Why introducing good design to established companies isn’t so easy

Introducing a good design ethos to large corporations is largely a cultural issue, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner John Maeda said in the first session of Gigaom’s Roadmap conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Maeda — the former president of Rhode Island School of Design and professor at MIT — said some established companies risk falling behind younger rivals because good design can’t simply be introduced in one fell swoop.

“The younger generation moves so fast and gets it, whatever that is,” he said. “Larger established companies don’t get it, so they’re behind. [People say] ‘We’re going to fix it and give them a weapon.’ What’s always missing in that equation is that large corporations are cultures. By definition, they’re designed to not change… when we bring a new system in, we forget that the big design problem is one of culture, of understanding.”

That’s not to say Maeda has anything against those who aren’t young’uns – indeed, he also said he is “very interested in designers who are over 50, because they don’t believe they can become an entrepreneur” but are now seeing how their experience can give them a role in the tech-driven world of today.

Maeda also referred to the decades-long evolution of Apple’s design language, and how that had given the company a huge advantage today. However, he said he doubted whether Apple could maintain its design lead.

“I think it’s going to decay; it’s inevitable,” he said. “If the Beatles could last forever, they wouldn’t be that great. I hope that decay is going to be a gentle one.”

Is he going to buy an Apple Watch next year? No, he’ll stick with his 1989 Seiko. “I’m tired of plugged-in things,” Maeda said. “They’re like my pets that have to be fed all the time.”

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This post was updated at 11:04pm to clarify Maeda’s role at MIT.

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