A review of John Maeda’s monograph from 2000. A critical look at the book’s design, and the philosophy and work of the new media designer/artist, Typotheque’s Peter Bilak.
John Maeda, an American of Japanese origin and education, is probably best known as a computer scientist and director of the MIT Media’s Lab Aesthetics and Computation group. With Maeda@media he is trying to recapitulate the body of work done over a period of 10 years and shift his career. It is now Maeda’s intention to ‘move away from [graphic design]’ and ‘move into contemporary art.’
“I made this book with the intention of terminating a line of thinking that I once had. The only thing it terminated was my ability to consume caffeine. I had to quit after I did this book.”
Maeda is at his best exploring the purpose and power of programming. He uses the computer as a medium in its own right, outside the usual limitation of programmers and technicians. It is rare to see the ease with which Maeda controls the computer whilst demonstrating the true potential of digital visual communication design.
If graphic design was just a stop-over in Maeda’s career, then he managed to create an impressive body of work ranging from slick promotional corporate work to more experimental interactive graphics designed with his own tools. Maeda is a long-term crusader against the large software companies. Fluent in many programming languages, he understands the technologies he uses at a very deep level.
With yet another unnecessarily thick book, Maeda, the only writer and designer of the book, is following a trendy model and successful recipe: a few interesting projects, brief descriptive captions, inviting the authority in the field (Nicholas Negroponte) to write a foreword and filling the rest of the book with sketches and other material otherwise unsuitable for publication.
As in his previous books, Maeda is very emphatic in aligning himself with the church of Paul Rand. Rand becomes the measure against which Maeda observes his own work. It is an obvious choice, as Maeda seems to have a somewhat narrow view of graphic design, limited to the grid, Univers, and ‘designer as a problem-solver’. Rand is credited with changing Maeda’s life-path: “I came across the work of American graphic designer Paul Rand, and I realised what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
The square-format book ‘illuminates the philosophy and practice’ of Maeda’s work. Text and visuals are overly descriptive, and Maeda misses the opportunity to discuss the significance of his self-developed computer-based graphic language. It seems the biggest mistake Maeda made was to work alone on the book. Maeda is overly uncritical in selection of material, weakening the projects that deserve attention. The absolute nature of authorship is underlined with his statement ‘I do not collaborate with anyone. I create everything from scratch with my own hands and tools.’ Text that rarely proceeds beyond a few paragraphs is secondary to the full colour images, offering instant-wisdom style text. Maeda sounds like an old mentor and full page pull quotes e.g. ‘engage in a pure discourse of style’ or ‘manipulate perfect abstraction of form unhindered by tactile reality’ do not help to clarify his vision. The layout is poor, and instead of giving an idea of process, the ubiquitous hand sketches soon get annoying and make the reader leaf through faster.
Maeda has seemingly departed from the graphic design world before having had a chance to seriously tackle some obvious questions designers have faced for centuries, such as the organisation of information. He currently has simultaneous gallery exhibitions in New York, London and San Francisco.