TED Talks Every Design Student Must Watch – John Maeda’s “How Art, Technology and Design Inform Creative Leaders”

There’s a world of inspiration out there for Graphic Design and Digital Media Students, but sometimes it’s hard to know where to look, and hard to narrow down what you find. By the time you’ve filtered through twenty or more videos, books, and blog posts, you don’t want to read or watch any of them. That’s where I come in. As a Graphic Design Student, I am constantly on the lookout for great resources to supplement my education at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. I love weeding through the mass amount of information available to find the best inspiration for students. This post, the fourth in a 5 part TED Talks series, features an informative inspirational talk by John Maeda, the President of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Ted Talks LogoFor those that don’t know, TED is a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” It was conceived in 1984 as a conference devoted to bringing people together from the three worlds of Technology, Entertainment and Design. It has evolved into two annual conferences, the TEDConference on the West Coast each Spring and the TEDGlobal conference in Edingburgh each summer. There is also the award-winning TED Talks video website, the Open Translation Project, TED Conversations, TED Fellows, TEDx, and the annual TED Prize. The mission of TED is simply to spread ideas. The founders, participants and viewers “believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives, and ultimately, the world.” To that end, their website stands as a sort of “clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.” It’s a website that is certainly easy to get lost in for hours on end, but unlike cat videos on YouTube, every TED video will teach you something, whether it be about the forefront of technological innovation, the power of music on the brain, new discoveries in principles of education, or, most relevant to FIDM Graphic Design and Digital Media students, the importance of good design.

John Maeda’s “How Art, Technology and Design Inform Creative Leaders”

Maeda breaks his talk into four sections: technology, design, art, and leadership. He explores each individually as well as in combination with one another. Each has its merits on its own, but when combined, amazing things can happen. It’s the concept of synergy—discussed in many classes at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising as a foundational element of design—but on a grand scale. The power of combining these four elements, Maeda states, “can entirely change the way we design and think about systems in our society.”

Maeda begins with a discussion of technology, in which he highlights the incredible trajectory of inventions of the late twentieth to the twenty-first century, reminding his audience that what nowadays seems so primitive and laughable, like the Apple II computer, was only invented a little over 30 years ago. However, he notes the limitations of technology. Although computers and phones are much more advanced nowadays than they used to be, digital technology has done roughly the same thing – produced text, images, sound, and movies – for the past 20 years. Yet, what makes technology different today than even just ten years ago is the emphasis placed on design. Technology is defined as what makes possibilities, and design as what makes solutions.

In his discussion of design, Maeda mentions two words that come up endlessly in classes at FIDM: form and function. He illustrates the concept brilliantly, utilizing the example of the word “fear,” and how treating the four letters in different ways can change the way the audience perceives the word. Although the function remains the same—the definition of the word does not actually change—changing the form changes how the word is understood. Maeda describes it as a kind of magic—proof of the power of design.

John Maeda

Moving onto the topic of Art, characterized as that which “makes questions”, Maeda discusses the importance of art and the positive outcomes that come from not understanding it. He declares that the balance in which lies “good” art (and good design, good business, good strategy, etc.) exists between the old and the new; the quality of the way things used to be combined with the innovation of the way things are headed in the future.

Finally, Maeda moves on to leadership, which he declares “makes actions”.  He discusses how leaders need to learn from artists and designers, because the system of leadership has changed in the modern era. Traditional leaders, he claims, are afraid to make mistakes, whereas designers and artists make mistakes constantly, many that lead to truly great creations and the ability to learn and grow.

In his conclusion, Maeda discusses how the four different areas, technology, design, art, and leadership, can combine to create new methods of thinking, particularly about business, and create new systems of linking seemingly opposing areas or ideas together. More than the formal elements of design, Maeda’s talk illuminates the thought process of a designer, and how different it is from the thought process of a person who does not design. Through his examples of the rise of technological innovation, the ability of form to influence function, the combination of the old and the new to create the good, and the ability of multi-dimensional, design-oriented thinking to positively influence and change outdated systems, Maeda produces a compelling argument for the importance and influence of designers on the world. His talk serves to further emphasize an idea intrinsic to our design educations at FIDM, one that nearly every teacher mentions at some point in their classes: that unlike what many non-designers believe, design is not, at its core, about how things look. Design is about how things work. Whether it be keeping a person’s attention long enough to read an article in a magazine, creating an easily navigational and usable piece of technology, or developing a system of learning or business that reaches far beyond its basic goals—all at their core involve good design. Maeda’s talk opened my eyes to how diverse and multi-faceted the world of design can be, and leaves me inspired to explore the many different avenues of what design, and I as a designer, can achieve. I urge you all to watch his brilliant 15-minute talk, and become more inspired designers because of it.


Check Out Other Ted Talks From This Series

Part 1: Rory Sutherland’s “Sweat the Small Stuff”


Part 2: Milton Glaser’s “Using Design to Make Ideas New”


Part 3: Stefan Sagmeister’s “Happiness by Design”


Part 4: John Maeda’s “How Art, Technology and Design Inform Creative Leaders”  


Part 5: David Carson’s “Design & Discovery”  



Thank you to Sara Berkes for this wonderful article.

FIDMDigitalArts contributor, Sara BerkesSara Berkes is currently a Graphic Design/Branding major in the Professional Designation Program at FIDM. She has a B.A. Honors in English and Creative Writing from the University of King’s College and enjoys any opportunity to combine her interests in writing and design. She loves design that uses lots of white space, hand lettering, geometric shapes and excellent kerning, though not necessarily all at once. When not designing or writing, Sara enjoys knitting, sewing and reading lots of books.

Be sure to check out her website by clicking here.


Questions/comments? Email the editor, Mani O’Brien at mobrien@fidm.edu

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Author: Sara Berkes

Sara Berkes is a graphic designer, writer and maker based in Ottawa, ON, Canada. She has a combined BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of King's College and an AA in Graphic Design, which she earned from FIDM in December 2013 along with the 2013 / 2014 Graphic Design Award. When not designing or blogging at Sara Berkes Creative or writing for the FIDM Digital Arts Blog, Sara can probably be found sewing, knitting, or hiding from Winter. You can find out more about her and her work at www.saraberkescreative.com

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