Accent talks to an acclaimed designer and influencer about the importance of inclusion, the future of design, and the open web.
“Designers’ role will be to support the social conscience of the product”
John Maeda is a designer, writer, influencer and technologist. He is the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and a former design partner at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers (KPCB), a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. At KPCB, he became interested in startups and launched the #DesignInTech Report to share his insights into design, investing, tech and business. He recently became Automattic’s global head of computational design and inclusion.
John shared with us his thoughts on his mission at Automattic, the importance of open web and design in the age of automation.
Working at Automattic
— I know that all the Automattic team members work as “happiness engineers” for the first weeks at the company. How did your onboarding process go?
It went well. I was able to help all kinds of people solve their problems, and I came to understand that the ability to work with people is a core skill when it comes to building a successful company. It’s also one that’s easily lost.
I’ve learned that customer support is a great way to understand problems, but it’s not a great way to understand what success looks like. I also learned quickly how helpful everybody is. I enjoy that culture of giving to each other. And also the culture of learning.
We have the creed, which was produced by the founders. And everyone who signs on to Automattic lives by the creed. It reads here “I will never stop learning”. “I won’t just work on things that were assigned to me”. So there’s a whole kind of mantra, that company follows.
— What kinds of things did you have to learn when you joined the company?
I had to learn how a technology company works at scale. I had advised a lot of companies, but I’d never been inside a technology company, working day-to-day. So I understood how startups worked, but not what happens when you’re at a late stage and serving millions of customers.
— In a recent interview, you talked about linking designers with businesspeople and coaching them on building design-oriented companies. Can you tell us more about that?
At KPCB I was able to talk with both the CEO and a Design Lead and to be sort of a therapist or translator. The language of design is different from the language of business, so I would help both of them understand what the other was saying. But it’s hard because they come from generally different worlds. There are fewer CEOs than designers, and there are very few designers who understand business.
I’d like to point out that the key problem of design is the user experience and the UX design. The problem is that the “U” is a great abstract human being. If you’re the user experience designer, you’re there to serve the user even if he is not bringing the company any money At the same time, the CEO is always focused on customers. Therefore, I helped CEOs understand that designers speak in the language of users and human-centeredness. And I could help the designer understand the implications of not focusing on bringing in new customers and satisfying existing ones.
How it’s changed inside Automattic is that now I’m inside the system and I am the person who understands both languages so I can touch everybody within the design and business worlds inside the company. I’ve been there half a year, and I can tell you that I can’t snap my fingers and make this work happen. It’s slow work, but it’s exciting.
— Why did you decide to focus on inclusion?
I’ve always lived a life of inclusion. I’m an engineer by training, but I moved over to design and into business spaces. I hang out with women, I hang out with gay people, I hang out with people of color, I hang out with white people (laughs). Naturally I connect these people, and now that I’m at a company that operates in 50 countries, I work very hard to help people find commonalities and create inclusion. If you’re a creative person, you have to know people who are a little different than you. Otherwise you can’t be really creative. I also realize that being inclusive doesn’t mean that you have to be inclusive of haters, racists or misogynists.
— How is design.blog different from other design blogs?
The difference is that design.blog focuses on inclusion. Most design blogs have been about on white men. Take the famous Bauhaus—all white men, right? Actually, there were women, too, but people don’t know about them. I wanted to change that. So design.blog features white women, black women, black men, Latinos and Asians alongside white men. Most design resources pick a category, like “women in design.” I don’t want to call it anything. For me it’s just design, and it just so happens that there are many different kinds of designers.
— How can companies create inclusive designs?
Inclusiveness can’t be about social justice; that’s just not how executives think. My approach is, “If we want to increase our market size, we have to understand different kinds of people.” For example: In the 1970s, all the commercials for white and black people were done by white people. They made some good commercials, but oftentimes they didn’t know anything about how black people live. Then came along Emmett McBain, who created the first African-American Marlboro Man, and it worked. To me, that’s just good business. I’m not saying that you have to be from this or that world. You could be a white woman and do it, too. Inclusiveness means asking yourself: Am I not limiting my worldview to this? How do I connect with real people from this world?
— Is “open source” still relevant?
The open source movement came out of a time when there weren’t that many people making or using computers, and there was less capitalism involved. Today there are millions and millions of Internet users, more than the open source pioneers could ever have imagined. So I think that open source is still good for raw software that’s lower-level and doesn’t touch users. When it touches many users it becomes extremely expensive.
— How does Automattic embrace it?
