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John Maeda & The Art of Leadership

By Reena Jana

Late afternoon sessions were over on the first day of TEDGlobal, and John Maeda, president of theRhode Island School of Design, was walking against the flow of the large and noisy crowd gathered at the Edinburgh International Conference Center. Maeda and his frequent writing collaborator, a Stanford MBA and RISD executive named Becky Bermont, were looking for a quiet place to talk. They eventually found one in a windowless side hallway and invited me to join them.

It was a few days before Maeda was scheduled to give his TEDTalk, and he was already dressed for the part in his signature artist-meets-businessman look of black T-shirt under a well-tailored gray suit. “Art is a conduit toward human needs and perception,” Maeda began, previewing a key topic of his talk, focusing on the relationship between art and leadership. “Art is about asking questions, which is a good way of looking at how to solve a problem. I like to apply how artists think to look at how to improve design, technology…and now leadership.”

Maeda is the ideal person to speak about this topic as he is both an influential new media artist as well as the head of one of the world’s most prestigious art schools. He sees a strong connection between art and management, two disciplines that many regard as even less linked than the recent coming together of design and management. At least in “design thinking” and ethnography, one can argue, there’s a more practical, commercial context than in painting or performance.

So why introduce the enigmatic, poetic process of making art into management theory? “The leader’s comfortable position has eroded a bit,” he explains. “Before, leaders needed to have the ability to function in a hierarchy. But now, we need leaders who also understand that heterarchies are emerging,” Maeda said. “To be someone who understands both, you have to have some creativity. The way that artists think can be more valuable than traditional management approaches.”

I wondered if he could name any other artists, like himself, who are thriving in a business leadership role. He quickly mentioned RISD graduates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, co-founders of Airbnb, a digital-accommodations marketplace founded in a San Francisco living room in 2007 that is today valued at around $1 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Maeda predicts that future art-school grads “may not make art or objects, but instead make or remake organizations.” However, to comprehend the artistic process as a management strategy they may need an art education, not because art is a cloistered and mysterious endeavor but because notions of “creativity” at work have typically veered into cartoonish directions. Creativity needs to be relearned for maximum effectiveness as part of a firm’s innovation culture, says Maeda, who faced some criticism about his own management style when he first took over RISD in 2008 (he later wrote a widely praised book about what he had learned from the experience).

“In the business world, many people believe creativity is all about filling office spaces with red bean bag chairs, squishy balls, and colorful markers—kid stuff,” Maeda said. “People have the odd belief that creativity is a shortcut. That it’s easy. Creativity is an arduous process, one that forces you to be open and think imaginatively. That’s what many businesses want to do. And that’s what artists do.”

When Maeda took the TED stage a few days after our conversation, he began with a history of his own art-making and design experiments going back two decades. He shared a 1990s video of a performance piece in which people physically acted out how a computer processes data, as well as charming typographical animations from the late 1990s in which digital letters floated on the screen to form words, like ballet dancers. He showed how choosing a filigreed font could turn “FEAR” into the name of a fancy nightclub. Or how by adding space between the letters and adding a cloud and a dove, “fear” could be associated with a sense of freedom. There was a sense in his presentation that experimenting with new technologies in the context of art helped him better understand these technologies’ potential. In other words, the artist in Maeda allowed him to become more deeply engaged with the human possibilities of technology—which in turn can lead to commercial opportunities.

On the TED stage, he also displayed a series of slides with statements that became a mantra. “Tech makes possibilities, design makes solutions, art makes questions, leadership makes actions,” they read, summing up the relationship between these disciplines.

Maeda then showed two charts. One was a traditional, rigid-looking hierarchical organization with managers at the top and everyone else below in tiers. Another resembled wheels with managers and staff radiating outward, connected by spokes and arcs. The latter was not only more beautiful but, as he explained, more appropriate to the way we socialize in offices in 2012. That is, not in static, unmoving, and outdated rows of cubicles, but as dynamic, interacting parts in open-plan offices. More artwork than organizational chart, the graphic reflected the way an art-trained manager might organize teams—by analyzing and understanding systems of people and how they connect as human beings rather than by corporate titles or rank.

As I applauded Maeda along with the TED crowd, I had to think of Andy Warhol’s famous quote: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art… good business is the best art.” Decades apart, Maeda and Warhol reached a similar conclusion: When business is regarded as an artistic endeavor, it has the same potential as an art piece to challenge and impact every aspect of our lives. And to win and hold the public’s interest, just as any art form does, a business must be technically well-executed, as well as imaginative and engaging at the same time.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson, courtesy of TED

Reena Jana is executive editor at frog, and editor-in-chief of design mind.

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