• Scott Kirsner
  • , Sep 2000
  • - Change Agents

Design Principal

Bruce Mau’s influential studio works with a roster of world-renowned clients. But its most enduring contribution may be to the theory and practice of design itself — from what kinds of projects are worth taking on to how to design for creative growth.

It’s tough to tell, at first, exactly what Bruce Mau Design is. Inside the high-ceilinged loft space on the edge of Toronto’s Chinatown are tall metal bookshelves, drafting tables, digital-video editing suites, architectural models, and scores of hard-working professionals. The deadline pressure is palpable, and couriers make breathless entrances and exits throughout the afternoon. Even as 6 PM approaches, not one employee makes a move to head for home. Instead, everyone on staff clusters around a tray of fresh fruit brought in by Cathy Jonasson, the firm’s vice president and managing director.

No wonder. Bruce Mau Design Inc. is handling more projects simultaneously than ever before: a massive, eight-screen multimedia installation called “Stress” for an art festival in Vienna; a corporate-identity campaign for a chain of storage facilities in England; signage for the Seattle Public Library; a master plan for a new park in Toronto; and a book called Life Style. But BMD is not an architecture firm or a book publisher. And it doesn’t employ a single graphic designer.

BMD is a studio in the purest sense of the word. “The word ‘studio’ derives from ‘study,’ ” says BMD founder Bruce Mau, 40. “We’re all about studying things — business problems, design problems — with our clients. Usually, clients want to study something very specific — a new identity, or a new product. Ideally, the studying benefits both of us. Our object is not to know the answers before we do the work. It’s to know them after we do it.”

Mau’s studio is an ongoing experiment in the best way to design an organization for long-term creative growth. Employees jokingly call the place “Bruce Mau University,” both for the intellectual freedom that it gives them, and for the support and the gentle prodding that Mau himself provides. Most of the people here could earn more at one of the city’s Web-design shops or commercial-architecture firms, but they stay at BMD because it affords them the ability to work on a wide range of high-quality projects. Indeed, Mau refuses a lot of work because, as Jonasson, 49, puts it, “the studio is populated by a bunch of restless minds. We are pushing one another constantly. We learn from one another. Here we have the chance to do really good work without having to deal with politics or corporate bureaucracy.”

It’s not easy managing a stable of filmmakers, architects, writers, and artists — all of whom have direct client contact; collaborate with world-renowned architects such as Frank Gehry and blue-chip cultural institutions such as the Getty Center, in Los Angeles; and expect (as Mau does) to be exploring new terrain every day.

“The project of the studio is its own design project,” says Mau, who has a pensive, low-key air that is occasionally punctuated by a burst of laughter, and who wears his loose, long-sleeved shirts untucked. “It’s largely a social project,” he continues. “It’s 90% about people and 10% about selecting the right business. You have to ensure that the work — and the time that people spend on it — is meaningful.”

People and Projects — Designs for Success

Bruce Mau founded BMD in 1985 to design a series of titles for New York – based Zone Books. Although the firm has built an impressive roster of clients over the past 15 years — including the Andy Warhol Museum; the Art Gallery of Ontario; the Gagosian Gallery; Roots, a Canadian clothing retailer; and Vitra, a Swiss furniture company — BMD still produces about six books a year for Zone. Since one of the hardest aspects of any BMD project is figuring out how to work productively with a client, Mau prizes longevity. In terms of what kind of work Mau does, there are really no boundaries: BMD does book design, logos, store interiors, signage, landscapes, film, magazines, and museum exhibits.

In designing an environment where creative people can do their best work, Mau has consciously steered clear of structure, regimentation, and rigid processes. He has drawn a distinction between the two types of gatherings at BMD: meetings and what he calls “workings.” Meetings exist to take care of mundane administrative issues, and they’re extremely infrequent. Much more common are workings — gatherings at which Mau and his staff generate or refine ideas, often in the company of clients.

BMD does, however, track hours — even though, as studio manager Jim Shedden, 37, says, designers are “allergic” to the concept. And employees don’t always track their time in conventional ways. Senior designer Chris Rowat, 31, describes a recent Wednesday like this: “15 minutes focusing on infinity, 15 minutes refocusing on my monitor.” Actually, Rowat has been crunching to design a big section of Mau’s book, Life Style — a collection of essays about Mau’s career, the studio’s work, and the culture of design that is due to be published by Phaidon Press in November.

Mau’s two central concerns are hiring the right people and selecting the right work. He is clear about what kinds of projects he wants to work on. “We have what we call the ‘Four Ps’ checklist,” he says. The four “P”s stand for “people,” “project,” “profit,” and “plate.” Mau evaluates whether a client is someone he’d enjoy working with. He asks whether the project is one that BMD could learn from, as well as whether the firm can make money doing it. Finally, he considers how the project would fit onto BMD’s plate: What impact would it have on the already-overcommitted team?

Screening clients this carefully sends a message to employees that every project is important. And since BMD doesn’t have a marketing brochure or a sales staff, the body of work that the studio produces also serves as its most visible advertising. “Chasing business is not the right way to get business,” Mau says. His system works surprisingly well. Several years ago, a set-design project for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s dance troupe led to a commission to produce a new visual identity for the Museums of the City of Antwerp, in Belgium.

On the people front, BMD has taken a similarly quiet and quirky approach. Many employees find out about the studio through word of mouth, or through art internships. “The studio is an ecology,” Mau says. “It can only absorb certain kinds of people, so we’re super rigorous. Explosive growth doesn’t work for me. We want to grow in a more natural way and maintain the ecology. I feel like a guardian. Bringing in the wrong kinds of people poisons the garden.”

In the summer of 1999, Mau ran a recruitment ad in an alternative Toronto weekly. Rather than following the standard help-wanted format, though, Mau created the ad in the form of a quiz. The headline was one of Mau’s favorite catchphrases: “Avoid fields. Jump fences.” There were 40 questions, from “Who designed Toronto’s New City Hall?” to “Who made a film consisting of nothing but the color blue?” (Answers: Viljo Revell and Derek Jarman.)

The ad became something of a phenomenon. It generated responses not only in the form of letters and résumés, but also via Web sites, books, and sculptures. “It was just phenomenal,” Mau recalls. “Everyone in town heard about it.” The ad brought BMD three new employees, and an infusion of outside contractors and collaborators. “It also brought in a stack of résumés that we continue to draw from,” Mau says. “We’re planning to run an ad every year, not to fill specific job openings but to keep shaking the tree. We’re looking for a very specific kind of person” — not necessarily people who think of themselves as designers but people who use design to think through problems — “and we figure there’s a lot of talent that’s stuck in the wrong place.”

Mau already has his headline for the next ad: “The Test of Character Is Multiple Choice.”

Design Principles

Since childhood, Mau has chosen never to hew to a particular job description, and he doesn’t expect his employees to either. Hence the motto “Avoid fields. Jump fences.” Growing up in Sudbury, Ontario, a nickel-mining town six hours north of Toronto, Mau studied science and engineering, but he worried that his adult life might consist of soldering circuit boards. In high school, he knew that he wanted to make a change, but his guidance counselor told him that it was too late. “I said, ‘Surely, my fate can’t be sealed at the age of 16,’ ” recalls Mau. The guidance counselor found a program for people who wanted to go to art school but who didn’t meet the academic prerequisites.

“It was called Special Art,” Mau says. “It was a year of doing nothing but art, and it changed my life.” Mau immersed himself in drawing, ceramics, and photography, and he learned how to use the school’s one-color offset lithography press to produce full-color prints. His work, including the design of his school’s commencement program, was so good that the admissions staff at what was then called the Ontario College of Art, in Toronto, was skeptical that he had done it by himself.

Mau’s trip to Toronto for his college-admission interview was his first trip ever to a big city. He was accepted, but he soon found his courses too elementary. So he started sitting in on the senior classes. “I was getting honors in the fourth-year classes and hassles in the first-year classes,” Mau says. When he decided to show his own drawings, instead of his official class work, at a school exhibition, the department chair chastised him, and Mau dropped out of school.

He quickly found a job at Fifty Fingers — one of Toronto’s hot, young design studios. A year later, he moved to London to work at Pentagram Design Inc. — a large, international design firm. While both positions helped Mau sharpen his skills, his outspokenness didn’t help his popularity at Pentagram. “We were expected to be like slaves: Listen to your boss, and just do it,” he says. When Mau quit Pentagram after a year and a half, his supervisor told him that one of the senior partners had long been suspicious of him. Why? “I was working late a lot, because I was interested in the work,” Mau says. “And this partner said, ‘No one here works like that.’ “

Mau returned to Toronto in 1983 and cofounded a three-person studio called Public Good, where he created ad campaigns and informational materials for unions, government agencies, and cultural institutions. Eventually, Mau left Public Good to start BMD and work on the Zone Books series. “We designed the first Zone dummy in seven days,” he says. “If you had to produce a calling card as a young designer, you couldn’t do better. Zone went to all of the right institutions, schools, and studios. I had an international practice immediately.”

