Hybrids and the Slash Generation: John Maeda Breaks the Funk

Xconomy Boston — 

John Maeda is a hybrid kind of guy. Engineer/designer. Scientist/artist. Educator/venture capitalist. East Coast/West Coast. Asian/American. Able to straddle many worlds, without losing the essence of any of them.

All those slashes make him hard to pin down—and that’s exactly how he likes it. Maeda is the design partner at VC firm Kleiner Perkins—he works with startups from all corners of the globe—but he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. His experiences as a professor (MIT Media Lab), college president (Rhode Island School of Design), and book author (The Laws of Simplicity, Redesigning Leadership), among other titles, have led him to apply lessons from one side of the slash to the other.

“I believe it’s a really sliced-up world right now,” Maeda says. “Before, if you were an expert in something, that’s how the world saw you. Right now, a portfolio of approaches is not a bad thing.”

Working across disciplines certainly isn’t a new idea. Yet members of the so-called “slash generation” seem to embrace a multifaceted identity—which includes having jobs and skills in different industries at the same time.

Maeda is interested to see that many designers these days come from engineering and business backgrounds, not just art school. “I meet so many people who are designer-programmers,” he says. “’Wow, there are so many of you now.’ I remember the ’90s, when there were, like, 50 of us.”

“Hybrid” is the theme of this year’s PopTech conference, which Maeda is hosting for the second straight year. It’s all happening October 22-24 in Camden, ME, and one of the aims is to talk about how hybrid approaches can help solve complex problems in society—think climate change, cultural conflicts, and communication.

Some newly announced speakers include Irene Au, who works on design at Khosla Ventures; Jessica Banks of RockPaperRobot, an engineering/design firm specializing in home and workplace décor; and Assaf Biderman, founder of Superpedestrian, an MIT spinout developing a smart, electric bicycle wheel. They will join other luminaries such as author Eric Liu and neurobiologist Ed Boyden on stage.

Maeda wants the audience to help dictate the flow of the event. One of his goals is to keep things ambiguous—and make people think in ways they don’t expect. “I like when it’s, ‘Wait, what was that? Was it this, or was it that?’” he says.

Surprising combinations turn up a lot in his venture-capital work. But he cautions that hybrid approaches—in teams, companies, markets—work best when they’re grounded in strong fundamentals. “I’m pro-hybrid, but I’m also pro-expertise,” he says. “Combinations are really interesting, but you don’t get to have good combinations unless you have good individual silos. I don’t believe you can have inter-discipline without discipline.”

One delectable example: Reese’s peanut butter cups are pretty good, but have you tried the ones made with organic peanut butter and specialty chocolate? “The individual ingredients do matter,” Maeda says.

Ultimately, his desire to shake up how people work—and to not stay in one place for too long—extends to his advice on health, wellness, and life. For one thing, he says getting a standing desk was hugely energizing and helps him work more effectively than sitting still.

“Stop sitting down,” Maeda says. “Get a wobble board. Your body’s atrophying at an amazing rate. You gotta break the funk.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Robert Scoble via Creative Commons license.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • Nice piece on John Greg. He’s coming to Boston on May 28 for an event we are sponsoring at The Grommet–to talk about his research on designers in tech. Assaf Biderman will be on the panel that John subsequently interviews. There are still a few places available on the Eventbrite.