When I was young, my teachers praised me for being good at math and art, but my father told people: “John is good at math.” I felt I had to choose between the two. My parents’ influence won and I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Each year I was there, I saw technology succeeding at making everything cheaper, faster, and smaller, but failing to make things more emotionally rich. Only art and design could transform our experience and inspire true innovation, I came to see. This belief ultimately propelled me into leading the Rhode Island School of Design, the pre-eminent school of art and design in the U.S.
The Obama Administration recognizes that education is the key to America’s future competitiveness, and has placed priority on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—the “STEM” subjects—to get us there. In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama committed to “reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math—the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.”
Yet employers realize that it’s not only hard to find good developers; good designers are big difference makers as well.
Indeed, we know the challenges that the next generation faces will demand creative solutions. As a STEM student myself, I know first-hand that we will need advances in science and technology to solve our problems. But these subjects alone will not be enough.
If we want to make the next generation of “artrepreneurs,” we need to add A for the Arts to turn STEM to STEAM. From Kickstarter to Path to Pinterest to Airbnb (founded by two Rhode Island School of Design graduates), the road to successful startup-dom is increasingly being paved by founders with art and design backgrounds.
Design helps make sense of information overload, intelligently narrows our choices, and makes us feel in control and taken care of. Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, defines the designer’s mindset in one word: empathy. By focusing on how a customer will feel when using a product, designers are able to make products that not only work, but that people want to use.
Art and design go beyond sleek, homogeneous objects and experiences. We are looking for ways to reconnect with our values, to ground how we choose to live in the world. We want things authentic to ourselves and to the place in which we live. We want the products and services we buy and use to be made responsibly, presented honestly, and to come from the mind of a human being, not an algorithm.
When artists make things, they undertake a deep probing of purpose and meaning. The questions they ask are often enigmatic, but through iteration reveal the way forward.
My experience at Rhode Island School of Design has reawakened me to the world of physical creation: it is the ultimate culture of makers. Here, there is no greater integrity, and no greater goal achieved, than an idea articulately expressed through something made with your hands. We call this constant dialogue among eye, mind, and hand “critical making.” It is an education in getting your hands dirty, in understanding why you made what you made and owning the impact of it in the world. It is what artists and designers do.
Occasionally, as in the case of Apple, Pixar, or Harley-Davidson, we witness an artist asking questions that have a profound effect on the marketplace and on the way we live, play, or drive.
Apple’s influence was never solely rooted in the spare and minimal lines of the latest industrial design effort. It has been in the way the company has approached software design with the same “less is more” philosophy. Look at the success of its App store and at the incredible selection of utilities, games, and other assorted digital sundries. You can see the personalities of the people who produced the content shine through¾what could be mere assemblages of bits and bytes become human magic.
How can we create more of these successes? A life spent traversing the fields of technology, art, and design has led me to conclude that there is great power in these fields. Some of the most powerful new products on the market come from a combination of design and technology. The Nike FuelBand, in helping to define an entirely new category, strikes the perfect balance between familiarity and novelty. Technologists can make products that exhibit superior technology. But well-designed products like the FuelBand show that today’s best products make the technology disappear.
Creativity and ingenuity have always been central to the American story of progress, as has our history of making things. I believe we don’t need to “save the arts,” but that we will instead “save the world with the arts.” Artists and designers, in partnership with technologists, are the ones who can ask the deep questions, bring humanity to the problems, make us care, and create products and services that resonate with our values. That’s what will propel us forward.
John Maeda is a leader who imagines how design can simplify technology and help leaders respond to new challenges in the era of social media. In June 2008, John became president of the Rhode Island School of Design, and in late 2012, Business Insider named RISD the No. 1 design school in the world. He will speak about STEAM education at the Techonomy 2013 conference, Nov. 11-13. Follow conversations about the event @Techonomy and #Techonomy13.