In the spirit of Da Vinci

In times past, the fields of art and science were inextricably linked. can they reconnect once more to help find creative, people-centric solutions to the global challenges that confront us?

When I was young, my teachers praised me for being good at maths and art, but my father would always tell people: “John is good at maths.” I felt I had to choose, and with my parents’ influence winning over my own, I went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each year I was there, I saw technology succeeding in making everything cheaper, faster and smaller, but failing to make things any more emotionally rich. It needed something else to transform our experience and to inspire true innovation. I believe those forces are art and design, and it was this belief that propelled me into leading the Rhode Island School of Design, the pre-eminent school of art and design in the US.

Here in the US, the White House reminds us that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are “essential to virtually every goal we have as a nation, whether it’s broadly shared economic prosperity, international competitiveness, a strong national defence, a clean-energy future or longer, healthier lives”. Around the world, even small countries such as Estonia are focusing on teaching coding, positing that technological literacy will be the key to future innovation.

Indeed, we know the challenges that the next generation faces will demand creative solutions, but these subjects alone will not get us there. Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, those people who march straight ahead toward their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers, those who wander professionally, who are comfortable being uncomfortable and who look for what is real.

What people want now goes beyond sleekly designed, homogeneous objects and experiences. We are looking for ways to reconnect with our values, to ground how we choose to live in the world. We want things authentic to ourselves and to the place in which we live.

When artists make things, they undertake a deep probing of purpose and meaning. The creative journey sometimes takes them backwards and sideways before revealing which way forward is. The questions they ask are often enigmatic. They may answer a why with another why, which makes understanding art difficult at times. But that’s art doing its job. Moreover, in our heavily digital age, we are seeing renewed curiosity about materials and all things physical simply because much of the world has lost sight of them. You see little bits of this in the obsession with placing faux-wood-grain veneers on software apps, for example. My experience at Rhode Island School of Design has reawakened me to this world of physical creation – it is the ultimate culture of makers. Here, there is no greater integrity in, and no greater goal achieved, than an idea articulately expressed through something made with your hands. We call this constant dialogue between eye, mind, and hand “critical thinking, critical making”. It is an education in getting your hands dirty, in understanding why you made what you made, and owning the impact of it in the world. It is what artists and designers do.

In the business world, Steve Jobs was the iconic CEO-as-artist. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs concluded that to be an artist is to be mercurial, in bloodthirsty pursuit of an ideal others can’t yet envision. An alternative is to see an artist as someone driven to explore and express ideas with such ferocity that he or she is willing to sacrifice everything for a vision or cause that may have no immediate meaning to anyone else.

Artists are driven and interested in getting to the truth at the core of an enigma, not in fitting in or feeling comfortable. Jobs pursued the question of what a digital ecosystem that transcends mere relevance and basic needs could mean. We buy Apple products not just because they function, not just because they are well designed, but because we want to buy into the vision of the world he was trying to create, and the values that represents. And for this, we are happy to pay a little extra. Art speaks to us as humans, not as ‘human capital’.

Art shows us that human beings still matter in a world where money speaks loudest, machines make our meals, and computers know everything about us. In a world in which new breaches of integrity are revealed every day, it is important to us to hold on to clear values. We want the products we buy to be made responsibly, presented honestly, and come from the mind of a human being, not an algorithm. Occasionally, as in Apple’s case, or Pixar’s, or Harley-Davidson’s, we witness an artist asking questions that have a profound effect on the marketplace, on the way we live, and play, and drive.

So how can we create more of these successes? I am not talking about commercialising or debasing art, but about reminding people that innovation and cultural advancement stem from an artistic sensibility. After a life spent traversing the fields of technology, art and design, my conclusion is that there is great power in both fields taken separately, and both fields put together.

Art and science, once inextricably linked, both dedicated to finding truth and beauty, are better together than apart. In Da Vinci’s time of naturalist observation, the two cohabited naturally. “Art is the queen of all sciences, communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world,” he said. Today, many artists and designers are making headway in visualising much more complex scientific concepts, in forms that make sense to people and emotionally compel them to act. Recently at Rhode Island School of Design, we had a studio course dedicated to “communicating medical risk”, so patients could make informed decisions.

There is also a body of work being conducted here that pairs artists with oceanographers to address climate change. The work of the artist and designer in this context is not just to package the results of the scientists, but to enrich the questions that are being asked.

With all that we have to address in the world – warming landscapes, fluctuating economies, growing cities – finding a solution driven by art and design may not be our leaders’ first inclination. But artists and designers, in partnership with those developing scientific and technical solutions, are the only ones who can ask the deep questions, bring humanity to the problems, make us care, and create answers that resonate with our values. That’s what will propel us forward.

John Maeda is an artist, graphic designer, computer scientist and President of Rhode Island School of Design. He was named as one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century by Esquire in 2008.

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