• , Dec 2009
  • - Wired

Meet Bruce Mau. He wants to redesign the world

Bruce Mau sat on a stage in the ballroom of New York’s Grand Hyatt hotel, accompanied by Marc Mathieu, a senior vice-president of Coca-Cola. The event was a design industry trade show, and this session focused on Coca-Cola’s attempt to redesign its business to be more sustainable. Usually when corporate executives talk about sustainability, the challenge for listeners is to sustain interest.

But Mau livened up his presentation with dramatic gestures (at one point he held up his drinking glass and asked the audience, “What happens after this breaks?”), along with compelling images on an overhead screen. One of these showed a sea of plastic bottles – as if thousands of them had been dumped into the water. Then the view pulled back and it was more like hundreds of thousands. It pulled back again and it was more like millions.

This trade conference wasn’t the first time he’d shown the image; Mau had employed it very effectively in one of his early business meetings with executives at Coca-Cola. He’d wanted to give the company a jolt of “future shock”, so he presented the digitally doctored images backed up with real-world numbers that he’d projected for the next 50 years. “We showed those two million bottles,” Mau recalls, “and then I said to them, ‘What you’re seeing here? That’s nothing. Over the next 50 years, you will leave 2.2 trillion discarded bottles in the environment.'” And all those empty Coke bottles piling up all around, he said, would become a kind of anti-advertising for the brand.

Mau is at the forefront of a loose movement embracing a new way of thinking about design. It includes individual designers and larger companies like IDEO, as well as several prominent design schools, where new theories about “design thinking” are being developed: what it is, how it works, what it can accomplish. But this “glimmer movement” (the “glimmer” being when a life-changing idea crystallises in the mind) also includes people from outside the design profession – basement tinkerers, technologists, do-it-yourselfers, “crafties”, social activists, environmentalists, video-gamers and business entrepreneurs. What links them is their belief that everything today is ripe for reinvention and “smart recombination”. And what makes them all designers is that they don’t just think this, they act on it.

As the design conference wound down, the panel took questions from the audience; one questioner, a young man with an earnest manner, seemed poised to spring as he took the mike. He pointed out that Coca-Cola really isn’t very good for people; that it doesn’t contribute much to the health and wellbeing of the planet.

Therefore, he wanted to know: “Why not just stop making Coke? Why not start purifying water instead?” The Coke executive, Mathieu, seemed taken aback. But Mau was eager to answer because he felt the questioner was getting at something central to the whole discussion of business, consumption and sustainability. “I hear what you’re saying,” he said to the questioner, “but I don’t think ‘no’ is the answer to these challenges. Denial – just telling people you can’t do this or that – will not get us to where we want to be. We have to redesign the things we love so we can keep enjoying them.” Then, after a beat: “And I happen to love Coke.”

Mau observed later that, although the questioner might have seemed a tad eco and hippie for a business conference, he was also representative of what Coke and every other company is up against these days: a public that is more aware of, and concerned about, what firms are doing – and one that also has more ability to question and challenge business than ever before. Companies such as Coke are realising that they must adapt and adjust their behaviour to survive this new level of scrutiny.

This is where Mau’s principle, “Design what you do”, comes into play. It sounds simple, but it’s actually a radical use of the term “design”. Businesses are used to designing what they make (the products); they may also be used to designing what they say to the outside world (advertising and communications). But it’s more unusual to think of applying design principles and approaches to the full spectrum of a company’s behaviour – encompassing everything the company does, including what it does behind closed doors. Mau’s position is that there really is no “inside” the factory any more. Changing conditions are calling into question the long-held assumption in business that there are two separate realities: the one that is shared with the outside world (in the form of product offering, advertising, communications) and the one that is considered private (the way a company actually makes things, operates, treats its employees, disposes of its waste and generally conducts itself ). The internet has brought about an unprecedented level of transparency that allows the outside world to see – and to comment on – the way that a company performs and behaves.

Early in his career, Mau began to consider the idea that everything a business does matters; that every action communicates a message to the world and also has consequences on some level. “One day I saw a truck driver with a big rig,” he says, “and I had this moment of clarity where I thought, ‘That driver doesn’t know what’s in the truck.’ And we allow him to remain ignorant and to say, ‘My problem is getting whatever is in this truck to the right address. Whether it’s a dirty bomb or an order of hamburgers is not consequential to me.'”

