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John Maeda Is The Fortune-Cookie

The wise RISD president dispenses personalized advice in a live exhibition at London's Riflemaker gallery

by Leonora Oppenheim in Culture on 19 November 2010

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Today John Maeda, digital design guru and President of RISD, drew my destiny in the sand at the Riflemaker Gallery in London's Soho area. Playing my part in Maeda's four day consultancy performance piece "John Maeda is the Fortune Cookie" was a brief, but rather unforgettable experience.

There was little eye contact from Maeda as I was ushered reverently into the room by a lab-coated gallery assistant, he was busy stamping down the sand to create his newly blank canvas. His quiet presence was authoritarian, accentuating the impression of consulting an oracle. The sandpit arrangement, with him on the inside and me on the outside, created the necessary space between us. I am the outsider. The challenge? Can I break down the boundary with my presence and words?

In my allotted ten minutes I told him the fortunate story of how an outing for a cookie one afternoon last week led me to the Riflemaker gallery space and provided me with the opportunity to book a slot in his "fortune-cookie" performance. He liked the poetry of that.

While Maeda traced my story in the sand, cookie and all, I asked him "From one interdisciplinary person to another, how do you find a harmonious balance between the long + deep and the wide + shallow?"

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I struck a chord. Maeda said he also experienced the discomfort of being interdisciplinary, but that he had gotten over it because he was happy in himself.

He then recounted a visual reference he once got from a Japanese designer, who contrasted the Eastern view of building a wide sturdy base with a shallow elevation (Maeda drew Mount Fuji—Hokusai style—in the sand), with Western narrow tall constructions that topple over (he then drew a vertical line that immediately resembled a skyscraper).

In summary John Maeda's advice to me consisted of these salient points: Be confident enough to forge your own path, build a wide and sturdy base, be happy in yourself, don't let other people take you down, move out in front of the pack, be a leader and a role model, enjoy your cookie.

I left, as Maeda hurriedly erased my sandy story with his feet, clutching a signed print out of one of his tweets (a poetic embodiment of making the digital physical). The tweet, for which I paid the princely sum of £2, says "The shortest communication path between two people is a straight talk." Precisely.

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