John Maeda, Why Automattic?

John Maeda, by Helena Price

John Maeda, by Helena Price for Techies Project

At some point in my career, I stopped caring about Open Source. I don’t know exactly when. But I know that when I met Matt Mullenweg just a few months ago and he told me how much he cared about Open Source … well, at first I didn’t get it. And then after a while, I frankly felt a little guilty.

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. Matt smiled at my reaction at first, but it wasn’t a real smile—it was as they say in Slack, a “:simple_smile:” which technically isn’t a full-fledged smile. It is a knowing smile—not one of being elated or happy per se, but one of understanding. An understanding that I didn’t have.

Until just yesterday, when Wired’s Margaret Rhodes interviewed me about joining Automattic and I shared this number with her as if to brag, “26% of the web runs on Open Source WordPress” … it finally hit me! That didn’t mean the number was a huge number, it meant 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.

Because in a world where there is less Open Source, there’s less opportunity to participate in the construction of the Web in an open, inclusive manner. Realizing that, I could feel inside me all my “<intoxicating adjectives that feel like freedom>” being taken away from me, my friends, and the entire world.

In the beginning days of the Web, Open Source was a human right. I can remember in the 90s as the Web was just starting to emerge how important it was that all of the Web could be decoded by simply pulling down the menu and selecting, “View Source…” which let you see the underlying code that created a website. And you could easily copy it, and adapt it, and share it with others so that more people could make more sophisticated websites. But the “View Source…” menu is now buried deeper in the browser’s menubar; and ever since Flash and other closed systems arrived on the Internet, it hasn’t been possible to view a lot of code written by the biggest companies out there. It’s happening in little pieces, but not at scale. Something important to creativity—Open Source—can easily go away. It’s vanishing, slowly and quietly.

So when Matt offered me the opportunity to join Automattic to serve the Open Source mission, and to get to work with interesting folks from all over the world (50 countries to be exact) to head design, I thought to myself, “How can I refuse?” It got even better when 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).

What was the best response that Matt could give to me? “It’s a long title, but I get why. It makes sense.” There’s a pause in the Slack feed from him, and then he adds, “And if you ever want to change it at any time, it’s just a matter of updating a field in one of our systems and requesting new business cards.” Matt’s matter-of-fact response reminded me of the absurdly beautiful freedom that comes with Open Source. That elegant ethos is succinctly stated on the home page of “We don’t make software for free, we make it for freedom.” So from today I am proud to fight for freedom with new colleagues, my fellow Automatticians.

Automattic is spread across more than 50 countries. If you work at Automattic, you can literally work anywhere in the world — we are completely decentralized.

So if you are a designer living anywhere in the world who wants to work from anywhere in the world, we are the place for you. Just visit our Work With Us page to learn more.

Applying to work at Automattic starts with an email to jobs @ the Automattic domain (note the double “T”), and taking special note of whether you are interested in a Product Designer role or a Marketing Designer role. That’s it!

❔ Whois

Automattic’s Global Head, Computational Design and Inclusion

Prior to Automattic, Maeda was Design Partner for the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) where he partnered with over 100 technology startups to best leverage design in their business practices and growth. At KPCB, Maeda launched the #DesignInTech Report, together with Jackie Xu, Aviv Gilboa, and Justin Sayarath at SXSW 2015. When first released, this report quickly made the “Best of Slideshare” list with its comprehensive approach to identifying trends at the intersection of technology, business, and design in both private and public companies. He currently serves on the boards of Sonos and Wieden+Kennedy, and is the author of a few books including The Laws of Simplicity, which has been translated into 14 languages.

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  1. Hi,

    First, congratulations on your new position. I’m sure you’ll make a huge impact on both Automattic in particular and the WordPress project and community in general. Also, thank you for ensuring that Inclusion is part of your title. I hope that, along with the billions of people who speak another language other than English as their native language, and along with the billion or so people who don’t have or can’t afford the latest and greatest technology, “inclusion” also includes the twenty percent of the world’s population with disabilities.

    I’m looking forward to all the great things you’ll bring to both Automattic and WordPress.



    1. Thanks Amanda — I’ve been moved by the work of Kat Holmes at Microsoft. Search for “Microsoft Inclusive” to view that work. It’s comprehensive, and v inspiring. Regards, John

  2. John,

    When the news of your move leapt onto my radar this morning I quickly searched out multiple sources, looking for the bigger picture — what your move means for design in the tech investment community and the larger tech industry.

    While on a personal level I wish you much success in your new role, on a professional level I read here, at WIRED, at TechCrunch, and others for signs of the nature of your departure: Was it a signal of Sandhill Road’s waning interest in design, or a more transparent signal of John Maeda’s commitment to make the greatest impact, as an advocate of design and design thinking, where it intersects with technology?

    I am pleased to read in your WIRED interview that you will continue to work with KPCB as a “strategic advisor,” and Michael Abbott’s participation in the article signaling Kleiner’s continued commitment to design.

