• Bruce Mau 
  • Apr 12, 2012

Design is Leadership – not fancy expensive baubles. Design is critical to success — in business, government and education.

When most of us hear the word “design,” we think of fancy, sleek, expensive objects. We think about the shape of things. We imagine something visual, formal, that is the work of a singular artist — the designer. This coming week in Milano we will gather the church of small “d” design. Tens of thousands of followers will come together to reaffirm their belief in surface, color and form as the highest purpose of design.

For me, this definition of small “d” design, and its place in business, culture and life, is old fashioned and hopelessly limited. I help companies think and practice big “D” Design. Over twenty-five years of Design practice, I have developed a repeatable methodology of solving problems that seem unsolvable. For me, Design is Leadership — the ability to imagine and visualize an abundant sustainable future, and work systematically to execute the vision. That is why I quit my work at Bruce Mau Design, and committed to building the Massive Change Network — to bring my innovative Design method to as many people as possible. We urgently need to understand that Design is creative Leadership. Design is how we change things. Design is central to our future. Design is the only way out of here. If we are to have a future at all, we have to imagine a different role for design in Business, Education and Government.

Design is critical to success in Business. Design is how leaders lead. We gather information, analyze the situation and define the challenge. We explore possible solutions to the challenge as we have defined it. We iterate and develop options. We make a decision and build the Design we have created. We experience our design and learn from its successes and failings. Is there a better definition of leadership than the ability to imagine a better future and make it happen? Design is not fancy expensive things — Design is what makes an airplane fly, and a cell phone work, and the lights turn on, and the chair comfortable after a long day, and the water come out of your tap when you turn on your faucet. Design is how we succeed.

And yet, Design as Leadership is marginal in our business culture. We have almost no public understanding of design and its power to shape our lives. No agreed upon definition. There is practically no education in design of this sort. Design lead companies like Apple, Google, Coca-Cola, P+G, and Pixar have used Design to dominate the creation of brand equity and wealth — but design still remains a dark art, a mysterious unquantifiable practice with little or no repeatable methodology. With the exception of the late Steve Jobs — Design rarely takes a seat at the boardroom table.

Design is critical to success in education. If Design is critical to global success, we have to begin with education. Unfortunately, in most of the world, Design education — the ability to think holistically about problems as opportunities, and apply a systematic critical method to create and explore solutions — doesn’t begin until college. For most of the world’s population, college isn’t possible. Consequently, the vast majority of people are cut off from the power of design.

In the lower grades we educate our children to stop their creativity, take their brains apart, and separate mathematics, science and art. Students learn that they are not creative or capable of creating beauty, rather than learning the methods of design and seeing the holistic patterns underlying the universe.

At the same time, our technophobic higher education system is designed to exclude more than it includes. The status of almost every university is correlated not to its scale, reach or impact, to what it accomplishes; but to who and how many it excludes. By driving access down and pricing up, we have created a model of higher education that is accessible to a smaller and richer population, in a time where knowledge is the key to health, wealth and opportunity.

Design is critical to success in Government. In government, Design is practically non-existent. Most governments around the world are using structures that are HUNDREDS OF YEARS OLD! If Design is Leadership — envisioning a better future, and systematically working to realize the vision — we are running a massive Design deficit. For this reason, interacting with our government is often dreary, and we trust them less and less to do anything.

While the market races ahead, inventing new products, services, capacities, connectivity, and ways of gaming the old regulatory systems — our design of government and regulation is critically outmoded.

In the misguided belief that a free market would design itself, we castrated any effort to design and innovate regulation to keep pace with the financial market innovators. The result was and is the greatest economic crisis in living memory. The solution is innovative regulatory design, able to keep pace with the market, and generate dynamic stability again.

Design has the potential to make change understandable and directed, rather than random and frightening. Only by Design can we reinforce stability so that we can once again embrace innovation.

In this context of extraordinary challenges, in the hopes of advancing human society, we are developing the Massive Change Network. It is a global educational initiative to bring the methods and power of design to the greatest number of people possible at the highest speed and lowest cost. We know this is just the beginning. It is our way of starting on the journey of reaching the 99%.