Mau saw this kind of compartmentalised thinking as standard practice in business, and felt that it allowed industry to wreak havoc on the world. “It led companies to say, ‘We are only going to express our values when we’re communicating – but when we’re manufacturing and doing all these other things, we don’t have to worry about it, because those things aren’t visible.'” Although many businesses tend to compartmentalise, Mau, as a designer, tended to look for the connections between things. This was a particularly resonant idea with him because he’d grappled with the concept of “incorporation” which was the subject of one of his 90s

Zone books. He designed each book to create a richer, more immersive experience, “so that the experience correlated to the subject,” as he explains. So a book all about cities was designed not just to illustrate the qualities of urban environments, but to model those qualities, “to behave as a city does – with friction, congestion, things moving in opposite directions”. “The truth is that every object is not a separate thing but is incorporated into larger flows,” Mau says. Everything is connected.

This “incorporation” concept was much on his mind while researching his ground-breaking 2004 design exhibition, Massive Change, which started in Canada and moved to the US. He laid down some ground rules with the Vancouver Art Gallery, which commissioned it, namely: this was not going to be an art show. “I said, ‘I’ll do a show about the future of design, but only if we agree to take aesthetics off the table,'” he recalls. So he focused on design’s potential to solve problems and change lives. Or, as he puts it, “Instead of being about the world of design, it would be about the design of the world.” Design was no longer a subset of business, culture and nature. Instead, because of new technological advancements, increased sharing of knowledge and good old human ingenuity, it was now possible to design everything from a better corporate structure to better human body parts or a better breed of dog. How can we reboot and rebuild, people were asking, and do it better, do it more thoughtfully?

When Massive Change opened in autumn 2004, Time magazine called the show “a cabinet of wonders”. Mau filled two floors of the museum with gadgets, gizmos, oversize photomontages and, in one room, silver balloons. Among the various curiosities on display: a car that could be powered by human pedalling; the LifeStraw water filter, a small device that can be used, like a straw, to sip from polluted waters and drink cleanH2O; an old fuel engine rebuilt as a means of converting biomass into energy; self-healing plastic (whose cracks mend themselves); the low-cost laptop taken up by the One Laptop per Child initiative; the iBOT (Dean Kamen’s “walking wheelchair”); the “bicycle ambulance” designed to bring emergency medical services to areas in sub-Saharan Africa not served by automobile; a regenerated nose, stored in a clear refrigerated case; and a replica of a featherless chicken, biodesigned for warmer climates. The show was information-packed – breaking down and analysing everything from the global distribution of wealth to shifting urban demographic patterns – but Mau expertly “chunked” it into digestible nuggets that could be absorbed quickly as you moved through it. Each room explored a different subject, and as you entered Mau blasted you with the big idea – usually in the form of a bold declaration such as “We will eradicate poverty” – emblazoned in gigantic type. “We broke a lot of rules about what you’re supposed to do in museums,” he says. “We had eight to ten times as much content as you’re supposed to give people.” Using the design technique known as “wayfinding”, Mau plotted the path through the overall exhibit so that one idea flowed naturally into the next.

Over the next few years, a number of major design shows began to pick up and expand upon this theme. The National Design Triennial of 2006 focused on design’s connection to real-world issues and social problems. A separate show, Design for the Other 90 Per Cent – which featured simple design approaches to shelter, water-purification and transportation in the developing world – toured the US between 2006 and 2008. What surprised Mau was the way Massive Change seemed to resonate beyond the art-museum world.

Engineers and basement tinkerers saw it as a celebration of the underappreciated art of invention. Environmentalists took note of all the sustainable ideas on display, and soon Mau was fielding calls from Chicago mayor Richard Daley, seeking his input on how to make his city the greenest on Earth, as well as from a film-production team affiliated with the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, inviting Mau to be one of the stars of a film on global warming.

There was even a plea for help from a Guatemalan government official; he’d heard of Massive Change and wanted to know what Mau could do for a country going through hard times. (What he actually did was to hop on a plane and set up a massive exhibition staged across the country, highlighting the rich culture and enormous potential of Guatemala. It was hope made visible on a national scale.)

