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
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT