5 years ago, this design guru went to work in Silicon Valley. Here’s why he’s done

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Design evangelist and provocateur John Maeda is leaving Silicon Valley. His goal? To help legacy companies compete with the very world he’s leaving behind.

Maeda spent the past three years heading up computational design and inclusion at Automattic, the parent company of WordPress, where, among other things, he looked at ways to bring design and technology to coal country. In his new position, Maeda will be the chief experience officer at the digital consulting arm of the advertising conglomerate Publicis, which was recently renamed Publicis Sapient. That means he’ll oversee design and creativity at the consulting firm and will have his fingers in marketing, product, strategy, and diversity.

The move is unusual for Maeda, a former MIT Media Lab professor who has established roots in Silicon Valley over the past several years. In 2013, he left his role as president of the Rhode Island School of Design to become the first design partner at the prominent Menlo Park, Calif., venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. He joined Automattic in 2016.

Since working at Automattic, Maeda says that he has become increasingly interested in what he calls the “end-ups”-companies that are in some ways the opposite of startups because they ended up as successes and are now struggling to adapt to a tech-driven world.

But Maeda says he’s fed up with the size and bloated power of large tech companies. He has become more intrigued by the companies that “serve the lives of human beings, regular people, non-tech people.”

“I want to help end-ups succeed, because if you let . . . the tech world happen, we’re going to be controlled by just a few players,” he says. “I had a chance to learn that through the Silicon Valley universe and the WordPress Automattic world, and I’m wondering about the end-ups and how they’re doing. I want to . . . bridge the end-ups into this next world with the technology and creative stuff that I know.”

He thinks Publicis Sapient is the right place to do that, paradoxically, because the company has tech cred. Publicis Sapient is a mix of two storied companies, digital consulting business Sapient and interactive design studio Razorfish; both were acquired by the French advertising conglomerate Publicis. (Publicis acquired the digital Sapient in 2015 for $4 billion to become its digital arm, and in 2016, the company merged the renamed SapientNitro with Razorfish.) The joint company was rebranded as Publicis Sapient earlier this year. Publicis Sapient alone has more than 20,000 employees, and its parent company Publicis is the third largest ad company in the world.

“How do we help clients continue to reimagine themselves in the context of a world that’s entirely digital?” says Nigel Vaz, the new CEO of Publicis Sapient. “[Maeda] has always demonstrated that appreciation of design and creativity but also the need for technology to be strongly married to that.”

It’s unclear how, exactly, Maeda plans to help these so-called end-ups-and whether working at a consultancy within an ad conglomerate is the place to do it, as opposed to, say, working at a nonprofit or in government.

But Maeda believes that the power afforded his new role will help. The chief experience officer sits in the C-suite-Maeda’s first time in such an executive position-alongside the chief technology officer. (There was another chief experience officer before him, who moved on to Mastercard.)

“I’m hopeful that positioning experience next to engineering means that [Publicis Sapient] can also serve the end-ups at scale, to give some of this elixir that’s coming out of Silicon Valley in spades and give them a fighting chance,” he says.