Maeda, John

Tom and John MaedaGraphic designer, visual artist, and computer scientist John Maeda is the founder of the SIMPLICITY Consortium at the MIT Media Lab, where he is E. Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Media Arts and Sciences. His work has been exhibited in Tokyo, New York, London, and Paris and is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He is the recipient of many awards, including the Smithsonian’s National Design Award in the United States of America, the Raymond Loewy Foundation Prize in Germany, and the Mainichi Design Prize in Japan. Maeda is the author of Design by Numbers.

[Bio is from the dust jacket of his new book, The Laws of Simplicity. See expanded bios at the MIT website, official and unofficial.]

Laws of Simplicity book cover asks …

Your new book is called The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life. Why this book now, John?

JM: Several reasons. The first is that I felt technology was making my life too complex. Having been at MIT most of my professional life, I realized that technology is designed to make more technologies. The problem with living today is that we have too much technology. Secondly, because I discovered the letters “MIT” in perfect sequence in the words “simplicity” and “complexity.” I took that as a kind of omen.

How long have you been at MIT?

JM: I’ve been at MIT 10 years as a professor, and six years before that as a student.

Who do you consider the main audience for this book?

JM: I started out with a sense that there were more people like me that were frustrated. Wherever I lectured, people would say, “I’m glad you’re so frustrated with technology. I thought it was just me.” Mothers, grandfathers, engineers, florists, people from every walk of life would say, “I’m so relieved.” I wrote it for people who are frustrated.

To me, it seemed to be aimed at technology producers.

JM: It wasn’t intended to be. I think that it does resonate most with people who are involved with technology. A 30-year technology veteran wrote to me this morning. He was so relieved that someone was finally thinking about this. This whole idea of “finally” strikes me as strange.

Whenever I go to my local Whole Foods Market to shop, one of the magazines placed in high visibility is Real Simple. I was talking with your colleague Jessie Scanlon at lunch today, and she said that was one of the most successful magazine launches ever. It’s definitely in the air.

JM: It is in the air. I think people have either come to terms with technology, almost feel sorry for it sometimes, or they feel outright frustrated.

You mention the notion of reducing in the book. It reminded me of a colleague shopping for a new cell phone. That’s either an annual or bi-annual ritual for all of us now. Her real task is to try to find a phone that just makes phone calls.

JM: Not easy at all.

Everything seems to have at least a camera, if not more.

JM: A camera, a date book, a tool to make julienne fries, everything.

Why is that? It seems that at least technologically, everything tends toward complexity. Is there a particular reason for that?

JM: There are two reasons. The first reason is that complex technology is cheaper. The example I gave in the book is that you can either buy a chip with a very primitive timer function or you can buy a chip with a timer, an alarm, and a stop watch. The second chip is cheaper.

Secondly, any business realizes that if you want your customer to buy something, you have to jam-pack it with value. That way, when people compare products, if one has more value, it’s a much easier decision to make, to buy the one with more value.

More value than anyone needs or could use.

JM: Yes. And they don’t stop.

What’s going on there? Is it market driven? Maybe your book and other things like Real Simple magazine are going to start a counter wave where they can charge more for the next, say, Microsoft Word by having less stuff in it.

JM: I think there’s a difference between market driven and marketing driven. Marketing is a science that has developed around this ability to build a perception of more value, more flavor, more everything. Yet people who are marketed to, the consumers, are all saying that we don’t want that much stuff. Marketers have to be more aware of their market.

Or we as consumers haven’t protested enough yet, because we continue to buy the cell phones that have 38,000 functions we’ll never use.

JM: Or we’re stuck buying them, as with my phone that reboots itself randomly.

I was surprised to see your article in yesterday’s Sunday paper supplement, PARADE magazine. How did that happen?

JM: I’m finding that more and more people in the media industry, particularly editors-in-chief or the very top people, are sick and tired of the complexity. They’ll buy a high-end fridge with a computer in it and won’t be able to open it. It’s a top down thing. I know 60 Minutes is thinking of a show on simplicity because the executive producer is so upset about the gadgets he has around him.

That seems like a perfect episode for Andy Rooney. It’s right up his alley to complain about all this crap and why it doesn’t work the way it should.

JM: It would be a funny comedy shtick for Best Buy.

Surely there’s some Zeitgeistian aspect to it. Even though you’re writing about simplicity, you also acknowledge that we need complexity. Without complexity, we can’t have simplicity. They need each other the way that peanut butter needs jelly, I suppose.

JM: Or the way wallpaper needs chocolate. Anyone who has kids or a dog knows that it makes your life more complex. You can’t travel as easily, you do all kinds of things you might not do without that extra burden. But you never want it to stop.

