AMA: I'm John Maeda, Design Partner @ Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) in Silicon Valley

almost 9 years ago from , Partner

I've been reading Julie Zhou's AMA and Frank Chimero's AMA to understand how to make this best work for all of you. Frank pointed folks to his website, and Julie shared her favorite food. Let me try that.

I have a few websites "under construction" that I've always wanted to spend more time on, like http://whatisdesign.net and http://creativeleadership.com ... and as favorite food, I would have to say warm food. That's in contrast with cold sandwiches and even worse, cooled soggy sandwiches.

Okay, that's my introduction. I'll be here for the next 30 minutes — I look forward to learning from the Designer News-ers of the world!


  • Matt AchariamMatt Achariam, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    Hello John, it’s great to have you with us today. Most of us have heard you speak with candor and insight into the field of design. I’d like to start this AMA with a few pertinent questions.

    1. You’ve been a big proponent of encouraging designers to take on more challenging leadership roles. How did you arrive at this notion and why do you feel it is more important now?
    2. Your career arc has seen you touch almost every facet of design. What were your biggest stumbling blocks and where do you think needs the most work?
    5 points
    • John Maeda, almost 9 years ago

      Thanks for these good starter questions, Matt.

      In answer to your first question:

      Designers (and engineers) tend to be makers. And especially as individual contributor makers, you tend to live inside your "mental palace" (a term used in the BBC's excellent Sherlock Holmes show). I lived a life as a software engineer, and as a graphic designer. I never had to lead a team for most of my early life. I loved making, and didn't really have to do any talking. While my work was picking up steam in Japan, I had this producer. Mr. Naomi Enami. He would do all the talking for me. And I would do the making.

      One day there was this conference that I was presenting at -- and Mr. Enami suggested that I go to the after-party and talk to people. I said, "no" -- I just want to go back to my room and make things. He looked at me a bit sternly, and said in Japanese, "Mr. Maeda. Making relationships is just as important as making software or making design." I of course didn't listen to him, and just stayed in my room and went back to coding things. A few weeks after that happening, Mr. Enami went into a coma. It was at that point I realized that nobody would talk for me. And that I'd have to talk for myself. It was in the early 90s. I made a choice to become a talker (versus just a maker). And I've endeavored to make as often as I can along the way.

      Regarding your second question:

      By no means have I touched all facets of design. By coming to Silicon Valley I've been humbled by the enormous expertise in this region for designing interactive experiences at the scale of millions of users. If anything I believe that my biggest stumbling block was not living in this region before saying anything about design and technology. The technologies being managed and developed in Silicon Valley are a few orders of magnitude more complex than I had ever imagined. And the designers and engineers and product people I see here are pushing the envelope of what is really, really hard to imagine and make into a reality. So I guess you could say I'm trying to address my biggest stumbling block by living my professional life here right now.

      16 points
  • w sw s, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    What would be your advice to ambitious 20 year olds? And, do you think college is necessary for aspiring product designers?

    4 points
    • John Maeda, almost 9 years ago

      Thanks for your question, William.

      First of all, part of being younger is to have unusual ambition and optimism. So try not to lose this. And never lose your sense of wonder, and your sense of kindness for people around you.

      Regarding the importance of college, I think that it was the default path for most of us. I'm the product of the American public education system and the private and public higher-education system. I've earned a few degrees. When I went to MIT, my parents sacrificed a lot to send me there -- I believe that tuition plus room and board was $18K. That was a lot of money back then. When I fast forward to what a top college costs right now -- which is around 60K; and when I look into the future where in just ten years we will see top colleges passing the 6-figure mark per year, that's a big challenge.

      Back to your question, in 2014 I see college as still a worthwhile investment. In the case of product design for the way that product design was practiced in the past -- I think that there's no better place to learn that craft than in colleges and universities. For knowing how it is practiced today in the information age, the best places to learn are in the large corporations out there like the Googles and Facebooks.

      There was a time pre-2000 that colleges and universities had more computers than industry. It was a golden age. I remember it well -- we had way more computers than any company out there on campus at MIT. Then in 2001-sh, I noticed that freshmen were bringing better computers and displays than we had in the labs; and industry had way better computers than we did too. We live in an age when computing is changing what we get to do and at what scale -- so if your interests are doing product design in the digital domain, you can learn the most in industry. I recommend a combination of college and great summer internships. And if you don't want to get a summer internship at a large company, check out the KPCB Design Fellows program (just google it as I don't know how to embed links here ...).

      7 points
  • Andrew LeeAndrew Lee, almost 9 years ago

    Hey John, big fan here.

    Might be late with this but, ah well..

    I have noticed that the internet isn't quite following in the footsteps that media before it has. With movable type and moving pictures, eventually we got long form storytelling that invested the 'user' into characters and roller coasters of emotions.

    The internet seems to be lacking in emotional connective quality, with people X'ing out of sites within ~30-60 seconds. Do you think there is a chance that one day websites will better connect with their users emotionally? And what do you believe is the first step in that?


