A magical junction of design, technology, and leadership

Redesigning Leadership

Possibly the most exciting phenomenon in the professional world today is the intermingling of disciplines.

Certainly the intersection between marketing and technical roles — IT, software development, “industrial” operations — is one of those important junctions. But there are many more.

Even marketing and technology are no longer merely a two-way crossroads. Increasingly design is an equal partner in that synthesis of customer experience.

Of course, marketing had long leveraged graphic design, albeit often in limited contexts such as logos, ads, brochures, and eventually websites. Although there are sadly far more examples of those things being poorly designed, even today.

And software had incorporated design talent into its development, in the form of “user experience” (UX), for many years. But there too, good design was rare.

But we’re seeing something greater emerge today. Marketing is being elevated to the central hub of organizational leadership around the customer. Technology has blossomed beyond the walls of the IT department — albeit not always with their blessing. And design, in the broadest sense of the word, is being recognized as the atomic force that binds all of these particles of customer experience touchpoints into something more than mere marketing communications and software functionality.

Design is what synthesizes all these components into a cohesive experience.

The Designer, Artist, Computer Scientist, Author, Leader John Maeda

John Maeda

With that in mind, I am very excited — downright giddy, actually — that John Maeda will be keynoting MarTech in San Francisco, March 31 – April 1.

There are many reasons why I think John is the perfect keynote speaker for MarTech. Probably the top two are:

First, the underlying themes of John’s long and fascinating career are design and the humanization of technology. I think these are arguably the most important themes in the field of marketing technology today too. Many of the speakers at this next MarTech event will touch on this, including Mayur Gupta, Jeff Gothelf (whom I wrote about his lean UX crusade earlier this week), Jeff Cram, Gerry Murray, and Fred Gerantabee. I believe John’s keynote will help tie these all together, so that the audience takes away a new level of design-thinking inspiration in their work.

Second, John is the quintessential hybrid who has crossed multiple disciplines — a pioneer who explored the intersections of design, technology, and art — and an inspiring figure for those of us who are humbly mixing disciplines in our own careers.

He started out as a software engineering student at MIT, but then went on to get a Ph.D. in design from the Tsukuba University’s Institute of Art in Japan. His work as an artist forged new concepts in digital art. To quote his Wikipedia page (emphasis added is mine):

As an artist, Maeda’s early work redefined the use of electronic media as a tool for expression by combining computer programming with traditional artistic technique, laying the groundwork for the interactive motion graphics that are taken for granted on the web today. He has exhibited in one-man shows in London, New York and Paris. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Cartier Foundation in Paris.

He then became a tenured professor at MIT and the associate director of the famed MIT Media Lab. This is where I first learned of him, when I attended MIT Sloan in 2005 – 2007. During that time, John published his book The Laws of Simplicity, which outlines 10 laws of making better products by making them simpler — and how to do this with even inherently complex-seeming products. The classic example is Apple’s iPod: a brilliantly complex device — yet even more brilliant is the simplicity of its user experience. I believe it’s a must read for every product developer — and with marketing’s new role in shaping experiences across the customer lifecycle, a must read for every marketer too.

But John’s journey didn’t stop there. In fact, the next stage of his career is perhaps the most relevant to rising marketing technology leaders.

Redesigning Leadership at the Rhode Island School of Design

Rhode Island School of Design

What MIT is to engineering, the Rhode Island School of Design — RISD for short — is to design. It is ranked among the world’s very best art and design schools.

In 2008, John Maeda was “suddenly” (as he describes it) named the president of RISD.

For John, this was a very different kind of role. As an artist and a professor, he had largely been an independent leader up until that point. Becoming the president of such a large and storied organization, such as RISD, with many legacies and traditions — yet also the need to navigate the future — was a new kind of experience.

It’s a journey that I think many marketers, technologists, and hybrid marketing technologists can relate to as they move into positions of management and leadership.

Luckily for us, John wrote a book about his experience in that transformation, Redesigning Leadership. It’s a terrific book, where he talks candidly about challenges he faced and the shift in perspective he developed along the way.

As he describes early in the book, “The word leadership is something of an anathema to creative folks as it invokes an image of authority and order over the chaos that we thrive upon. Whether the image is of a person wearing an immaculate pinstriped suit or a distant figure in a large auditorium with a booming voice, leaders are generally respectfully disrespected by the creative class.”

At RISD, John not only found himself making the shift from being an icon in the “creative class” to being a leader himself, he was a leader at an institution that was an outright temple to the creative class.

If you thought it was challenging to wrestle with people of different opinions across marketing and IT, take a moment to consider how good you probably have it. At least not everyone in your organization is actively railing against you as “the man” as a central tenet of their identity!

True to his approach of synthesizing ideas from multiple disciplines, John looks at the role of leadership through four different lenses — one chapter for each:

  • Creative as Leader
  • Technologist as Leader
  • Professor as Leader
  • Human as Leader

Throughout the book, John’s enthusiasm for discovery and reflection shine through:

“It is this passion for one’s work that I’ve taken into all my endeavors: making images, books, computer chips, skateboards, jackets, circuit boards, Web sites, computer programs, light, tables, sculptures, paintings and a variety of other ‘things’ as an artist, designer, and technologist. I’ve just begun to take this curiosity into the space of leading an institution. It has been a journey of realizing not only the limits of creative thinking, but its possibilities as well.”

“In my first years as ‘suddenly’ president of RISD, I have tried to pour as much play, passion, and creativity into the act of leading as is humanly possible. Along the way, I’ve already learned countless lessons about communication, teamwork, and the importance of holding on to my own sense of perspective.”

It’s a wonderful story about not only becoming a leader, but becoming a leader in the digital age, at a time when crossing the siloed divides of hierarchical organizations is possibly our most important challenge. I highly recommend it.

Better yet…

Come Hear John Maeda at MarTech


MarTech is a special opportunity to hear John Maeda in person, as he shares his perspective on the crossing of disciplines and the role of design in business.

John is now the design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), one of the world’s largest and most established venture capital firms, with a first-hand view of how technology and design are changing the possibilities of customer experience.

Having talked with John about the unique audience at MarTech, a room full of people eager to blend multiple talents and professions, I know he’s looking forward to this event too.

If you want to join us, I highly recommend that you register today, while seats are still available. If you want to learn more about the conference, here’s a preview of the full agenda that I wrote up last week.

I hope to see you there!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this TED Talk from John on his journey in design:

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