Innovation Hub: John Maeda on Why Tech Loves Design

John Maeda stands at the intersection of design and technology—and attracts a bit of a cult following. He’s the first Design Partner at Kleiner Perkins, the venture capital firm that has backed companies from Amazon to Genentech to WebMD. Previously, he served as President of The Rhode Island School of Design.

Maeda insists that design is more crucial to tech companies than most of them realize. I asked him why.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, visit]

Kara Miller: Why do you think Kleiner Perkins wanted someone at the firm who focuses on design?

John Maeda: Well, technology used to be the only reason you’d buy a high-tech gadget. You wanted to know what was in it, how big was the screen, and things like that. It used to be that only a few people could make these things. But now everyone can. So design has become a differentiator. It’s the reason you’ll buy something. It used to be you couldn’t get all the megabyes or gigabyes you wanted, and now you can get what you want. The question is: how does it make me feel? How does it make me look?

KM: You’ve talked about design being crucial in the culture of certain companies, like Airbnb. How does that manifest itself?

JM: You might think you walk into a creative organization and you see beanbag chairs and squishy balls…

KM: … And people on skateboards.

JM: Exactly. But instead, it’s a place where creativity matters. It’s where art is part of the culture. It’s where people who are divergent are welcome. And they find a way to take all that and put it into a product. It’s a rare competency.

KM: Do you see a generational shift? With young people valuing design more, either as consumers or producers?

JM: Definitely so. Younger entrepreneurs totally get that design is important, so you’ll see them bringing in a co-founder that’s a designer. Or they’ll bring in a designer with their first 10 employees. I think for the early generation of entrepreneurs, design wasn’t so important. So they’re catching up now.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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