John Maeda is a well-known designer, who most recently hails from the extremely reputable VC firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Wired has a pretty good summation on his background and qualifications. At Automattic, he’s filling a role they advertised a while back for an overall head of design.
The position, now removed from Automattic’s job page, was seeking a candidate with, “a mentoring and guiding spirit,” and someone, “fully devoted to the philosophy of being Open Source.” John’s resume qualifies him for the former, and his introductory post at the newly unveiled design.blog, at least, highlights a new-found excitement for the latter.
I was at MIT in the ‘80s when Open Source was just starting to take hold, and it felt super “hippie” and “decentralized” and “<insert other intoxicating adjectives that feel like freedom>.” It was important to a lot of the software engineers back then at MIT and across the world. It was a new, yet-to-be-discovered universe with unbridled enthusiasm. I grew up. I lost it. And there standing before me was someone who I had a few decades on, age-wise, but I didn’t at all feel wise. I felt his wisdom. I felt a wisdom that once mattered deeply to me. It called me back.
In recent years I’ve kept hearing the phrase “open web”—in reference to how Snapchat and Facebook and other so-called “walled gardens” do their best to keep their users inside their own universes of attention. I didn’t fully understand what that meant until Matt shared with me how 26% of the web runs on Open Source WordPress. My immediate reaction was, “26%?!” That’s crazy, I didn’t know that.
…most of the Web was not running on Open Source WordPress. 74%, which includes other material open source efforts out there, but also a whole lot of closed source systems. And a lot more closed source tech companies are in fashion right now—as I got to see by spending my last 3 years in the venture capital industry. I realized that Open Source is treated as a curiosity, by myself included, and not the revolutionary movement that it was, and should/could be today.
All of the open source speak is fine, and it’s important for Automattic to hire someone that can meld with the mentality that open source is important. But at the end of the day, Automattic has a lot of products that need significantly better design cohesion than they currently have. And in that regard especially I think this hire can be really beneficial for them.
A bunch of great designers work at Automattic — many of whom I know personally, and who also work on various open source WordPress projects. But Automattic isn’t overall a well-designed organization. It’s not a matter of pixels and colors and individual well-designed projects, but cohesion and brand continuity across their portfolio. And that’s why I think John could be great for them; his experience at Kleiner Perkins was all about helping startups think through design in a big-picture way.
Several designers could’ve probably stepped up from within Automattic and been great leaders in terms of design. But hiring someone with decades of design experience, from the outside, with a lot of added perspective, will help lend them the gravitas to lead and be trusted to improve product design across the board. And if I were a designer at Automattic, I would think it’s a pretty great opportunity to work with someone with that level of influence and experience.
Time will tell what his specific plans are, but his (ridiculous) title describes a three-pronged approach:
I asked him if I could make my title, “Global Head, Computational Design and Inclusion” because I wanted to do three things: 1/ highlight Automattic’s international community of designer-engineers (global), 2/ advance the kind of design that is being fully impacted by Moore’s Law (computational), and 3/ highlight how cutting-edge design requires the capacity to embrace human differences (inclusion).
The reason his presence at Automattic could matter for the broader WordPress world is pretty simple: Automattic is still, by far, the most influential company — from a design perspective — on the WordPress project. It is inevitable that some of the ideas and concepts they work on as a team designing at Automattic will flow over into conversations around WordPress’s design direction. I think that will be a good thing.