For instance, yesterday my kids and wife all went off to a track meet. They’re all jocks, my girls. I was alone in the house for a day and a half. I was so bored. I thought, wow, my life is a lot simpler now. I was missing all that complexity that I usually can’t stand. It reminded me how much I need them.

Have we not always had that condition, that conflict between simplicity and complexity?

JM: Yes. I think we also want what we don’t have. Imagine if your house was filled with IKEA furniture. It’d be a pretty boring house, even though it’d be coordinated well. Think about that. If everything is perfect, it’s not really human in a way.

Why this moment in time?

JM: Why? Because we are completely surrounded by technology. We have DVRs, cell phones, computers. We have computers in airports, schools, even in our cars. We’ve hit the whole Malcolm Gladwell tipping point of how much stuff we can put around ourselves.

That’s a good point. We’ve hit a critical mass of technology and we’re overwhelmed.

JM: Yes.

In your book, you write that “By the publication date of this book a novel network digital photo playback product co-developed by Samsung will serve as an important commercial data point.” Has that, in fact, been realized?

JM: Yes, it’s been released by Samsung in Korea, and now it’s available in Europe. It’s a very simple photo managing device that you just plug in and forget. But I find that the greatest challenge to simplicity lies not with the manufacturers of these things, but with the intricate, protected alliances. The telecommunication people want to own everything in your house. The home electronics people want to own everything in your house, but they can’t without the telcos involved.

You have these artificial organizations holding back simpler systems in our lives.

Because everyone wants to do everything, they’re trying to make one thing that does it all, when in fact that can’t really happen.

JM: It can happen technically, but it can’t happen business-wise because everyone wants to own everyone else. Microsoft wants a piece of everyone. Telcos want a piece of everyone. So it’s a very artificial challenge.

What do you call yourself? Are you a technologist? An artist?

JM: Oh, I don’t know. I really don’t call myself anything. I’m someone who experiments. In some cases I make art. In some cases I make technology. I write software, I build hardware. In some cases I advise companies as a consultant. I’ve been trying to enjoy just being here.

You recently got an MBA, which seems like an odd choice. What drove you to do that?

JM: I discovered that I couldn’t read newspapers. There would be all this terminology that I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand public companies, or even private companies. I saw the design world becoming much more business-ridden. I heard about Tom Peters. I thought, “What is this stuff?” It’s very inspirational, but I want to understand more about the theory behind it.

It was extremely useful to go through the experience. I recommend it to anyone who’s curious about how to read newspapers or how to talk about the machinations of the world we live in today. If you look at the mid-nineteen hundreds on, leadership was forged out of things like World War II, which was a very traumatic experience that I didn’t personally experience. But it shaped people’s view of why it’s important to be a human.

Think of the nuclear bomb and how that changed scientists. The Media Lab, where I work, was founded by a man named Jerome Wiesner, along with a man named Nicholas Negroponte. Wiesner is very important because as a young physicist he worked on the Manhattan Project. Imagine these young scientists given all the money they wanted by the government. They were giddy, excited to do this thing. And then they did it. To live with the results was an incredible burden.

Wiesner spent the rest of his life atoning for that moment by focusing purely on peace and the arts. Not technology, because he felt that technology, if left alone, will serve itself. More and more, I find this kind of leadership is vanishing from the top. People who felt this way became business-ified, sort of structurally perfect for making money, for good and for bad. That’s the norm.

So the reason I completed an MBA was to understand what people are saying to me. It helped me understand that. Now, how do we work together to do what we are supposed to do, which is to make the world better?

In a way, you’re setting yourself up to lead some sort of movement. You’re intentionally throwing yourself into the middle of the worlds mentioned in your subtitle: design, technology, business, life.

JM: Life is the whole family question to me.

That’s a noble goal.

JM: It’s been shaped by a lot of people who mentored me. I hate to go on about Tom Peters, but he’s like a superhero. People look up to him. He sees far out. People want to go where he’s going. That’s something very noble, I think. I don’t think I could ever be that way.

Although Tom says that no one should bother getting an MBA. [Laughter]

JM: Oh yes, I read that, too.

Yet he has a couple.

JM: Most people would tell you not to get an MBA, and they’re probably right. But that’s like saying, “Don’t get a law degree.” Recently I’ve wanted to get a law degree, because in the same way business is so important, law, as a foundation of our society, is also pervasive now. So I’m thinking of taking that one on next year.

Really? You don’t sleep much, do you? [Laughter]

JM: Not right now. I have a very understanding wife. Understanding? What does that word mean? Forgiving? [Laughter]

Your book’s dedication is to your wife Kris, “I promise to love you more, and never less.” I assume that follows one of the laws of simplicity.