Perhaps the strongest response to the show came from the business world, including large companies such as Nokia, MTV and Coca-Cola. Mau had tapped into something that was just starting to emerge in business – a sense of urgency with regard to the need to embrace profound change. He was approached by a number of top executives, all wanting to know more or less the same thing: could the concepts behind Massive Change be applied to a major corporation? Was it possible for business to design not just more stuff, but a better and more productive future? Before long, Mau was meeting with these executives and starting up the process of asking them “stupid questions” and showing them his little sketches that just might transform their worlds. Parts of Mau’s exhibition dealt with biological and environmental issues and particularly with the ways in which complex ecosystems function. Every organism in a system affects and depends on what is around it, which means “there really is no ‘exterior’,” he says. He thought this notion of “no exterior” pertained to the business world too – that businesses had to stop dividing reality into “the company” and “the outside world”. Massive Change proposed that entities or organisations could transform themselves by designing new behaviours that adapted to change in the world around them. Cities could change, water-delivery systems could change, transportation could change – and companies could too. But to do so meant reworking a broad spectrum of activities. In business, that might include everything from the raw materials used to supply-chain issues to the way the employees are managed.

The Massive Change viewpoint was that all these separate functions should be seen as part of a completely integrated and thoroughly designed system. When Massive Change opened in 2004, the first wave of green marketing mania was just beginning to sweep through the business world and a number of major companies were starting to think about sustainability issues. Coca-Cola was one of them. The company was developing new marketing programmes with a greater emphasis on corporate social responsibility, and had put a French executive, Marc Mathieu, in charge of the effort. (Mathieu has since left the company.) When the Massive Change show came to the US in 2006, Mathieu flew to Chicago from Europe to see it. He says that he was hooked the moment he stepped into the Museum of Contemporary Art and saw the challenge Mau had posted in giant type at the show’s entrance: Now that we can do anything, what will we do? “That resonated with me,” Mathieu says – in part because it was a question Coke was grappling with.

He invited Mau to Coke’s Atlanta headquarters. As Mau immersed himself in Coke’s design history, he was surprised to learn that the company, in those early days, wasn’t just creating those elegant artifacts; it was also designing an industry from the ground up. The company drew up detailed plans on how to design corporate facilities right down to the shrubbery. In towns across America, Coke had figured out exactly where its advertising signs should be placed in relation to the town’s courthouse and its railway station. “They created design templates for everything,”

Mau says. He set out to redesign the mindset of Coke, and wrote and designed a manifesto around the idea of “living positively”, with a series of guiding principles for the company. One key mantra was “Create more of what we love, using less of what we need” – an attempt to reframe Coke’s thinking on sustainability, positioning it more as an opportunity than a chore. He felt the company would have to do a better job of integrating a variety of disciplines – manufacturing, purchasing, packaging, product development – so that these separate silos could work together to achieve the overarching sustainability goals.

As many a CEO knows, it can be difficult at large corporations to create cohesion across departments and divisions that are walled off from one another. “What you must try to do,” Mau says, “is work horizontally in a business culture that is vertical.” The overall operation of a business can be thought of as a design problem in which there are many interrelated challenges – and when you improve one, you may worsen another. For example, a company’s product development group may pat itself on the back for using recyclable materials, but in order to obtain that material the company may have to use additional shipping, which can negate the intended positive environmental effects.

Mau contends that bringing design solutions to bear on these mundane operational issues actually can end up saving money while also improving behaviour. He points to the example of UPS, which has redesigned its US truck delivery systems so that drivers make far fewer left turns. What’s wrong with left turns? They cause the drivers to sit idling in traffic, waiting for lanes to clear. By rerouting trucks and cutting down on those turns, UPS has cut fuel emissions significantly – but at the same time, it has also reduced its shipping expenses. Coke was in fact already doing a number of positive things, including various disconnected efforts to innovate its manufacturing methods and make them more sustainable. But hardly anyone knew about them, because they weren’t coordinated as part of a larger, more visible effort.

Mau was impressed by several programmes geared to water conservation: in one instance, a Coke bottling plant was using compressed air instead of water to clean the bottles. But many of the company’s social initiatives were catalogued in thick binders that few bothered to wade through. “You open one of those books and there’s so much in there, described in such a dry way, that you just want to close it and go have a beer,” Mau says.

He believes that Coke and other companies need to build critical mass behind their efforts to behave well – and that doesn’t necessarily mean companies have to do more good things. Sometimes companies take on too many small, random efforts. Mau believes that Coke could dispense with that thick binder and boil down those 6,000 commitments to, say, 100 high-impact programmes that would actually make more of a difference in the world – while also bringing more favourable attention to the company.

This is an idea Mau has been discussing not just with Coke, but with other clients including Arizona State University and MTV.

Instead of doing a bit of charity work here and there, he thinks these organisations should focus resources into a more clearly defined set of bigger, bolder initiatives.

