'Artists And Makers, It's Time To Be Leaders'

This post by John Maeda first appeared in WIRED, 3/6/14

Twenty years ago, when I was a young coder/designer, my life boiled down to this haiku:

“All I want to be / is someone that makes new things / and thinks about them.”

At the time I felt really alienated by coders, who didn’t “get” design, and by designers, who didn’t “get” code. So I decided to focus on making things across both domains for the sake of doing so, without trying to intellectualize what I did or trying to fit in.

I’ve lived at both ends of the spectrum — the “pure” world of technology at MIT supervising a variety of research projects and the “pure” world of art and design at an art school in Japan, and as the president of Rhode Island School of Design. I’ve felt strongly about serving as a “bridge” to find, cultivate and empower younger people to cross the boundaries of art and technology — and to support them when they feel the discomfort of not quite feeling at home in any predefined box.

So I felt a bit like an alien, and a lot like I was coming home, at the recent Brooklyn Beta conference. There I was surrounded by people who were — uncontroversially — blurring technology and art, and coding and design, in a way that nobody questioned or discouraged. I met Elle, who started as a designer and now does Rails dev. And Charles, a former engineer who now leads design at a well known startup. And the cofounders and crew of Brooklyn Beta themselves perfectly epitomize the blurring of expertise that makes up this generation — one where it is difficult to be a successful designer without knowing how to code. At last, the interdisciplinarian life is beginning to be applauded.

The act of making — whether it is with physical materials or with code — feels good because the result appears before your eyes. Your hands did it. The materials obeyed your wishes. You expressed yourself, in your own voice and without any intermediary. I’ve learned from my transition as president of an institution that leading people is different. Everything takes at least twice as long as you expect, if you’re lucky. Iteration feels disruptive. Creativity can be construed as flakiness.

Designers and coders are finally accepting each other into their once-divergent tribes. Now it’s their time, and turn, to lead.

So it’s no surprise to me that makers of all kinds — whether they are making with their hands or with code — are often loth to enter spheres of leadership. It was a theme that pervaded many of my conversations with Brooklyn Beta folks who were graduating from being a maker of software libraries and/or user experiences to the making of organisations, cultures and institutions.

I am often asked with a pained look, “Do you still make your… art?” — as if somehow what I do today as a leader… isn’t what I really want to do. What underlies that question is the stereotype that “Artists make art. Artists don’t lead organisations.” That stereotype literally resounds, in stereo, inside my head and motivates me in my work as a leader. I find the work extremely exciting and provocative.

I believe that the design and administration of organizations — corporate, government, nonprofit — is ripe for the human-centric and systems-based innovation that an artist, designer or engineer’s mind could bring. I wonder how the mindset of a maker can unlock the energy within how we as a society operate — a topic I touched on with my talk at TEDGlobal last year and in my book Redesigning Leadership.

From Ben Terrett’s marriage of code and design to serve citizens on GOV.UK, to new frameworks such as “holacracy” that help leaders make sense of competing relationships and priorities, to leveraging the power of design to make sense of big data and create more responsive organizations, emergent examples abound at the intersection of design, data and leadership.

Designers and coders are finally accepting each other into their once-divergent tribes. Now it’s their time, and turn, to lead.