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Engineers vs. designers: Will they overcome a dialogue of the deaf? (Q&A)

Design guru and computer scientist John Maeda believes there's a way to bridge a historical gap and infuse computer engineering with a more refined set of aesthetics.

John Maeda

Since leaving his family's tofu manufacturing business for something bigger, John Maeda has somehow found time to acquire three academic degrees -- including a PhD -- en route to becoming a computer scientist, an author, a scholar, an artist, as well as an award-winning graphics designer. And more recently, there's that partnership at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to attend to.

For Maeda, that broad background has come in particular handy as he pursues his vision of a technology world that designs products and services so that regular folks can use them without breaking their teeth.

"People say to me, 'Wow, I use these products and they're so poorly designed. How do you make better designs?'" Maeda said. It's a rhetorical question for Maeda, who then proceeded to underscore the obvious but telling truth that design is based on designers, while in most technology companies, they don't have much of a voice.

"They're usually outnumbered 10-to-1, if not 30-to-1," he noted.

But if computer scientists and designers seem to speak different languages, Maeda says that doesn't mean they're also condemned to a never-ending dialogue of the deaf. Named by Esquire as one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century, Maeda is optimistic about where things are heading. He says that the current generation of engineers knows that computer systems are getting are too complex. At the same time, he says that technology leaders are now more willing to promote the idea of accessible design as a goal.

A case of A plus B equaling C?

CNET spoke with Maeda in advance of a presentation he's planning to make next week at Bloomberg's "Next Big Thing" conference near San Francisco. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q: You have been quoted saying that art and design will transform our economy in the 21st century much like science and technology did in the 20th century. Do you still believe that?
John Maeda: That's something that I said a lot before, not knowing if that would come true or not. Maybe it'll come true. I don't know (laughing)...I did at [MIT] Media Lab, which was the confluence of technology and culture. When you think about the 1970s with [Nicholas] Negroponte predicting that that one day you would watch a movie on a computer back when the computer was the size of the entire room -- it had no screen -- so it was a crazy idea. But those ideas were always in me from those days. If anything I took away, it wasn't just movie technology, but what you're watching as a movie -- the art, the entertainment, that's inside it. And so I've always been very curious.

Technology advancements are great, but what makes them enjoyable are the art and design and entertainment put into the content itself. You could have great blogging software, but without great journalism, you've just got a great technology. I feel that even more now being back in technology. I can see it all over the Valley that technology's role has really matured -- this idea that a better technology that will buy something is no longer the only requirement. We care how it feels now, not just how many megabytes are in it. So that's changed. So I think that thing that I thought might be right seems like it's happening.

Are there any concrete manifestations of that?
Maeda: Companies like Airbnb, for example, where the experience of the world is brought to you through their simple Web service. If you want to live somewhere else, you can live somewhere else with Airbnb...Pinterest, which is an example of a company that's sort of led in a way where design is important. How it feels, how you browse information is critical. Nest is a company that puts design at the core of something that seems so simple -- keeping your house warm -- but keeping it delightful. So design's having an impact all over the place.

In a TED talk you gave a few years ago, you said that the problem isn't how to make the world more technological. It's about how to make it more humane again. I love the sentiment. But what's the reaction on the faces of those hardhearted businessmen when you run that line by them? Do they get it?
Maeda: I've changed my language to adapt to different communities, and I like to say we've moved from lower-case design to "capital D" design to "D-E-dollar sign" design. So the dollar factor, the economic impact of design, has gone to the foreground, and companies like Apple represent that. Also, Nest as well. That was a huge payoff for Nest. Why? Was it a great technology? It was a great technology, but the design was an amazing part of it.

So the profitability of good design is becoming more evident, and hard number-based businesspeople like bigger numbers and design teams to have that role right now.

The tech industry continues to struggle with the idea of simplicity, and the default usually turns out to be complexity. Why do you think that continues to be the case?
Maeda: I'm an engineer by training. So one of my favorite examples of great engineering is the text editor -- invented probably in the 1970s or early '80s that I was using -- called Emacs -- invented at MIT or CMU. Its icon was a kitchen sink -- the joke being everything but the kitchen sink. It had every feature you could ever imagine, every command that you could ever need in a text editor. Engineers are good at making things, making new things, making new possibilities. And the more there are, the more powerful it appears. That's an engineer's view of the world. That's changing, though.

I think that even engineers today know that systems they've architected are so complex that getting a handle on them does require a different way of looking at them, and that's where design comes in. So yes, technology has made our lives more complex. It continues to get more complex. But it's gotten so complex that we need to fix it. That's No. 1. And No. 2, because design is typically more of a word people use or try to understand or crinkle their brow, I have hope that things will get better.

So you were once an academic (president of the Rhode Island School of Design). If you were to award a grade to the tech industry for the aesthetic state of contemporary design, what letter would it get?
Maeda: In aggregate, if you think of anything that's consumer-facing, it's going to have to be a "B" to an "A." I think that anything that has a huge enterprise component is going to have to be a "C" to "B," if anything. These super-large systems are very hard to design for. That's why I think a huge opportunity to design is to design for the enterprise. A good example is the success of something as simple as a file system. The idea of having a network file system was prohibitive. You know, "How do I do it?" But then along comes something like Dropbox or Box with an easy-to-use way to access all your files in the cloud. It was just unimaginable to think that they could make that easy. But then designers came and made it easier. But they're the exception.

Why do think that the humanist side of computation usually winds up as an afterthought? Design interfaces never cease to disappoint.
Maeda: The issue lies in how technology evolved in that technology was made by technologists, primarily. And it took awhile for not-technology fields to integrate and adopt what it can do. So think something like Instagram, which you have to argue that people like. They use [it] a lot; it's nicely designed -- it wasn't designed by traditional technologists. Those guys aren't on the computer science track. They're more liberal artsy engineers. So the products you see are manifestations of those who made them and the training they had. That training is broadening now. Technology leaders are becoming more humanists, I believe.

How do we break out of that? Is that a function of theory and practice? Or does it go back to changes happening in the academy? Or a combination of both?
Maeda: I think changes in the academy are hard. There are the right ways of doing things that have been put in place over decades. I think, if anything, industry is leading in finding ways to integrate the liberal arts with technology -- just because out of necessity and out of competitive need. So many companies that I talk with here are so interested in, "How do I get better at design?'" It's a question that I hear asked...Large companies are curious how to do better -- which is interesting. So maybe things can kind of get better.

What's the biggest misunderstanding computer engineers have about design?
Maeda: I think that in general engineering shows that if there is an algorithm, there is a way to do it and the way is reliable. I think design or any creative discipline, there is no single right way. There isn't a program that you can write to make it great design, great content. But people think it's possible. That's kind of the problem, I think. But I believe that after a few decades of looking at this, we humans are good at a few things, and we're definitely good at making people feel in a deeper way about what we make.

Let me flip the question around: What's the biggest misunderstanding designers have about computer engineering?
Maeda: I think that many designers don't understand the scale at which many software engineers are building at. When you see someone huddled over the computer it looks like they're maybe eating a pizza or making a tiny fire. But if you look at software today, if you think a skyscraper is complex, imagine like a thousand, in some cases, a million skyscrapers are sitting inside the mind of a computer. People work on systems that are so complex. They are more complex than cities. So engineering those systems is an enormous undertaking. It's more than the person just tickling the keyboard -- making some code, programs. It's not that. It's gigantic information systems that you cannot see.