Mau’s reputation continued to build as he designed more projects for Zone Books, as well as various projects for the Andy Warhol Museum, in Pittsburgh; the Art Gallery of Ontario; and the Getty Center, in Los Angeles. His career mushroomed in 1998 when he gave a presentation at the influential Doors of Perception conference, in Amsterdam. After two days of lectures about technology, Mau took the stage to speak about personal creative development. He titled his talk “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth,” and it had nothing to do with computers. It consisted of 43 suggestions and admonitions, such as “Make mistakes faster,” “Allow events to change you,” and “Ask stupid questions.”

“The audience went crazy,” Mau remembers. “At the end of this barrage of technology, I was saying that creativity is device-independent. I was asking the audience to use its noodle.” The manifesto was later published in I.D. magazine, where Mau had served as art director for a time. It was translated into Italian, Swedish, and several other languages, and it became a viral phenomenon on the Web. It was posted in newsgroups and circulated by email. “The oddest thing I heard was that a New Zealand company had used the manifesto on its corporate Web site,” says Mau. “It has taken on a life of its own.”

Creativity by Design

Designing an organization for creative growth, to Mau, means unhitching it from a single “guru” figure and allowing the entire group to help shape the work process — from brainstorming to final product. Many creative groups, like architecture firms or ad agencies, rely on a single central authority to define their style and to approve the work being done on a given project. BMD has tried to avoid that “hub and spoke” system.

That model “is all about a single person’s productivity and [design] sensibility,” says Mau. “What we have is more of a cellular system. We’re all interdependent; no one is totally dependent on me. And the culture creates its own stylistic sensibility. People who have been here for years have contributed to it, and new people add to it. That model has more of an unlimited growth potential. It’s not confining.”

Mau doesn’t flit around the office dispensing guidance and feedback in small doses. Instead, he delves deeply into a few projects — usually in areas where the studio is trying to break new ground or to develop a new competency like editing digital video — and very lightly follows the progress of others. “I don’t want to limit what we do just because my time is limited,” he says. “I did a lot of book design for the Zone series in the early days, for example. Other people work on that project now, though I still serve as creative director. They do a better job than I could, because the project isn’t new to me anymore. When I worked on Zone, I was always a different person coming out the other side of each book. I want to give other people that kind of experience now.”

On a Wednesday afternoon in April, Mau spends several hours sitting with the team that is reworking a section of “Stress,” a 45-minute video that debuted the previous weekend at the du Maurier World Stage festival, in Toronto, and that will be shown throughout the summer in Vienna. The section is titled “Blitzkrieg.” It doesn’t yet contain any of the signature blitzkrieg images from World War II, but Mau wants to insert a few. Rather than dictating changes to the employees, he merely sits in the editing bay, watches a string of video clips, and mostly agrees on which pieces of footage would work best. In the end, the team decides not to add the blitzkrieg images.

“Bruce is demanding, but he’s not prescriptive,” says Cathy Jonasson. Jonasson left a prestigious curatorial position at the Art Gallery of Ontario — and took a 20% pay cut — to work at BMD. “Mau is very good at looking at someone’s work and finding the best in it. People leave him feeling good about their work and knowing what they have to do to make their work even better. He constantly emphasizes what you mightcall the ‘Mau method’: Ask the right questions, understand the problem, and explore lots of possible solutions.”

BMD is also unusual in that Mau doesn’t always serve as the front man, attending client meetings while others do the real work. There are no account executives who “manage” clients either. “In most other design firms, there are lots of layers between the client and the person doing the design,” observes Chris Pommer, 37, a senior designer who is working on the Seattle Public Library project. “Bruce puts us in contact with the clients. In most cases, we have more contact with them than he does. I feel that responsibility directly. If I promise something to a client, I’ll stay late to get it done. It would be different if it were a promise that someone else made to the client. Mau delegates a tremendous amount of responsibility to the designers here.”

While their approach is an aesthetic one, the designers at BMD are constantly asking questions about clients’ goals. Those questions can be anything from helping library visitors find the bathroom, to transforming a former industrial compound and airport into an inviting urban park, to repositioning a chain of storage centers in the minds of consumers. By producing models and sketches for clients, the design team at BMD can help its clients shape the customer experience. “We try to make the circumstances of their business vivid in a way that typical business planning doesn’t,” says Kevin Sugden, 39, a senior designer who is working with Access Storage Space, one of the largest self-storage companies in Europe.

