John Maeda’s New Design Problem: Tech’s Utter Lack Of Diversity by Katharine Schwab

John Maeda’s New Design Problem: Tech’s Utter Lack Of Diversity by Katharine Schwab

Design evangelist John Maeda recently announced that he’s joined Automattic, the parent company of, WooCommerce, Jetpack, and others. His new title? The global head of computational design and inclusion—which means he’ll be overseeing design efforts as well as identifying exclusionary aspects of the company’s products.

“I believe that creativity and inclusion are two sides of the same coin,” Maeda says. “They’re necessary things. If you care about design, you have to care about inclusion.”

Maeda may have his work cut out for him, both at Automattic and in a larger sense. Inclusive design at its heart is a way of creating products and services that attempt to reach the broadest range of people possible, particularly those in underserved communities. This way of thinking is increasingly being acknowledged by companies like Microsoft and Google, which are betting that if they can design a better product that meets the needs of someone in an underserved demographic, they’ve built a better product for everyone.

“Design culture isn’t the priority—it’s to make a working product,” says Maeda. “My goal really as the head of computational design and inclusion is to help the community to unlock its own ability to understand what design is, and become better designers in the process.”

This requires including people of different races, genders, disability levels, and backgrounds in the design process. Automattic did not provide specifics at Co.Design’s request for the company’s racial diversity, but the company’s gender breakdown for developers was part of the Women in Software Engineering data project. As of June 29, 2016, just 14 of the company’s nearly 200 programmers were female.

According to Lori McLeese, the company’s head of HR, Automattic has “a ton of room to improve,” though they “strongly believe that diverse teams create the best results.”

It’s a sentiment that many a tech titan has preached, but as McLeese acknowledged, the reality is often quite different. The tech world is notoriously bad at hiring people with different viewpoints and backgrounds or promoting a culture of inclusion internally. This lack of diversity can translate into biased code that perpetuates social inequalities, from the gender pay gap to racism.

It can even manifest in web and mobile design. Apple’s emojis have come under fire for being racist, both before the company offered a way to change the color of emoji skin and after. Facebook’s friend avatars previously showed a woman standing behind a man, until one (female) designer fixed it.

But there are more insidious examples as well. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon found that women are less likely to be shown targeted ads for high-paying jobs than men are. An investigation by Bloomberg showed that Amazon same-day delivery wasn’t available for the zip codes of predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The algorithm for Google’s photo app “unintentionally” categorized African-Americans as gorillas.

Maeda, an Asian-American man and prominent figure in the design and technology community, said he has only recently opened his eyes to how his race has affected his career. “I had this realization that I’m Asian,” he says. “It means I can see the world differently. But if you’re different, you are treated differently. I never let that into me before.” By “different,” he means anyone who doesn’t fit the “nerdy white guy” profile.

Earlier this year, Maeda published an essay on his relationship to his race, and vowed to be more aware of the challenges that Asians face in tech as a model minority. “I’ve been bothered knowing that my desire to just stay focused on ‘fitting in’ has conditioned me to ignore a lot of my responsibilities as an Asian-American leader,” he wrote.

It would appear that Maeda is trying to fulfill some of those responsibilities in his new role. Issues of diversity usually fall under the purview of human resources—Maeda says he made diversity a priority while he was president of the Rhode Island School of Design, particularly through a community narratives project—but at Automattic, he plans to look for signs of exclusion in the products themselves. is used by millions, and its open-source counterpart is used by millions more, he said. It works for a lot of people. Maeda’s goal is to make it work for more people, using computational design as the means to his end. He defined computational design as “anytime design is impacted by Moore’s Law”—basically, using the power of computing to analyze and solve design problems.

“It’s the design executive’s view of design and inclusion,” he says. “I can ask questions about any content, any product, any way we try to create a better outcome—who’s here? Who are we missing? How can we make sure we’re not missing anyone?”

It’s still unclear how this mandate will fit into his job on a day-to-day basis, and Maeda didn’t provide more details about what being the head of inclusion will mean beyond a mandate to ask questions about the company’s products and create a more open, design-centric culture. He views his role for the time being as listening and engaging with as many people as he can.

“When you open the inclusive window for people to ask questions about where things come from and get critical, you just make better decisions, more informed decisions,” he says. “This isn’t me saying to them; it’s them saying to me.”

But Maeda does have questions of his own. “I’ve been most of my life in the U.S., and I lived in Japan for a while, but [Automattic] is a truly international hive. I’m asking, do we have any designers from Africa? How broad are we in our influences?” he says. “But I’ve just begun.”


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