    3 points
  • w sw s, almost 9 years ago

    Thanks for doing this John. I wanted to ask you The Peter Thiel Question:

    Can you tell us something that's true, that almost nobody agrees with you on.

    3 points
  • Taurean BryantTaurean Bryant, almost 9 years ago

    What advice would you give for designers who are intending on founding their own company but their expertise doesn't really leave the realm of design itself? Are there any books you would suggest would be useful?

    (as a side note, even though you follow quite a bit of people on twitter it made my day that I got added to that list)

    1 point
    • John Maeda, almost 9 years ago

      Hello Taurean, this is my last question. Apologies to many of you who have written questions below.

      I suggest you read three books by John W Gardner: "On Leadership," "Self-Renewal," and "Excellence" -- which I know all sound like suuuuuuper boring titles. But they are truly thoughtful books. They hit me the same way that Paul Rand's books hit me. They are about the world of people; and the way that people work with each other, and don't. They touch upon an era decades ago, which surprisingly fits everything that fits our current century and decade. I guess what you find out in the end, that surprised myself, is that we aren't that different from how we used to be. Yes we are mobile-d up and all that good stuff, but we still are the same human beings. We hurt the same way. We love the same way. We are inspired the same way. We do this all through interactions with others. And making a company is about leading people to get on board with your vision; and for you as a leader to lead their vision too. So I suggest you check out Gardner's work. It didn't make sense to me the first few times I touched upon it, but at certain critical times, everything he wrote made absolute sense to me. And I treasure those learnings he left for all of us.

      Thanks to LayerVault for hosting me here! JM

      3 points
  • Ryan LeFevreRyan LeFevre, almost 9 years ago

    Hi John, thanks for stopping by DN!

    I highly respect the work you did during your time at RISD. I went to a technical/engineering college (WPI) where STEM was the core focus of the school, but I always felt that art and design was just as important (I wrote a blog post about the intersection of engineering and design last year).

    My question for you is:

    Just looking at the web, it's easy to see how much the importance of design has exploded over the last decade. Specialized tools and services for designers are popping up left and right. Websites have transformed from simple information portals to beautiful, and sometimes clever, pieces of art. Where do you think all of this is headed? What's the next logical step?

    1 point
    • John Maeda, almost 9 years ago

      Hello Ryan, Thanks for your Q on tools. I've been thinking a little bit about this topic since I started using Sketch3 instead of Photoshop like I was more normally used to doing. Koen Bok's Framer.js is a great example of pushing the envelope of tools that blend code and images; as well as Casey Reas and Ben Fry's Processing project that keeps on getting better and better.

      Regarding the world of art and digital information, this is a tough subject -- I suggest you look at what MoMA's Paola Antonelli's been doing in the design domain -- she led the acquisition of video games a few years back, and more recently acquired hardware like Arduino into the permanent collection. That's landmark work for digital folks -- it's transformational for anyone who's believed that making things digitally is a cultural act, as well as a technical act.

      Museums are critical to the ecosystem of art -- so I would look to what MoMA and Ms Antonelli are doing; in addition take a look at what Julia Kaganskiy is leading at the New Museum on the Bowery in NY -- it's called NEWINC. I've never seen anything like it.

      Good luck!

      3 points
  • Matt ScorteMatt Scorte, almost 9 years ago

    Hello John! Thanks for being hear. I too have a college/ education question.

    My current college is not challenging me as much as I would like. I only have a year left and transferring would push back my graduation date and would put me in more student debt.

    As someone who was president of one of the best design schools in the nation, how important would you say the school you graduate from is? Also, how important is a masters degree in a field like design or even development? Would real world experience, portfolio, and self initiated learning be more important?

    1 point
    • John Maeda, almost 9 years ago

      Good question, Matt. And I have 5 minutes left before I have to leave. This might be my last question.

      Sorry to hear that about your student debt. I agree with how you look at your matter financially right now -- finishing your degree with one year left is a good idea, and the least expensive route is a good way to calculate your path forward. Don't forget that life is a long game. A really long game. So you can always learn later.

      Regarding going to graduate school, if you are going into the digital space it does not make sense for you to go undergrad and directly into grad. It's better if you spend few years in industry. Develop a sense of yourself outside of college/university. Find yourself as the person that college/university made, and who industry has made into a reality. At that point, choose what program you want to enter. You'll know exactly what you want to do because you've lived life a bit. It's the best return on investment in my mind. And to your point, it may not have to be a master's degree somewhere. There's lots of amazing options out there for learning. Keep an open mind. And count on living a long life. We'll be learning all our lives now.

      I spend most of my time trying to keep up with the world -- trying to learn what I can. And to take courses from time to time. We can always learn to become better. That's what my life has taught me thus far. And our options for learning are more diverse than ever before today.

      Good luck, Matt!

      3 points
  • Jeff MartinJeff Martin, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    Hi John! Thanks for doing this :D

    Saw your TED talk a while back and ever since then I've been inspired by the work you've led and experimented in. I guess my question for you is something I'm started to gain interest in:

    With everything going digital, where do you think print design is heading? One of the things that made print design complex was the limits of paper (size, ink, etc.) but digital more or less transcends that. Is print just slowly making a transition to "web design" (dealing with "responsive" paper, etc.)?

