there—but I also wondered about art and how that fits in. I'd be walking around RISD and I'd see so many examples of how a STEAM approach leads innovation. It seemed like turning STEM to STEAM made a lot of sense to talk about.

Last year, the White House announced a $250 million initiative to recruit and train science and math teachers. What are your biggest concerns about a STEM-only educational experience?

If America is a STEM education country, where do we end up? Examples of great STEM education countries are Singapore and Japan, which are often touted as creatively uninspired or challenged. If in America the goal is to become more STEM-ish, what will we do with our natural, funky creativity? How do you instill that in kids today? You have to have that space for creative reflection. It's important to let people know that this isn't a "nice to have," it's a "need to have." It's what made American thinking different.

What are some examples of the STEAM approach in action, and how can it help improve our economy?

Steve Jobs's work is the best example out there of a STEAM approach—the fact that technology and business and art and design intertwined to create something more human. I think STEAM helps you do that. When people talk about Apple, they say, 'Steve Jobs was an example of someone who had great technology and business chops, and there was this design thing he kind of understood, but what is that thing?' I believe that art can help the economy the same way that Apple has helped the economy: by showing that making things more human makes them more desirable.

Tell me about the progress you've made in promoting STEAM. I saw that there was a House Resolution (H.R. 319) on the table—where does that stand now?

It's been adopted by so many people that the phone rings at least twice a day from a new person out there who wants to get involved. Here in Rhode Island, we have something called the Science and Technology Advisory Council, and they've incorporated art and design language into their strategic plan, saying that to fuel job growth, we need art and design there. That's pretty cool.

We also have the National Science Foundation funding a project that we're a part of here in Rhode Island to advance how artists and designers can work collaboratively with scientists to look at climate change and understand that better.

It sounds like you're really making some headway. What do you still have left to accomplish in your STEAM-spreading quest?

First, we have to transform national research policy to put art and design at the center of innovation. Second, we really have to bring the STEAM approach to K-20 education. And third, more employers should pick up artists and designers—not just for their creative areas, but for any part of their business.

How does this STEAM idea of science, technology and business infused with art and design relate to RISD's goal of fostering what you've termed "artrepreneurs"?

When you look at a lot of the innovation that's happening out there, the people leading these innovations aren't just technologists anymore. They're artists and designers. I think of artrepreneurs as people who are leading economic growth, making change happen and becoming leaders of the 21st-century because they're not held to the classical business school or technology school background. They're fearless, they love to fail and recover and create, and that's what I'm seeing out there—the artrepreneurs are artists and designers who are out there making change happen.

You're very active on Twitter. In fact, you've said that your new book, Redesigning Leadership, is based on some of the "micro-posts" you've Tweeted about leadership and innovation. Why did you decide to start using Twitter?

First and foremost, I think of myself as an artist and designer, and I'm also the president of a college. Being the president of a college, your role is to be the authoritative leader. I own that and I embrace that fully, but at the same time, as an artist, I want to express my creativity in some shape or form. I can have a show once a year somewhere in the world and that's okay, but every day I have to make art somehow, and making art is about taking emotion and making it into something. I found that using Twitter gives me the chance to have a gallery online where I can share different thoughts that I'm forming and thinking and struggling with. Also, I have very little time, so I use little micro-minutes to just summarize something and put it out there.

You're someone who's exposed to all sorts of innovations. What's the most exciting one you've come across recently?

I think one of the biggest innovations is in education. Katie Salen has been bringing video-game thinking into education, asking questions like: What if you could learn physics by playing a video game? What if you could learn how to write stories by going through a fantasy game and writing different parts? How do you use that world to learn and think and play and also educate? I find her work very compelling.

Photo: Jesse Burke, 2011

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure