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Taking Risks at RISD: John Maeda Confronts a Vote of No Confidence
I just read a long series of comments about John Maeda's tenure at the Rhode Island School of Design. Four years ago Maeda was recruited from the MIT Media Lab to become the President of RISD. About a month ago, Maeda was given a vote of no confidence by members of the RISD faculty. It seems they're uncomfortable with a series of staff changes he made among veteran faculty and administrators at the school. You can read the comments yourself here: http://www.nataliailyin.net/blog.htm?post=778404 One of the comments is by Paul Rand III (the son or grandson of Paul Rand?), and was distributed through Y-Combinator Hacker News.
Back in 1999 or 2000 Andrew Otwell and I co-taught a course titled "Pixel, Line, Plane: The Elements of Digital Craft" at the University of Texas at Austin. The course introduced designers to programming at the same time it introduced programmers to design, and it used the DBN language and some Web-based courseware developed by Maeda and his then-students, Ben Fry and Casey Rheas. That I have any grasp of things like modulo is thanks to Andrew and John Maeda.
Maeda was supportive of our course, and while he was not able to join us in person, he did manage to write a thoughtful message that we read to our students at the final project demo-day party. It talked about the need to approach technology as a medium, and to think of making one's own tools as a traditional craft-person does. I think I was attracted to Maeda and his philosophy of tool-making (as opposed to tool using).
I am saddened to hear that there is so much disagreement and dissent at RISD.
When you're asked to revamp the user experience and implement an entirely new technology for a core component of a venerable application—a tool that many use to make a living—you need to remember what a high-risk project this is. You have to remember the old UI designer's dictum: MAYA (Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable). Basically, most designers want to be known for creating the most advanced designs, the most powerful, sophisticated, and novel designs. But sometimes these UI's are too novel or advanced to be grasped by most, and end up rejected. To avoid this, designers often try to use the MAYA precept to build some conceptual bridge that users can use to walk from the old world to the new world without being dislocated. Without that bridge your users will revolt, no matter how elegant, rational, complete, powerful, and sophisticated your new UI might be. Perhaps it is a conceptual bridge that is needed at RISD right now.