    1 point
    • John Maeda, almost 9 years ago

      Hello JeffM -- sorry I can't stay longer than 15 more minutes.

      Print design is making a comeback because anything that is hard to do tends to become more valuable. The more scarce something is, the more we tend to want to do it. We humans are funny that way. It used to be that digital design tools were scarce (i.e. the age when there were only a few computers for tens of students); and there were all the tools for designing on paper everywhere. Now it's the reverse. It's hard to get access to a printing press. Facebook has this great "Analog Lab" led by the great efforts of folks like Maria Giudice and Margaret Stewart there — they have a full printing press facility for designers to work in print. The old-fashioned way.

      The thing that I try to keep remembering is that print design is linked to what Paul Rand would say about design -- that it goes back to the caves of Lascaux. It's a primal act -- drawing what we see in our head onto walls. Or in the sand. Or onto any surface, like paper. It's basically the primal desire to express ourselves, and to learn from our expressions.

      So in summary, print vs digital doesn't matter as much as the WHY of our desire to express. Everything else is just a means. Pixar animates people; not abstract clouds of information that we could never understand. The human dimension matters, in all media. And for all time.

      Thanks and best of luck!

      2 points
  • Kelly SuttonKelly Sutton, almost 9 years ago

    Hi John,

    Thanks for joining us today. Since joining KPCB as a design partner and getting into the world of venture capital, what is one non-obvious thing that you’ve learned?

    1 point
    • John Maeda, almost 9 years ago

      Thanks for inviting me to do this, Kelly! There is not a single non-obvious thing that I've learned. Thus I've started my less-than 2014 character monthly "Design and VC" newsletter. When I run out of things to write each month, that is a strong indicator that I've stopped learning non-obvious things (at least non-obvious to me). The younger generation gets so much more than I get; so I think of myself as learning from them right now. And as much as I can.

      0 points
  • Daniel SchutzsmithDaniel Schutzsmith, almost 9 years ago

    Come a long way from Behavior sir. Kudos!

    0 points
  • Michael LeeMichael Lee, almost 9 years ago

    Looks like I'm a little late to this AMA, but thank you for all the insightful answers John!

    0 points
  • Mike AndersonMike Anderson, almost 9 years ago

    What will creative agencies of the future (5-15 years out) look like?

    0 points
  • Norman TranNorman Tran, almost 9 years ago

    Hi John,

    As a designer just starting out in the field (5 months in), I've been thinking a lot about how to deliver value to potential mentors instead of simply asking for advice.

    In your experience, what qualities in a designer makes you want to mentor them (I. E do they reach out in unconventional ways) ? And what are some things your mentees have done for you to make your time well spent (a mutual exchange of value) ?

    Thank you so much for your time - really appreciate it!

    0 points
  • Giles Van GruisenGiles Van Gruisen, almost 9 years ago

    Hey John! Thanks for doing this. I recently attended your talk at MIT and I was impressed by your candor and entertaining presence.

    Much of your focus in recent years seems to be at the intersection of leadership and design, and before that, engineering and design. I have two questions, one for each of these aforementioned intersections.

    1) How can designers, particularly in small/medium sized startups, encourage leadership to put a heavier focus on design? Especially when that design team comprises only one or two people.

    2) What are some problems you see when it comes to designers and engineers working together and what are your thoughts on the increasing number of people trying to blur the lines between designer and engineer (one person doing some combination of work in both fields)?

    0 points
  • Bowen LiBowen Li, almost 9 years ago

    Hi John,

    I think your "math and art" story is a common one, particularly in Asian-American families. As you continue to talk about STEAM and the importance of design, do you have any thoughts on how to spread that message to the Asian-American community?

    0 points
  • Pedro CarmoPedro Carmo, almost 9 years ago

    Hello John,

    You've once said in your email newsletter, ”designers are conditioned to start/join client-service practices — they are generally trained to solve clients’ problems and not their own“. I love this thought but feel like there's more to unpack in there. Can you expand on this? Particularly, in how/why we are conditioned this way, and how we can go about solving it.

    0 points
    • John Maeda, almost 9 years ago

      Hello Pedro; I don't know if it's conditioning. I think it's habit and custom for how the world has evolved around creatives.

      I remember someone saying to me when I was in my twenties how I was "a sparkler" versus "a hammer." I didn't know what she meant -- until she said, "A sparkler has all kinds of new ideas; a hammer just hits the nail in consistently."

      So once I heard this, I spent the latter part of my life learning how to become "a hammer." Thus I got an MBA to learn about things I'd never bothered to learn in engineering or art school; and began to take on leadership roles to enter my zone of discomfort as opportunities to learn. I feel that creative people are comfortable with discomfort. So I'd suggest that you head into what is uncomfortable for yourself -- take on a leadership role. Find what is great about it. See how you can make a different kind of difference. Find creativity in it. And then iterate and refine from there.

      Good luck, Pedro!

      5 points