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John Maeda
John Maeda speaks at the ArtsFund’s 28th annual Celebration of the Arts Luncheon in Seattle today.

Seattle native John Maeda has a unique perspective on the technology industry, as an engineer and designer who was an MIT Media Lab professor and president of the Rhode Island School of Design before taking on his current role as a design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Maeda drew from all of those experiences for his keynote address today at the ArtsFund‘s annual luncheon in downtown Seattle — making his case to elevate the arts to the level of science, engineering, technology and math, effectively changing the popular acronym to STEAM.

Continue reading for a few highlights from his talk.

On his early interest in technology: “Where my family lived (in Seattle’s Rainier Valley) we were a few miles from Boeing. At the high school I went to, Franklin High School, most of the teachers were there from Boeing, they retired from Boeing. If it wasn’t for my chemistry teacher, who was a retired Boeing engineer who helped me find a path to MIT, it would have never happened. So thank you, Boeing.”

johnmaeda - 1 (3)On blending the arts and technology: “Every computer program is a tree. It’s a tree of some form. It’s a binary tree. It’s a symbol tree. Therefore every outcome of the program is on that tree. Every possible permutation is on that tree. The challenge for the artist is to be off the tree. So artists and technology have to work really hard. Because technology is constraining the artist so tightly. We have to celebrate the artist and the technology who break free from that tree. It’s not trivial.”

On the role of women in design and tech: “Muriel Cooper (co-founder of the MIT Media Lab) changed my life. In the technology industry, we hear a lot about how women in tech don’t exist. I have to say that the women in the design and tech world are what has driven most of the amazing things we see on our smartphones today. Muriel is just one of them. Muriel had the foresight to imagine a world where one day you’d want to set type in Helvetica on the screen, which was a crazy idea at the time.”

johnmaeda - 1 (1)On the nature of art: “Art is about the enigma. It’s about the paradox. It’s the welcome mystery. So if you don’t get art, it’s working on you, and that makes people feel more uncomfortable. … There’s art everywhere. … I like to hunt for art, specifically in airport bathrooms. I was walking into a men’s room, and I saw this (at right), the most gorgeous kinetic sculpture I’d ever seen. … Art is everywhere. It exists in how you see the world. And the artist can sometimes help cooperate with you to see it more clearly.”

Lessons from his time in the VC world: “I can see now that the best startups today can no longer compete with technology. They need the creative part. They need the design part. Billions of dollars are being invested in companies that are led by designers, led by artists, alongside technologists. It’s a great time for the arts.”

For more from John Maeda, see his Design in Tech report.

Update: Here’s the full video of John Maeda’s talk, via ArtsFund.

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