Most of our code is open on GitHub, so you know exactly how it works. But it has to be managed carefully, because if someone puts in the wrong code, it brings the entire system down. What the average person doesn’t realize, though, is that open source is actually more secure than closed source, because it means you know what’s in the software, whereas for other systems—like Facebook, Google, Twitter or Snapchat—you don’t know what’s inside their programs.
— How can the Open Web fight against platforms like Facebook?
I don’t think it can. Resistance is futile (laughs). I believe in the Open Web, but I see the Closed Web growing. I don’t believe the Open Web will destroy the Closed Web, because our approach is inclusive. The Open Web absorbs the Closed Web, and they create connections. This happens through Facebook Instant Articles and the API that exists. There is already a plugin that connects WordPress to Facebook Instant Articles. You need to participate in all these places. I believe the Open Web has to be a part of the Closed Web, not ignore it.
— Do you think the Open Web will exist in 10 years?
I think as long as there are nerds, there will always be the Open Web. They believe in freedom. We love nerds, right? Will the Closed Web continue to grow? Absolutely! So my interest is in learning everything I can about the Closed Web and understanding how to participate in all forums and not let ideology or dogma prevent you from closing down. Let me give an example. When my mother was in the hospital, my older brother said, “I voted for Trump.” And then suddenly my little sister screamed, “What? You voted for Trump?” And what’s funny is that then my brother said, “No, I was saying, ‘What is wrong with people voting for Trump?’” After 30 minutes he finally said, “Yes, I voted for Trump.” I realized how afraid he was to say it. That’s not good. Because if you’re afraid, you can’t communicate. I like the new version of myself that asks questions about inclusion. And I asked him, “Why did you vote for Trump?” And when he explained, I thought, “That makes sense.” So if I were judgemental, he would not have explained his position. This isn’t a good situation to be in.
So now, as an Open Web proponent, I keep asking, “Why are you Closed Web?” “Well, it’s more efficient. You can get more things done. You can optimize faster. You can serve more people.” I ask, “And in the end is your goal to stop the Open Web?” “I don’t think it’s a goal. The goal is just to expand and be successful.” We have to ask the Open Web, “How do we make it successful?” And we do it. Primarily through a community. That’s why a lot of my efforts in WordPress are about how do we build an open source WordPress community to be stronger? Because if that’s a strong community, then what happens is, of course, the software gets better. So that’s my goal. I think WordPress in some parts of the world is cooler, not cool. I want to make it cool. Everyone loves to be a part of the cool thing, right?
— Do you see any features or trends in the WordPress community that make it special and give it potential for growth?
Most closed systems are about the company making all the money. Open source systems tend to be about freedom or earning potential. Many people have been able to have good lives by making WordPress sites or having blogs. That’s our fundamental power. It’s very pragmatic. I want to enable more people to make a living off this platform. Maybe it’s the ladder in your career that lets you pay for dinner, have a good time with your family, or pay for your mother’s health bills. It’s done that for people in the past. It’s doing less of it right now. So the question is: How do we grow the WordPress community and create prosperity?
— Tell us about your reports. Can you share some things you’ve seen in the past year?
I gather data on investing, startups and other trends I’ve been observing—a combination of objective data and my point of view, which may be right or wrong. So I had a theory that creative people are always inclusive, and I think I’ve validated it. If you look at tech companies, the most creative part is likely to be design, and I asked designers, “How important is team diversity to you personally?” It’s kind of amazing that over 90 percent said it was important to them. Then I had dinner with all the top design leaders in Silicon Valley and did the same thing anonymously. One hundred percent believe in diversity.
— What do you think designers will do in the future?
I think a lot of is going to change because of machine intelligence. Designers’ role will be to support the social conscience of the product. Because the product is no longer the product, it’s now the people.
— So they have to build communities?
That’s a good way to frame it. But here’s the thing about communities: building them is easy, policing them is harder. I’m going to try to organize a meetup this year for design leaders to talk about harassment, because I think harassment and bullying are the extreme opposite of community. They destroy community by tamping down on honesty and exchange. In the future, designers’ role will be to design for that problem better, to make safe environments that offer high-quality of exchange and cross-learning. And it’ll attach to all our products, because all of products have community attached now.
— What kind of important design skills won’t become obsolete as the time passes?
I don’t think anything will become obsolete (laughs). There is nothing to hold onto. We’re living in an exponential time, not a linear one. Thanks to Moore’s Law, computers are billions of times faster today than in the past. And in ten years, computers will be much more powerful than they are today. So if you’re counting on things not changing, I’m not into that. As Eric Shinseki said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”