JM: You bet! Law #11: Love your spouse. [Laughter][Note: there are 10 laws listed in the book] Or else…

I think that’s another noble pursuit, to love more, never less. That’s heavy.

JM: I have the good fortune of knowing one of the greatest designers in the U.S., named Paul Rand. He designed the IBM and UPS logos. When I went into his house one time, I was just so struck by how much he and his wife were always hugging each other in the studio. They would hold hands while they were in the car. He was 82. That’s a pretty cool goal in life to have.

Absolutely. What a great thing to strive for in a relationship. Paul Rand may fit your definition of “master.” The word “master” shows up a lot in this book, starting with the blurb on the cover which says “Maeda is the Master of Simplicity.”

JM: That was Andrea [Ragnetti]. He was too kind.

You refer to Jessie Scanlon as your writing master. You discuss the ways of a sushi master. Masters seem to have a great significance to you.

JM: I think I grew up in a very respectful society.

You’re Japanese American.

JM: Yes. I was taught to respect my elders, to believe in the mastery of something: mastery in cooking, or mastery in carpentry. I think in Japan it’s a very normal idea that the average person who makes things well is noble in some intangible way. I was in Tokyo recently, and a sushi master was teaching me all his secrets. He would use ice to cool his fish because it was a perfect refrigerator. The temperature never spikes with ice as it would in a refrigerator.

This is a good business tie-in. He has a five-seat restaurant. All his sushi-making peers went to a business consultant’s seminar 10 years ago. The business consultant told them that they wouldn’t survive if they just made sushi. They had to diversify. They had to sell crab croquettes; be what you would call a full service food establishment.

He told me how ticked off he was at this consultant. Ten years later the consultant came back and the sushi guy was yelling at him and saying, “You know, almost all my friends listened to you and now they’re all gone. The thing they were good at making they became mediocre at.” And he exists by making his sushi the best. That’s all he does. He just makes sushi.

It’s beautiful. It almost seems anachronistic in a way. But that’s what I refer to as mastery, something that you wouldn’t learn in business school.

I made some pottery when I was in college. Any time you get involved with clay, you learn a lot about Japanese traditions. These people spend their lives trying to create the perfect pot.

JM: And when it breaks they aren’t upset. It’s another direction. There’s something beautiful about that. Somehow I wanted to instill that in this book. I talk a lot about the ideas of animism and spirits. If we were more in touch with our world, we could feel them, or at least believe.

Yes, I’m bewildered by the loss of contact with nature these days. Switching subjects, you write a lot about the iPod. Why?

JM: I like the iPod because it was one of the first examples of the perfect storm. Good design sense, good business 2.0 sense in that it was a business model not based upon the actual device, but the intangible. It wasn’t just about the iPod, but iTunes, the new network-based model for selling music. It’s technology at its best: reduced cost, a new kind of paradigm, a brand new kind of object. I think it was exciting.

It’s also because I’m a Steve Jobs fan. I think when Bruce Nussbaum asked me about why Jonathan Ive is so successful as a designer, I told him it had nothing to do with Jonathan. Jonathan is a genius, of course, but I just think that Steve Jobs is a real power. Every company can design a great product, but it often can’t execute it.

Tom Peters often talks about Jobs. He was out there in Silicon Valley back in those times. What really stuck out for Tom was the diversity of folks that Steve brought in to work on various projects. I’m wondering if that was true. He talks about poets and composers and all kinds of people from many different walks of life.

JM: It’s like a secret sauce. You know ramen, the Japanese noodle? There are all these television shows in Japan about the secret soup, because it’s all about the soup with ramen. They’ll have cracked bones, pig bones, onions, and there are secret things in there. Maybe Steve Jobs knows how to make a really good soup.

Charismatics attract a wide range of folks. You mention that this is the first in what’s going to be a series of three books.

JM: Yes, I hope so.

What are the two follow-ons?

JM: Jessie [Scanlon] is going to work on A Value of Simplicity. We’re also going to have one book about puzzles; simplicity and puzzles.

What kind of puzzles?

JM: Any kind of puzzle. The idea behind games and puzzles is what we’re looking at. What makes it all tick?

What’s that kind of puzzle, Sudoku? I was flying to Florida for the weekend and on four different flights I looked through the airline magazine. Every Sudoku puzzle had been completed. The crossword puzzles would be maybe half done. But some people are mad for this Sudoku thing.

JM: Oh my gosh, they would kill you for a good puzzle.

I don’t get it.

JM: Me neither.

John, thank you. This has been fun. I think the book is great and we wish you well.

JM: Thanks.

MIT website: Simplicity Consortium
Studio website:
Book website:
Maeda’s blog: SIMPLICITY
Email: maeda (at) –