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John Maeda: Making the 99% Visible

By Scott Kirkwood

John Maeda’s impressive resume places him smack dab at the intersection of tech and design: board member for Sonos, Wieden + Kennedy, and the Cooper Hewitt Museum; advisor to Google, eBay, TED, and Kleiner Perkins; former professor at MIT; and former president of RISD. But in his role as global head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic (the folks who brought you WordPress and Longreads), Maeda spends his days ruthlessly focused on solving the day-to-day problems facing millions of people.

And in some ways, technological progress has made his job harder.

“Computational design—that is, the software and tools that we find on our phones and PCs—has enabled inequality to occur at a scale that we’re just beginning to understand,” says Maeda. “We have to start thinking more inclusively, so we aren’t optimizing all of humanity out of its relevance.”  

SOLUTIONS FOR SMALL-BUSINESS ENTREPRENEURS

To reverse that trend, Automattic paid a visit to Detroit last May, so that Maeda and some of his colleagues could learn from the city’s entrepreneurs.

“Small-business owners in Detroit—those on the other side of the digital divide—aren’t dealing with the same problems as someone in their twenties who’s downing seven-dollar lattes at a WeWork,” says Maeda. “It’s a different world for them. So our goal isn’t simply to create empathy, per se; it’s to understand real people’s needs so we can design for ‘real’ people versus ‘technology’ people.”

Maeda’s books include The Laws of Simplicity and Redesigning Leadership. Learn more on his website

Automattic’s primary mission is to “democratize publishing, so anyone with a story can tell it,” but plenty of founders in Detroit told Maeda that they didn’t have any time to write—they just wanted to find a way to make an extra dollar. Could Automattic make it easier?

“Anyone on the privileged side of the digital divide uses a payment app to collect money, but at that time apps like PayPal and Venmo were difficult to configure—so for much of the world, this stuff is actually really hard to do,” says Maeda. “So we made it really easy: Simple Payments took us about five hours of programming, and now it takes our customers less than a minute to get up and running. It’s not a new idea or even new technology—we had the parts just sitting around; it’s just that no one thought it was all that important.”

“Someone might say, ‘That’s great, you’re helping people,’” says Maeda. “But it’s more accurate to say that people are helping us realize how dumb we ‘smart’ people really are. Now that people are using the feature, they’re making money, and if they make money, we become a more prosperous company and, ultimately, we can support even more people.”

PROVIDING POSSIBILITIES

Maeda and Automattic are also helping bridge geographic and socio-economic divides. A visit to eastern Kentucky taught him about the limitations facing Americans in rural areas. In the end, Automattic connected high school kids in the area to top designers like Michael Bierut and Marian Bantjes, who collaborated with small groups of students to create websites, entirely remotely.

“Now these ten high school students, who we call Appalachian Graphic Design Fellows, can work from their own town of Paintsville, Kentucky, and continue living in a place their ancestors have lived for ages,” says Maeda. “So remote work—what Automattic represents at its core—has produced a sense of hope in a way that we never expected.”

Again, the solution to the problem—using remote work to connect kids to mentors—isn’t particularly new or innovative. But it’s addressing a challenge that many in tech had identified, solved, and essentially forgotten about. Yes, Facebook had long-ago created “2G Tuesdays” to remind employees to consider users on slower networks, but those initiatives don’t come close to solving the problems facing everyone beyond the reach of a WiFi network.

DEMOCRATIZING DESIGN

Maeda revels in discovering these blind spots and bringing them to people’s attention. After a Wired article detailed Julia Enthoven’s experiences using various avatars to minimize online harassment, Maeda followed her lead, changing his Automattic avatar to an androgynous cat. “I did it to make a simple point: If everyone who’s not a man has to [take measures] like this to avoid harassment, what else can we do to make products like WordPress even better?” he says. “I try to build awareness around a problem and then jump into it—again, not to be all ‘goody-goody,’ but because if I want more customers using my system, I should know about all their needs.”

“Yes, Target did a good job of democratizing design and there are examples of everyday design like garbage cans or irons that everyone can afford, but design in general is about the one percent,” he says. “And hey, I have nothing against rich people; it’s just that that’s not a good way to design for technology, because in tech, the marginal cost is generally zero: If you have the right product, you can help millions of people at once. When you’re making something out of software, nearly anybody in the world can access it, so you’d better know what they want.”

Larn more about Maeda’s explorations in his 2018 Design in Tech report, unveiled at South by Southwest in March 2018.