    Further, like yourself, as a younger man I also once held out great hope for the open source movement, something with the potential to be the great liberator. When my professional career began to take shape I lost all interest. Having experimented with open source software, as much as I loved it in theory, in practice it was all a jumbled mess of kludgy user experience and inconsistent interfaces. Engineer colleagues would tout how the feature set of this-or-that open source application could meet their commercial counterpart feature-for-feature — there was nothing an Adobe product could do that couldn’t be accomplished with an open source “equivalent” … as long as you didn’t mind zero consistency in the UI, and occasional dabbling in some command line. The open source community was anything but “inclusive.” Expect your UI to be efficient and intuitive? Don’t want to occasionally slip into command line to get the job done? You must be a wimp. ‘Open source is for us insiders / professional coders only, everyone else stay out of our club,’ was the clear refrain. From my perspective as a professional designer (besides server side tools that would only be used by the IT department) open source software was strictly for dabblers and amateurs. Professional designers like myself, we had a job to do, and would use the best professional tools commercially available to do it.

    Ten years ago I launched my blog, GigantiCo. After researching all the blogging software available I eventually went with Squarespace on the merits of their elegant UI. There were many more affordable options available, but their user experience won out. I am genuinely enthusiastic to see what you can do at Automattic / WordPress.

    More recently I attended the Libertarian Party convention in Orlando this year as a member of John McAfee’s team. I deliberately left my MacBookPro back in New York and only brought an iPad, to avoid being sucked into spending my time chained to my laptop. By Saturday afternoon we had feedback from delegates and found the need to quickly produce new communications materials to distribute Sunday morning prior to the presidential nomination. Naturally I was called upon. Given the nature of the rest of John’s team (as one can only imagine), nobody had any Adobe products, and I was offered a Linux laptop with a copy of Inkscape (open source vector design software). In an evening I had to teach myself Inkscape, produce five new pieces of print collateral, and complete the work fast enough to get it to an overnight printer to stock our booth before the arrival of delegates on Sunday morning (thank you FedEx office). This experience taught me that in a pinch open source software can actually get the job done, but if Inkscape is an acceptable proxy for the open source movement as a whole, it still has a long way to go to match the user experience and efficiency of professional commercial software.

    You have quite a challenge before you, and I will be watching closely to see if you can help close that gap.



    1. Thanks for your inspiring story, Christopher. As to whether I can close the gap, I’m glad that you’ll be watching me closely to see how I do. I’m curious myself! Cheers, John

  3. john, we met when you spoke at IBM Design in 2015. i have been a wordpress proponent since its early days in supporting the cause and i am glad you have joined the team. it will be interesting to see your efforts in the coming months.


    1. I’m interested too! Lots and lots of lots of learning to do right now … Thanks, John

  4. Congratulations on the new venture, and welcome back to the open embrace of open source🙂


    1. Thanks Meagan — I have lots of learning to do! Regards, John

  5. Hi John,

    Congrats, excited to see you have this opportunity!

    I’m a design co-founder of a startup, do you have a list of your suggested material (articles, books, videos, etc) on Computational Design, Inclusive Design and the broader subject of embracing human differences?




    1. Regarding your Q about what to read, I suggest you visit Kat Holmes’ work on the Microsoft Inclusive Toolkit ( — it touches upon many key themes. With respect to computational design, I suggest you visit the website, and to also watch Margaret Stewart’s TED talk. Good luck, Chris! John

  6. Congratulations, this is great news!

    Open source works quite well for more and more people, but it’s still too heavily influenced by (the needs of) developers. Bringing designers (and everyone else) into the fold could lead to a Cambrian explosion in more pleasant to use open source software, and hopefully also spill over openness into more areas outside of software.


  7. Congrats, John. Really interesting story.


  8. Hi John,

    Congratulations on your new Job .
    I really think that by having a guy with your credentials / background, WordPress has a lot to gain.

    On a side note, why are you guys using Slack ( proprietary software ), when there are a lot of Open Source tools available ?


  9. Congratulations, John. Exciting things ahead and I look forward to reading and learning more on !




  10. Congrats, John! Your insights are fresh and intriguing as always. As a power user of WordPress and Automattic user/customer, I couldn’t be more pleased personally! And the design strategist in me wants to cheer “Bravo!” for your championship of the design+strategy blend.



  11. John, You and I may never meet but our journeys are inextricably bound together. Thanks for bing a smart, visionary and inclusive leader….we need more of you! Rayona Sharpnack, Founder and CEO of Institute for Women’s Leadership and Institute for Gender Partnership! []


  12. mymotivationbooks September 20, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    Hi John,
    Congratulations for joining Automattic. And at the same Best wishes for taking on the ride with Matt to make open source more useful and powerful. WordPress has really enabled thousands like me to share our experience and knowledge with the world without having any prior knowledge of coding. That’s the power of open source. Isn’t it? Look forward to hear more from you related to your experience at Automattic.


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