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Good Advice: “Money Isn’t The Enemy”

by John Maeda

April 8, 2017

John Maeda’s work explores the intersection of business, technology, and design. A celebrated artist and technologist, he credits his winding career path—from academia (associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab and president of Rhode Island School of Design) to venture capital (advising startups as design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers)—to always “confronting his own ignorance” with a sense of curiosity and humanity. Here he shares his best money advice:

I always go back to what Paul Rand, the famous graphic designer, told me in the ’90s when I worked on his last book—and I typed my name into his book because he wouldn’t pay me anything. He said, “Young man, I have something very important to tell you: Make lots of money.” I was a little perplexed because here’s the Yoda of design telling me to make money—what’s that about? You see, what he had learned is that everything he loved to do tended to not make any money, whereas there were things that he could do that would make money. So he would take the thing that made money to fund the thing that didn’t. For example, his famous book, A Designer’s Art, was a five-color printed book, which was very expensive to make at the time. The publisher refused to pay the extra printing costs so Rand paid them himself. I took that as a cue.

Someone asked me, “Why don’t you look for the overlap? Why don’t you figure out how to do both?” And I said, “Well, Paul Rand told me this is the easier way, so that’s how I think.” I don’t look for the overlap. I know some people do. I think it’s hard, probably harder than most people think. Is there an easy way? Did I miss it?

If you’re a creative type, you’re especially taught to fear money because it’s depicted as something dark and bad. Every movie, every storybook, the person with the money is usually the bad person. We never think of money as generative.

I work to make money to do things I want to do. I don’t squander it and buy a Tesla. I convert it into my projects. But besides what Paul Rand told me, what I would tell anyone is that you have to use your money, which means you’ll have to fail a lot. Experiment with what it can do and then, once you get the hang of it, use it to do more things you’re proud of, whether you’re a philanthropist, or a startup person, or an investor. It’s a different kind of material. It’s like paper, wood, or metal. It’s just a medium.

As told to Caroline Pham