Art Makes The Difference

The 20th century ushered in a mindset of building—machines, empires, ecosystems, utopia, etc., could all be constructed through processes humankind imposed upon the world. In a building mindset it is important not to just throw fragments of ideas together haphazardly; the procedure of generating the solutions people desire is design. And every year as we plow into the hazy future, the world around us becomes more and more designed. John Maeda, the current president of Rhode Island School of Design and a computer scientist out of MIT, dedicates a great deal of his time to expressing the modern tenets of design to his students and the world. But he has recently come to the conclusion that design alone is not nearly as important as is commonly thought. In a recent article for Wired’s Opinion Blog, Maeda claims that differences in design found today leave people cold as they don’t (and can’t) incorporate human value any longer. Or to be more precise: design in-and-of-itself doesn’t create innovation.

To re-assume progress, innovators have to look beyond design and into the world of Art, says Maeda. And the people who are most capable of this are those who can integrate their analytical and creative minds, e.g. Steve Jobs. Maeda writes:

Mating our left-brained technical wizardry with our right-brained humanizing intuitions is key to innovation, but don’t make the mistake of confusing “design” with “art.” I’d argue that there’s a difference, and it matters. Designers create solutions – the products and services that propel us forward. But artists create questions — the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way “forward” actually is. The questions that artists make are often enigmatic, answering a why with another why. Because of this, understanding art is difficult: I like to say that if you’re having difficulty “getting” art, then it’s doing its job.

Jobs serves as a cultural touchstone for understanding the CEO-as-artist, due to the prolific and personal connection people draw to Apple, Inc’s products—a type of reverence generally reserved for finer things like art, performance, and music. But the Jobs we came to learn through Walter Isaacson’s biography is of one unstable and unrelenting megalomaniac. A personality typified by many artists (e.g. Vincent VanGogh). But this recklessness may have a deeper root, Maeda claims.

When we manage to shed our stereotypes of artists as psychologically unstable, we get to see what an artist really is: someone who often exchanges his own welfare and even his life for a cause that may have no meaning to anyone else, but means everything to him or her.

Jobs, and the other great artists were attempting to extract meaning and purpose (maybe even Truth with a capital T) out of the questions infecting their minds—the questions that meant everything to them.

We buy [Jobs] products not just because they function, not just because they are well designed, but out of respect for the integrity of his work – because we buy into the vision of the future world he was trying to create and the values they represent for us. For this, we are happy to be tithed a little extra.

At the core, it is Art which speaks to humans as humans. “Art shows us that human beings still matter in a world where money talks the loudest, where computers know everything about us, and where robots fabricate our next meal,” says Maeda. When regarded with genuine compassion, humans can reach new levels of heightened understanding. With the case of Steve Jobs, this combination was able to generate completely new markets within the technology sector and build a 700 billion dollar business. The claim that art is useless or exists on the fringe of a productive and economically high-functioning society is simply wrong.

Maeda was a typical STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) student at MIT but has learned, through his experience that art belongs in that chain of curricula just as much as Science and its ilk do. Everyone in the world can be taught to code and learn the laws of thermodynamics but without Art only trivial iteration can be achieved.


“If Design’s No Longer the Killer Differentiator, What Is?” John Maeda, Wired

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