Washington—John Maeda, leader of the Rhode Island School of Design, gets his message out on YouTube or on Twitter better than any other college president—at least, if you go by the number of views on videos of talks he’s given, or the number of people following his tweets (more than 141,000).
Part of his secret is that he was already something of an Internet celebrity before he took the helm at the design college two and a half years ago. His previous gig was at the high-profile Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he served as associate director of research and explored the intersection between art and technology. And he seems naturally predisposed to giving TED-style talks—those short, highly visual speeches that blend big ideas with personal narratives, and that get forwarded around online. In fact, he has twice addressed the annual TED conference.
And unlike the typical college president, he’s willing—and actually eager—to float half-formed notions, and he spends more time on his ideas on design and leadership than he does serving as a cheerleader for his institution.
These days he gets invited to give his spiel to an unusual array of groups, many outside of the traditional worlds of art and technology. Today, for instance, he addressed a packed auditorium at the U.S. Department of Transportation here, and took questions from engineers and bureaucrats regulating the nation’s airlines, highways, and railroads. The talk was also streamed live online.
His main message: Art and design should not be dismissed as frivolous pursuits but should be seen as key to business innovation. He defined artists as people who ask good questions, and said that “many employers today are looking for people who ask good questions.” Artists also know how to fail productively, he argued.
He also talked about his own experiments with using technology in his leadership role as a university president. Not all of his Web 2.0 experiments worked. After enthusiastically dashing out notes on his Facebook page, for instance, he eventually decided to close the account because he felt it did little to connect him to others on campus. He also changed the way he blogged, deciding that it was not productive to personally invite all manner of comments and questions (he heard from people who wanted him to fix the heat in a studio or attend to other hyperlocal matters on campus). “It disrupted the entire chain of command,” he said.