John Maeda

Muriel Cooper Chair Professor of Media Arts and Sciences
Associate Professor of Design and Computation
Director of the Physical Language Workshop (PLW)
Former Director of the Aesthetics & Computation Group (ACG)

July 22, 2003

Currently an energetic team is producing the content infrastructure of the future. The fall will be exciting.


John Maeda


Is now.


Many people ask me what books they should read to get a basis for understanding how to get a solid basis in digital design. There are a few books I always recommend as starters: Computer Graphics for Java Programmers by Leen Ammeraal for its completeness, The C Programming Language (1st edition) by Kerninghan and Ritchie for its brevity, Passages in Modern Sculpture by Rosalind Krauss for its clarity, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age by Reyner Banham for its humor, Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford for its vision, Jim Blinn, A Trip Down the Graphics Pipeline for its deep understanding of computer graphics. If you wish to learn hardware I would also recommend that you get a Basic Stamp from Not because it's a great piece of hardware but because it is one of the few systems with a good old-fashioned, thick printed manual.


I had the unique opportunity of learning about academic administration while serving as the Associate Director of the Media Laboratory in 2000-01. I learned a whole lot about human nature and interhuman relations that I would never have realized otherwise. It depressed me, yet at the same time invigorated me with a new perspective on life. So I now often think about the role of people in power, and people that are not in power. I realize now that people that are not in power can be the most powerful force around.

I always wonder what makes a good community. I have some rough thoughts in this in this area [pdf].

Some notes on Sep 25, 2002 regarding a debate on what constitutes a master's thesis in design and technology at MIT [pdf].

A recent epiphany regarding what my role is as a Professor. Often times I am worried about destroying students by accident so my interaction has always been gauged. I believe this is a policy I can live by for now [pdf].

What is the point of academia? I wonder sometimes. I'm wondering why being a Professor in a research institution is valid, here are some of my random thoughts in this area [academia.pdf].


I have 2 normal books out. The first is Design By Numbers, from MIT Press and MAEDA@MEDIA from Rizzoli/Thames & Hudson. If you think they cost too much, they are available in used form quite inexpensive now so you might want to consider that option. A person in London once approached me and said, "If you think they are too expensive, why did you let the publisher make them so expensive?" I never thought of this. I'll think of this in the future.

Before I came to MIT, I started a series of books called Reactive Books. The books are small print pieces accompanied by software that corresponds to the topic. One is about sound, one is about time, one is about the keyboard, and one is about the mouse. There was a fifth books lated for publishing about video but that never made it out. One day I plan to put it on the web. The Reactive Books are no longer published and not available from the publisher either. The publisher was Naomi Enami. A truly amazing man, gifted with a vision and strength to do anything out of the ordinary. Mr. Enami became physically ill and no longer is able to fight the battles he once fought. He is one of my inspirations.

I have a variety of work archived online at my personal site M A E D A S T U D I O. There are some misconceptions that MAEDASTUDIO is a large company. It is not. It is the name I give for my desk at home. I work alone. I think of it sort of like being a painter that actually paints his own paintings (which is not so common as you might imagine).


I consider myself enormously fortunate to have had some amazing mentors and amazing students as well. I find that as I get older, my mentors all go on to the next life. As I get older, I find that my students improve in amazing ways. It is a mixture of the sad and happy. I become more aware of this constant balance on a daily basis. I wrote about one of my key mentors, Ikko Tanaka [once]. And I recall a happy encounter with the reason for how I got here -- [Paul Rand].

Education is an important endeavor to pursue. First of all, it means that you have to study for a lifetime (otherwise your students can easily get ahead of you). Secondly, it means that you get to cheat your own eventual obsolescence by being an active part of the pool of evolving knowledge of a school. Third and most important, it means that you can pay back the lifelong debt to some teacher or mentor out there that gave you the spirit of hope when you needed it most. To me, education is the highest form of intellectual philanthropy

Experimentation is also an important endeavor to pursue. You can be an experimental educator of course, but you should also be an avid experimentor in your own work. Experiments can take the form of something exotic, but they do not necessarily have to be of an outlandish nature. Often the most obvious experiment is the most difficult to perform. I believe that students have the luxury of doing daily experimentation. I try to make it clear how great a privilege students have. I regret that some do not understand until only after their time runs out. (A note on a dilemma that instructors often have [here].)

There are few great educators out there. If you can't find one, don't be surprised. And don't give up. Technology has caused a serious disruption in our academic system. Students usually know many times more than teachers when it comes to technology. This is not natural. But do not give up hope.

I pride myself on finding great students. They will soon be a part of the educational landscape. They already are. They are the future that you search for. Thankfully each student has developed quite differently. If you wish to study performance, seek out Golan Levin. If you wish to study typography, seek out Peter Cho. If you wish to study form, seek out Casey Reas. If you wish to study virtuality, seek out Reed Kram. If you wish to study computation, seek out Jared Schiffman. If you wish to study fashion, seek out Elise Co. If you wish to study visualization, seek out Ben Fry. If you wish to make a living doing something very interesting contact David Small. There will be more. All of my students are hybrids - meaning that they are both deft technologists at the same time deft artists and designers. More hybrids are desperately needed today. See Writing on "Humanist Technologists" 1998, An interview in Milan 2001, and "Real Artists Don't Go To MIT" 2000.


An intense center of work is a function of having intense people. Intense people cannot be borne in a workplace -- they have to start out that way. Having a common overall goal indeed helps, but the former condition is necessary.

Constructive, intense people find rewards for progress within themselves, not from the outside. They find positive ways to interface with their community -- often serving to lead the dialogue and energy for the benefit of all. Less constructive, intense people seek external rewards and try to disengage themselves from a sense of community with a kind of righteousness that threatens all the goodness around him/her.

In my own career, I have found myself wavering between the good and bad like any normal intense human being. I have seen in life, there is a choice in either extreme. My current experience has guided me to conclude that the former (the light side) is in the end truly the only route for any career with a deeper meaning. I ask within each of your own developing careers, that you find the more productive route to life sooner, rather than take as long as i have had to finally figure it out.


I have been very fortunate in the awards category. I am not sure how this all happened, but I know that I owe it to my wife Kris and my four daughters. I have been awarded a variety of career prizes ranging from Japan's highest honor the Mainichi Design Prize, to the USA's highest honor the National Design Award. Other prizes include the DaimlerChrysler Design Award and the Design Management Institute Muriel Cooper Award. I was named in Esquire Magazine's 21 Most Important People of the 21st Century, but it is a bit silly as I know that at least one of the other people listed is now in prison so you do the math.

I had a mid-career retrospective at the NTT InterCommunication Center in 2001 that was almost as if I was dead. A selection of apps from this exhibition are visible on my maedastudio site, and there is a movie I made of the space visible from the bottom link on the page.

Recently I had the fortune of receiving an honorary PhD from Maryland Institute College of Art ( What an amazing school! Particularly impressive was the warm sense of community as exemplified by their president, Fred Lazarus IV, who clearly set a cherished tone at the school.

My next major exhibitions will be in Paris at the Fondation Cartier in 2005 I think, and at the London Institute of Contemporary Art sometime in the next few years.

I am most proud of my recent [exhibition] at Cristinerose Gallery in Jan 2003 where I experimented with food. That was a lot of fun.

I hope to get moving on a retrospective book of the Aesthetics + Computation Group, and am also trying to get my children's book project off the ground.