The death of Steve Jobs has inspired reflection nationwide. I spoke, this afternoon, with RISD President John Maeda, who has done plenty of thinking about technology and design - and Jobs's special place at their intersection. The interview is edited and condensed.
WHAT DOES THE DEATH OF STEVE JOBS HIGHLIGHT FOR THE REST OF US ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF DESIGN? I think it's making us think what design is all about. People think it's a way to cover something - cover a technology. But it's so much more, it's a way of taking that technology and making it living, emotional, part of your world. Remember those [pre-iPod] MP3 players that nobody wanted? It wasn't that Apple made a cool MP3 player. Apple made an MP3 player that was a music player, part of our lifestyle, told us how to own music, how to want to enjoy it, how to carry it with us - an entire ecosystem.
IS THAT WHY WE ARE SO AFFECTED? I WAS WATCHING TV LAST NIGHT AND PEOPLE ON THE STREET WERE CRYING ABOUT THE DEATH OF A CEO. THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN MUCH. I was very taken aback. I was cooking and I had to stop. I was like, "whoa, this is like gigantic." When the MacIntosh came out in '84, I bought one of those and went to MIT my first year. And I really remember how, as a freshman at MIT, all these upperclassmen had the macho computers - the IBM PCs - and I had this weird-looking computer, and people made fun of it. They were like, "why does it show pictures? Why is there more than one font? That's a sissy type of computer." It's interesting because Jobs didn't design a computer. Jobs designed something that would live in our environment. Computers before then were a TV on top of a stereo box. Jobs took a bold approach towards, "how will you live with this? How will you love this?" And I think people knew that. People could feel that in the objects and ecosystems he presented. He took this idea of technology as core to innovation - the STEM approach, science, technology, engineering, mathematics...STEM created the IBM PC idea. It was art added to STEM - STEAM - that made those kinds of things happen, like the MacIntosh, or the iPod, or the iPhone, or anything in that category. It brought humanity to what are traditionally very rational fields.
DOES STEVE JOBS'S DEATH SET BACK STEAM IN A SIGNIFICANT WAY? What's incredible is that Steve Jobs has been this icon. And I think the fact that he is now gone, if anything, cements the importance of STEAM in the landscape - not just in design, but in industry, and in culture. People will always be asking, what was it that made him different?
WHY HAVE SO FEW BEEN ABLE TO HARNESS STEAM? It's because art and design are not well understood in the world. We don't acknowledge the fact that everything - for instance, in your world, around you - has been designed by someone. Unless we make it more obvious that art and design are everywhere, it's not going to get the kind of attention it needs, especially in this day and age when innovation is touted as so important.