Good Design is Inclusive Design.

Design technologist John Maeda is Evangelizing Silicon Valley.

John Maeda has worn a lot of hats. The design technologist has artwork in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Cartier Foundation in Paris, and has spent over 15 years in academia at MIT’s Media Lab and as President of RISD, where he made STEAM education his focus. Since 2013, he’s become a champion for design in Silicon Valley, a place that has become the economic engine for innovation in the United States. And now, in his current role as Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic—the parent company that supports the WordPress ecosystem—he has become the most vocal evangelist for diversity and inclusion in an environment that often prioritizes analytics over people.

At Automattic, Maeda is working to help the company “think inclusively—as a design method when thinking of future versions of the system.” Unusual for  a Silicon Valley business, the vast majority of Automattic’s work is open source under the General Public License (GPL) including its flagship product WordPress. Maeda’s vision for a more inclusive world is intertwined with his belief in open source.  As part of Utopia vs. Dystopia, A/D/O’s inaugural design festival, Maeda shared his tenets for building a more inclusive design community.

Good Design is Inclusive Design

Great design is thinking about people, and if you're thinking about people, you have to understand them as themselves. If you think they're all the same kind of people, you're designing something pretty poorly. So inclusive thinking and design are interlinked.

For Open Source to Succeed, it Must be Inclusive

I went to MIT in the ‘80s. At the time, I wasn't thinking about people or society, I was thinking about making a better piece of code. And open source seemed like a community where you build code together. But actually, decades later, it turns out code is people because code links people together. So, unless you consider the people aspect, you're building code that doesn't help people. When people make software, they encode their values in it. So it’s key for a diversity of people to be there, making it. The system will not evolve without diversity that sparks creativity.

Designers Need to Ask The Hard Questions

Technology moves so fast and engineering standards change so quickly that it's hard to add the thinking-empathy part to it. Technology companies are designed to optimize and control your life, just like media companies were. Or even car companies were. The difference is that tech companies can go in there, further, and at a scale like never before. So, people who are working in that ecosystem have to begin to ask questions: Is this the right thing to do? (This is much more profitable.) Is there an end? Can it be profitable and socially-minded? Engineers won’t ask those questions, so those kind of questions have to be asked by designers.

Museums Need to Recognize Designers

Institutions that pervade the museum world need to recognize that this stuff is made by people and to reward the people. People who use the software are also part of software now. Software systems that access millions of people are taking those millions of people’s thinking and bringing it to the foreground. Oftentimes, they are designed when thinking about all kinds of people. If museums were to collect software that recognizes bias,society could understand that it’s written by people and has its flaws. Being recognized by institutions can help us rethink the fact that software is limited by the people who make it and who are in power. Software is extremely powerful. It can connect millions of people and collect millions of data points, but because it’s so far from designing a car, it is pushed to the side, and it lives in its own value system.

Designers Should Code

When you think about how coding is hard for a lot of designers, it means they don't do this kind of work. The software that's made gets made by other people. So I think more designers have to understand how computation works because then they'll be able to get their hands dirty and effect real change. They're one layer removed right now. As an industry, they have to go deeper.

LinYee Yuan