John Maeda exists in a Venn diagram of disciplines. Part designer, part computer scientist, he bends steadfastly into the oddly shaped middle loop of overlap. When Maeda started out in the design and technology fields more than two decades ago, his colleagues and classmates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would have described him with an either/or title depending on what building he happened to be in. Today, Maeda prefers the more multidisciplinary moniker, “computational designer.”
Maeda has written thousands of words on this particular intersection of interests. For the last five years, he’s released an annual Design in Tech Report, a hodgepodge of facts, figures, and observations about how the worlds of design of the computation are rapidly unseating more traditional design fields as the most important medium. Now, Maeda is back with a book, How to Speak Machine, and its 200 pages aim to help readers learn how to both “speak machine” and “speak human.”
For Maeda, there’s an important distinction between the two. He makes the case that computation is a powerful material and tool that designers should at least understand—better yet, they should know how to shape and wield it. “Speaking human” is the necessary softer side of the equation; it’s the part that rounds the edges and, in theory, keeps the intuitive and ethical side of technology in check. It’s design.
In 2019, it’s fair to ask: Why should we make a distinction between the two? Is it not reductive, or even a little old-school, to single out a computational designer from the people who are already working in and with the media of code and interfaces? Don’t plenty of designers already speak the two languages fluently?
The answer is that, yes, of course lots of designers also live within the same Venn diagram as Maeda—but more do not, and Maeda’s worried about them. He’s concerned about their future, about their ability to be conversational in a world that’s increasingly becoming dominated by what he describes as the “upside-down world” of computation.
I’ve always believed being curious is better than being afraid.John Maeda, How to Speak Machine
How to Speak Machine is a curious book. It lives up to its title as a how-to book of advice. It has one foot in the computational weeds—you’ll learn about loops, recursion, and the powers of 10—and another foot in the philosophical meanderings about the power of computation, all woven around Maeda’s personal history of and experience with coding and designing. For people who are curious about the foundational implications of technology, Maeda has a lot of experience to pull from.
Maeda spoke to us about why he wrote a book about computational design in 2019, why designers and technologists must work together, and how designers can prepare themselves for a hybrid-skill future.
Why did you want to write this book now?
John Maeda: I’ve been doing this computational stuff since the 1990s—mixing code and the humanistic side of things. I was an anomaly in the ’90s; I was the one saying we should all code, and I think I got tomatoes tossed at me. Years later I now talk about three kinds of design: classical design, design thinking, and computational design. People kept asking me: What’s computational design?” It was kind of a surprise to me. I was like, “Oh, maybe I should explain what this is.”
So, what is computation?
JM: If you watch Stranger Things, I describe computation as the “upside-down world”—just this weird netherworld that’s amazing. It’s not like our regular world, but it’s overlapping somehow. And there’s stuff in there that influences this stuff in our regular world.
So if computation is the “upside-down world,” then what is design?
JM: Well, design is a messed up premise because it was made when there was only wood, metal, glass, and our hands. Whereas the computational world is using alien materials, and in a world of alien materials, the nature of products and design should change. Products change in few main ways. The first is that incomplete becomes better than perfect. Because if it’s a malleable force, you don’t have to ship anything perfect anymore. [Computational products] are like the Terminator—you can deploy an incomplete form, and at the other end it can reform and evolve.
The second factor that changes is that there are no marginal costs to instrumenting the laws of computation. You can attach a sensor to products. With an article you’ve written, you can know how many times it’s been read, and not much added cost. Because of that capability, when you ship something incomplete, you can now innovate, change it, and evolve it. This can be problematic. If you’re deploying [a product] to millions of people, and it isn’t completely thought out, the unintended consequences can be enormous. If you’re deploying technology with alien assumptions in them, you can create sentencing algorithms that punish people who come from a poor zip code, for example. And this happens at scale.
In the book you write, “The new definition of quality according to the ‘Temple of Tech’ is an unfinished product flung out into the world and later modified.” How do we avoid making problematic products while acknowledging your statement that “unfinished is the new perfect?”
JM: That’s the great design problem today. How do you design for a world of incomplete things that are instrumented so you can improve them, but also design them so they don’t create an imbalance? It requires asking questions like: Who’s this product for? What’s it going to do? Whose ethics are driving how we think about this? And those are new kinds of questions that sound similar to what designers might have asked in the past, but the implications are huge.
You say that it’s the great design problem of our time, but is it not a technological problem too? Is it not an engineering problem?
JM: Oh, it’s combined. It’s because the two are fused together. I’ve always blurred the two together. It’s a hybrid problem.
JM: What is an awkward stage? I’m not a teenager nor a maturing science expert but you have that adolescent phase when you’re not really dangerous. Then you become a teenager (the awkward stage) and you can drive. Then it gets a little dangerous.
So are you saying that design has now entered a phase where it has the level of responsibility to potentially be harmful?
JM: Well, that’s what happens when you drive, right? You can get hurt and hurt other people. Recognizing that is how you become an adult. You’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is real.” You can cause damage.
So how does this relate to design?
JM: Well, it’s why we have to understand the “car”—this computational, alien life form car. It’s not the car you think it is. It’s powered by “upside-down world” technology, and you never got the license for it. Nobody has a license for it except the engineers who are are less likely to think about the implications. Look at what’s happening today. To me it’s a kind of an issue if you have designers talking about these implications in a theoretical way. Nothing is going to happen because you’re not in the “upside-down world” actually changing it and fighting it.
[The solution] isn’t about coding, is what I realized. This book is not about how to program. It’s about understanding the nature of what computation is. It’s about understanding that code manifests as an outcome in a universe where there’s a high ease to having unintended consequences.
In your book you acknowledge the drama around a Fast Company story about you that ran last year with the headline, “In Reality, Design Is Not That Important.” In the book you write: “In truth, design isn’t the most important matter today. Instead we should focus first on understanding computation.” Is this still your stance?
JM: I believe that the old kind of design’s value is not increasing any more—it’s decreasing, because the computational materials are so different than materials of the past. So if you’re to spend time trying to capture the value of the future, it’s advantageous to spend more time in the future of design versus just in the past.
Maybe one way to frame this is when I was in my 20s in art school, I loved my typography professor. He would always take me to look at paper and ink, and he made me want to become a classical typographer. One day he asked me what I want to do with my life, and I said, “I want to be just like you; I want to be a classical typographer.” And he got really mad at me. He said, “You know, you’re young, so do something young with yourself because the classics will always be there when you get old.” So I guess I’m just embracing that advice I got from him. I think he was right, is what I’m saying.
So how can designers prepare themselves for a constantly shifting industry and constantly changing expectations around the skills they’re supposed to know?
JM: Well, it depends on the stage of their career. If they’re seasoned, experienced experts then it’s super hard because they’re already good at what they do. You could be like me, you could start over again. The other way is to just accept becoming obsolete. If you’re a junior designer, the whole world is at your disposal. If you listen to what my typography professor said, ask what’s at the cutting edge and stay there.
I think some people in the middle of their career are going backwards. They’re [designers] going to teach the old stuff or teach what they know. There’s a romanticism there. And there are some who like learning the latest thing. They’re curious. If you understand classical design and computational design together, it’s super awesome. The combinations are always interesting.
Is preparing for a hybrid-skilled future just a matter of being curious?
JM: I don’t want to say “just go code,” you know what I mean? I would say go work on a digital product team. Get on a team. Get involved. That’s how you’re going to stay relevant.
This interview has been edited for clarity and was produced in partnership with AiGA Eye on Design.