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Executive in the Spotlight: The battle against the Ugly Alliance

Design firm is built on the idea that computers and beauty go together

Sunday, January 24, 1999

By Michael Newman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In his spare time, Peter Lucas likes to explore the deep, dark recesses of the Earth. Yet he also appreciates the commanding view of a mountaintop.

Peter Lucas, co-founder and CEO of Maya Design Group, stands in front of a whiteboard coverd with notes he made during recent conversations. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)/b> 

Lucas is a self-described "caver." One of his hobbies is crawling into forbidding holes in the ground. And spelunking, like much else in life, is a matter of faith: The end is not always visible from the beginning. Caves may eventually reveal a spectacular cavern or simply narrow to an uncomfortable crevice.

Like his hobby, Lucas' career has not been predictable. As an undergraduate at Penn State, he majored in education. He earned his master's and doctorate in educational psychology at Cornell, and almost two decades ago he landed a fellowship in his field at Carnegie Mellon University. It was, by any measure, a promising start to a career in academia.

So how did he end up running a design company?

"I wanted to be a little closer to where the rubber meets the road," he says - a phrase he takes quite literally in his hobby. In this context, however, Lucas means it more metaphorically.

Academic research can be stultifying, and by the mid-1980s, Lucas was casting about for a more relevant calling. He found it in a decades-old book called "Never Leave Well Enough Alone," by Raymond Loewy. It was about industrial design.

Before he read it, "I don't think I could have told you what industrial design was," Lucas says. "I more or less stumbled across this book, and it kind of captivated me."

Loewy, a Frenchman who visited America just after World War I and later gained fame as an industrial designer, was impressed by the high quality of mass-production goods in America. He was equally dismayed at their poor design. "Here were quality and ugliness combined," he wrote. "Why such an ugly alliance?"

    Peter Lucas

Age: 46

Title: Co-founder, president and principal and cognitive scientist, Maya Design Group

Education: B.S. education, Pennsylvania State University, 1974; M.S. and Ph.D., educational psychology, Cornell University, 1981; postgraduate research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison

Career path: Sloan Fellow in cognitive science and senior researcher in psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, 1981-1989; co-founder, president and principal and cognitive scientist, Maya Design Group, 1989-present


Lucas was struck by the relevance of Loewy's plaint to the computer industry. "People never use computer and beauty in the same sentence," he says. If he could "take what happened in the '20s with industrial design and apply it to the computer" - well, Lucas says, that would be worthy and interesting work.

With his background in educational psychology, Lucas thought of design in terms of cognition: The purpose of good design wasn't necessarily to make things look nice, though it could, but to make them easier to use.

Along with Jim Morris, who is still at Carnegie Mellon as chairman of the computer science department, and Joseph Ballay, the former head of the university's design department and a current senior faculty member there, he started Maya in 1989. (The name, incidentally, is an acronym from Loewy's book: It stands for "Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.")

It has been a satisfying experience, Lucas says. The company has almost 50 employees, and its client list includes such major corporations as Ameritech and GTE, along with such smaller companies as FreeMarkets Online and local institutions such as the Carnegie Science Center. Maya also does research work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

But more fulfilling is the depth and complexity of the company's work, Lucas says. Maya has even registered the term "Taming Complexity."

"We don't want to simplify or eliminate complexity, because it's the complexity of computers that makes them so useful," he says. "We want to tame it."

One example of Maya's work is the design of the interface for the remote control of Samsung's 25-inch TV. The menu that appears onscreen is the result of Maya's research and design.

Another example is something Lucas calls "polymorphic sharing," which is a fancy way of saying that people should be able to look at the same information at the same time - but in different ways.

A company's monthly sales figures may be best understood by the chief accountant in the form of a spreadsheet, while the sales manager may want to view the same figures as a bar graph. Maya can design an interface so both can study the information simultaneously, and even alter it, in whatever form they prefer.

"It's an 'info-centric' approach to computing," Lucas says: The information responds to the user, not the other way around. "It's startling how far you can take this."

Lucas is also chairman of Three Rivers Connect, an initiative in what he calls "civic computing." The goal is to use technology to make it easier for citizens of the entire region to find and use information. By 2003, he says, he hopes to have established a "regional information space" in cyberspace.

"Fifty years from now, people will come to Pittsburgh to see how civic computing was invented," he says.

So perhaps cave-crawling is not an entirely apt metaphor. Lucas seems to have a clear sense of where he is now, and where he wants to go, not to mention a gorgeous view of the Monongahela and Downtown from his office seven stories above the South Side.

Herbert Simon, Carnegie Mellon's Nobel laureate and a main reason Lucas came Pittsburgh almost two decades ago, once defined design as a systematic effort to affect the future. That's what he feels he's doing now, Lucas says. "My personal aspiration has never been to have a huge company. It's to affect the future."

"Success for me is to do important work," he says. "I'm happy as a clam."

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