With Access, “we’re doing an identity, ostensibly, but it’s also a definition of the company,” Mau explains. “Nothing could be more generic than empty space, but if you define that space with a metaphor, you create value. We asked, What could this space become?”

Sugden and the Access team created a set of playful posters that offered different scenarios for what the company might choose to represent to its customers: workroom, living room, playroom, breathing room, clean room, storage room. “Scenarios give people a chance to think about what they want to be-come,” says Sugden. “Do they want to become a museum-like archive; a main street, where people bump into one another and engage in conversations; or a super-automated, techie storage facility?”

Adds Mau: “We’re using the techniques of design and communications to do something new — to get to the essence of the business.”

Designs on the Future

The atmosphere at BMD is intense and deadline-oriented, but somehow, the creative percolation never boils over. This fall, Mau’s “The Culture of Work” project will start to surface, partly through a partnership with the high-end Swiss furniture company Vitra. Mau conducted his own wide-ranging inquiry into what it means to be creative in the workplace. In talking with Vitra chief executive Rolf Fehlbaum, Mau found that Fehlbaum is interested in the same kinds of questions that he was asking: “Is seniority worth waiting for? What defines a good job?”

So BMD and Vitra are conducting a joint investigation into the culture of the workplace. The next issue of Vitra’s biannual publication, “Workspirit,” is due out this month to coincide with a major furniture trade show in Colon. There are also plans for Web sites, conferences, ad campaigns, and books. “All of the energies of cultural change are coursing through the workplace,” Mau says. “What if Vitra becomes synonymous not only with exceptional design but also with research, speculation, and thinking about [work]?”

Other BMD projects are barreling ahead. The final edit of “Stress” must be finished by the end of the week, and, by Monday, the video equipment will be shipped to Vienna. In two weeks, the firm will present its designs for the Seattle Public Library, and, that same week, it will unveil a model and some sketches of its plan for Downsview Park, in Toronto. Both projects are in partnership with Rem Koolhaas’s firm, the Office for Modern Architecture.

All of that means that most of the 20 full-time employees of Bruce Mau Design will be staying late tonight. Chris Pommer explains why he’ll stick around, even though BMD doesn’t offer the stock options of a Net startup or the higher pay of a commercial firm: “We’re not designing junk mail that will wind up in a landfill. This is stuff that, if we do it right, will last.”

Mau himself never stops thinking about the things that bind his studio together and keep his people energized about doing good work. “Now that I have a family, I see the business in a much more holistic way,” he says. “A big part of why people come here is for the adventure and the journey: It allows them to go down roads that they haven’t been down before.”

Scott Kirsner ([email protected]) is a Fast Company contributing editor.

Sidebar: Changing Identity

Bruce Mau Design has created the visual identity for institutions like the Netherlands Architecture Institute, in Rotterdam, and Indigo, a Canadian chain of book and music stores. For one client, BMD set expiration dates for the signage and other materials, so that the client would be perceived as perpetually fresh. Mau explains the new split personality of corporate identity:

“In the days when designers like Paul Rand were creating logos for IBM and for Westinghouse, corporate identity was about fixing a position. You wanted to communicate stability. In the current climate, you have to engineer two vectors — one of stability and one of change — simultaneously. Madonna is a classic example. She engineers transformations. The person and the music stay pretty stable, but the image changes. And because it changes, you see it again. If she stayed the same, people would move on.

“You can’t stabilize or else you disappear. Companies producing change are the only ones that you see in the marketplace — whether it’s technological change, programmatic change, or territorial change. Corporate identity has to communicate that.”

Sidebar: When to Say No to a Client
Bruce Mau Design Inc. is almost entirely free of regimentation. Its managers do have one system, though, which they use to decide whether to take on a project. “Our work defines who we are, so we like to choose our projects in a considered way,” says Bruce Mau. Below, he describes his “Four Ps” checklist.

People: “Every project boils down to spending time with the client. If its people are good, you can overcome any problem. If they’re bad, every problem will seem twice as big.”

Project: “Is the project adventurous? Would it provide new opportunities for learning?” BMD doesn’t do any marketing, so its body of work attracts new clients. Knowing that, Mau and his team are reluctant to do work in industries or domains that they think are creative dead ends.

Profit: “We need to make money on everything that we do in order to sustain the business, whether it’s a project for an art gallery or a multinational corporation.”

Plate: “How much do we have on our plate?” BMD has only 20 full-time employees, and a tight network of freelancers and contractors. Mau is wary of trying to expand the size of his firm too quickly; he thinks carefully about how new work will affect the group.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.