Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How to design a better world

By John Maeda, Special to CNN
updated 9:14 AM EST, Sun December 16, 2012
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
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT