Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How to design a better world

By John Maeda, Special to CNN
December 16, 2012 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Maeda: Something designed superbly looks and feels different
  • Much of the time, we tend not to notice good design, he says
  • Designers can make things simpler and richer at same time, Maeda says
  • Maeda: Design can redefine leadership in age when everyone can friend the CEO

Editor's note: John Maeda is an artist, graphic designer, computer scientist and president of Rhode Island School of Design. He spoke at the TEDGlobal conference in June in Edinburgh. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- When I was young, my teachers praised me for being good at math and art, but my father would always tell people, "You know, John is good at math." At the time I felt I had to choose between the two -- and with my parents' influence winning over my own, I went to MIT.

After many years there, I learned about computers on many levels. In doing so, I saw technology succeeding each year in making everything cheaper, faster, and smaller -- but failing to create any emotional connection or to bring any meaning to our lives.

Design has picked up significant momentum with the success of design-led companies like Apple and Airbnb, but the exact meaning of design and how it is applied is often something of a mystery.

John Maeda
John Maeda

Educated as a computer scientist, my bias is to believe in what can be quantified, and so I understand how confusing "getting" design can be.

Qualitatively speaking, however, something designed superbly tends to look and feel better than something designed poorly. Or, said another way: Something designed superbly tends to look and feel "different" than something designed poorly. It is whether the difference "works" or not that determines good design versus bad design.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



We encounter design, good and bad, with everything we see, touch, and use. It's invisible to most people because it's everywhere -- much like the proverbial fish that doesn't know where to find water.

TED.com: John Maeda on his journey in design

One simple way to become aware of graphic design is to try not to ignore the font, or typeface, being used -- which does a lot more than just make a word readable. A slight change in line weight can make the word "heavy" seem "heavier." Formal appears more formal when set in italics. And "far" does appear a bit far....................away when a little distance gets added into the visual equation. Design is a way of adding enough visual, tactile, spatial, audio, textural or temporal inflection so as to make the ordinary feel different -- with the goal of making that difference a meaningful one.

Human to Hero: Wang Shu
Designing the James Bond universe
Hearing aid design breaks the mold

In the early 1990s, my work focused on combining the rigid vocabulary of computer programming with the playful possibilities of art and design. I created a series of interactive works in the C computer language called "reactive graphics."

TED.com: David Kelley on human-centered design

My intent was to show that the computer could be more than a cold, clinical object; it could do things that delighted us. Though that work is now credited with helping to launch the interactive graphics movement on the Web, at the time it was marginalized by traditional print designers. Yet I believe that taking principles from one domain and applying them to a new context -- in this case mixing traditional visual aesthetics with advanced computation and algorithms -- is where the practice of design tends to make its biggest marks.

Today, the relevance of design is expanding far beyond visual aesthetics -- to everything from tackling global issues such as climate change, to making sense of the overwhelming amount of data that surrounds us. Designers have the unique ability to make information, products and experiences both simpler and richer all at once.

TED.com: Designing objects that tell stories

Recently I have been thinking that, just as design and technology combined to make the rich creative space that is digital media today, design and technology together will now begin to help leaders navigate their competing priorities, solve complex problems, and nurture fragmented relationships.

As organizations shift from neatly ordered hierarchies to chaotic, flattened "heterarchies," where anyone can "friend the CEO," a new generation of tools will be invented that will allow design and technology to enable leaders to make true connections among people and inspire change.

Just as design enabled us to have an emotional connection with a piece of glass and aluminum that lives in our pocket, design and technology together will restore some of the humanity in what it means to lead in the 21st century.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Maeda.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT