It was a real treat to sit down with John Maeda and Mara Hermano yesterday afternoon to talk iPhone apps, economic development, and how to build a community of digital artisans. I’ve been a big fan of John Maeda’s for years—he’s a computer scientist, artist, graphic designer, and for the past two years, president of Rhode Island School of Design. And he’s awesome. Talking with him is like riding a fast-moving river full of surprising detours and stunning views. Insights just tumble out of him.

John really gets the opportunities for mobile design. Sure, he understands the considerations of pixels, productivity, user experience, yada yada, but he also sees opportunities to rally local community, bring artists into the digital realm, and fire up local economic development. Turns out Providence is a great place to do that. Rhode Island may be small in size, but it’s big in talent.

In the six months since I’ve been here, I’ve been struck by the warmth, creativity, and talent of the tech crowd I’ve met here. But even more, I’ve been impressed by the strong ties between the geek, art, and business communities. These groups don’t mix in most communities—they’re usually at arm’s length—but here in Providence, there’s a maker culture that infuses all of these groups and brings them together. Outfits like RI Nexus, AS220, the Fab Lab, Providence Geeks, The Steel Yard, The Awesome Foundation, Business Innovation Factory, Betaspring, and Pecha Kucha attract groups that are more stimulatingly diverse than any I met during my time in New York or Paris. The creative potential crackles.

That’s not lost on John. He’s interested in finding ways to bring the remarkable talent of the RISD community—with all the creative spirit of its physical craft—into the digital realm in new and interesting ways. Blank-slate devices like the iPhone and iPad portend new-to-the-world interfaces, stuff we haven’t seen yet, and I think John’s right that artists, artisans, and makers can contribute powerfully to that future. “I think that getting that community making content for iPads can change and improve the content in a big way,” he told me.

We’ve got developers, we’ve got designers, we’ve got artists, we’ve got makers. Interesting things happen when you bring them all together. We’re just at the very start of discovering the potential of the new kinds of interaction introduced by mobile and tablet computers. We’re exploring the future right now. Teams of geeks and artists are the people who create science fiction, and putting them together to invent this particular future only makes good sense. We’re at a moment when we can really push the boundaries and expectations of these new personal computers. Think big, think crazy, think new, think outside your usual community by creating a whole new one.

John’s a connector, and it will be interesting to see how it all evolves as he starts bringing local folks like me, like Jonathan Stark, into all this. It was an energizing and inspiring conversation. I hope to have more of those in the future, with John and others in the RISD and related communities.

John Maeda

Finally, two things that completely charmed me during our meeting. First, I was delighted to learn that one of my favorite works by John Maeda, is also one of his: Thicker Skin, love love love it. Second, I was oddly flattered that he took my picture. So, I took his, too:

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