Artefact Interview - John Maeda

I'm utterly thrilled to kick off our next series of Artefact Interviews with John Maeda

John is a Design Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and previously served as the 16th President of the Rhode Island School of Design from 2008 to 2013. He was Professor and Associate Director of Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Laboratory from 1996 to 2008, and a researcher and software engineer at the International Media Research Foundation from 1990 to 1996. He serves on the Board of Directors of Sonos, Inc. and Wieden+Kennedy, and he chairs the eBay Design Advisory Council. Dr. Maeda received a B.S. and an M.S. from MIT, an M.B.A. from Arizona State University, and a Ph.D. in Design Science from the University of Tsukuba Institute of Arts and Design in Japan. 


Hi John. In preparation this interview, I reread your 2006 book The Laws Of Simplicity. Is "achieving simplicity in the digital age" still a personal mission for you?

As with all things in life, it’s changed. At the time I wrote LOS, it was just at the moment when digital technology was outpacing our needs for what it can do. Yahoo! had fallen behind Google, but Google hadn’t completely won yet. The Apple iPod had just begun to take off, but the iPhone hadn’t arrived yet. And as one reader pointed out to me recently, I refer to using DVDs to watch movies – which is becoming an increasingly irrelevant reference. So with all the changes that have happened, my personal mission has changed. Quite frankly, I’m trying to figure out what that mission is right now, but what I’m certain of is that it isn’t just about simplicity.

So you've been off exploring in different directions?

Yes. I wrote a subsequent book to LOS entitled Redesigning Leadership. In 2008 after becoming a college president, I started to wonder about how large organizations are managed and led. LOS assumed the frame of the designer/maker who is able to control most or all aspects of his or her creative practice. A leader doesn’t design a product, but instead designs (and re-designs) a community – which is never a simple task. So I guess I now prefer complexity (= people).

As I went through the first three laws (Reduce, Organize, Time), I realised that these arguably form the basis of what I think makes Artefact Cards work. Perhaps this what drew you to the Artefact Cards, subconsciously or otherwise?

Starting a few years ago, I was already using cards because I felt that post-it notes were too constraining. I would buy packs of playing cards and stick post-it notes on their faces to draw on them. They were naturally pleasurable to shuffle, and I could use them to Organize content quickly. I was happy to find Artefact Cards as they were what I was really looking for.

Can you recall what train of thought took you there?

It was primarily because I needed to slide information around a table easier, and post-it notes didn’t do the job. Also, a post-it note is flimsy and over time becomes unusable due to wear.

My interest was specifically piqued by the SLIP method you describe (Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritise).  Working hard at organising ideas properly once they're out is more than half the battle; paying attention to the way elements relate to others around then.  The SLIP method demands you work at things once they're out.  Do you still use it?

Yes, all the time. And now I can do it with Artefact Cards!

You highlight the importance of that which may be lost in the design process; the peripheral stuff that falls by the wayside at an early stage, and doesn't return. By having everything out on the table, your eye can be caught by something at the other side, you get that 'aha' moment as you connect two things together. I don't feel digital does peripheral vision very well, not yet at any rate.  Have you seen anything in the digital space that tries to address this?

I like that thought – that working with all the Artefact Cards at once allows for the periphery sense to be engaged. In my opinion, on-screen experiences can’t do this because the screen size is bounded. There’s always an edge to your peripheral vision. Yes, I know you can use scroll bars and zoomable spaces, etc. But there’s nothing like having a card slip off the edge of a table to remind you that there’s an entire floor to work on too, in addition to the table (smile).

Finally, it's 2014, and we still use a lot of paper, pens, sticky notes, Artefact Cards... can you see a time when other technologies replace these things.

I think that as long as we have a head attached to our bodies, we’ll always be able to use physical space – and want to live in it. Paper, pens, sticky notes are all artifacts of life. Or maybe they are all important artefacts, to use your word.


A million thanks to John for his time and thoughts. You can follow him here on twitter, and his Creative Leadership blog is currently one of my top reads every week. Currently, John's rocking the Mixed Colour set of Artefact Cards for Desk:



Back to blog