What Mau is trying to do is rethink the way in which companies “do good”. The conventional way businesses achieve this involves setting up what’s generally known as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department, which is usually cut off from the rest of the business and focused on donating to various charities or setting up generic employee volunteer programmes. Mau, in one of his characteristically colourful turns of phrase, says that he views CSR programmes as “an island of intelligence in a sea of stupidity”. In other words, the company sets up one little isolated sliver of a department and says, “This is where all our good deeds will be done.” And that is supposed to make up for the company behaving any way it pleases in the other 95 per cent of its activities.

Mau thinks a better approach is for a company to demonstrate its corporate values through clear and identifiable actions. For example, if Coke were to pioneer bottling methods that set new sustainability standards; if it found a better way to transport its products; if it took the aggressive lead on tackling a particular social issue. Actions should be designed to fit with the company’s mission and personality, woven together in a way that has maximum impact on the world and on the image of the company.

Mau claims that “the potential for Coca-Cola to create a powerful social movement and to change the world is enormous”. But getting that to happen, he adds, is “like a turning around a very big ship”.

He has been grappling with the challenge of demystifying design for some time. Born and raised in a tough Canadian mining town, Mau, now 50, burst on to the international graphic design scene in the 80s, when his Toronto-based studio became known for its strikingly unorthodox use of type and images, featured primarily in the esoteric Zone books about culture and society.

Over the years, Mau kept expanding his applications of design.

He moved from the printed page to large public spaces – the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Seattle Public Library – where, working alongside the star architects Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, Mau became a design star in his own right. Then, a few years ago, Mau opted to widen his scope even more, as he began to view “the world” as his design project. In his work, his writings and his exhibitions, he proposed that design principles could be applied to the thorniest global issues.

Meanwhile, Mau also tried to take some of the fundamental design principles developed in his studio and go public with them. He took the first step when he wrote a document entitled “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”, which started as an article and then was given as a speech at an international design conference in the late 90s. In the presentation, Mau laid out 43 “laws” for achieving good and meaningful design. The manifesto quickly became an internet phenomenon. A decade later, its laws are still passed back and forth on the web.

Many ideas in the manifesto are counter intuitive. Mau advised designers to “ask stupid questions”, to shamelessly imitate the work of others and to always, at all times, “forget about good”.

The manifesto was written in a weekend. Once he started writing, he says, “My ambition was to set out the patterns in the wild organic processes of innovation. I tried to articulate the way that we work – day to day, moment by moment – so that others might learn from the method we had developed.” After giving it to his sister-in-law, Mau then brought the manifesto with him to a design/tech conference in Amsterdam. The conference was all about the latest software applications and so everyone was surprised when Mau read the part of the manifesto that declared that “creativity is not device-dependent”. He urged the audience to put aside technology every once in a while and just “think with your mind”.

The techies loved it. Since then, Mau says, “No other product of the studio has had the distribution and resonance of the manifesto.

It seems to have a life of its own.” If you’re embarking on a life of design, or any creative endeavour, there are some rules from the manifesto that are worth bearing in mind, including:

Forget about good. Good is a known quantity.

Good is what we all agree on. Growth is not necessarily good.

Growth is an exploration of unlit recesses that may or may not yield to our research. As long as you stick to good you’ll never have real growth. Mau thinks it is particularly important for people who want to innovate to disregard what other people think is “good”. Those who’ve brought about real change, he notes, “weren’t focused on making good design, they were concerned with making history”.

Study. Use the necessity of production as an excuse to study. Mau has always believed that a design studio should be a place of study and that designing should be an exercise in lifelong learning. Mau recommends making your own design studio, wherever it may be, into an environment that encourages learning.

Surround yourself with ideas; stock the place with books. Just don’t spend too much time arranging the bookshelf.

Imitate. Don’t be shy about it. Try to get as close as you can. You’ll never get all the way and the separation might be truly remarkable. Designers and creators in general needn’t feel they must reinvent the wheel. They can start just by trying to make their own version of a wheel; along the way, with luck, they will add something new and then it will become an original design. In the meantime, who needs the pressure of being an “inventor” – of being the next Edison? It can stop you from ever getting started.

Slowdown. Desynchronise from standard timeframes and surprising opportunities may present themselves.

Much of daily life these days is spent reacting to endless stimuli – phone calls, meetings, emails, tweets – but those who can screen out the distractions and focus their attention on one thing, observes journalist David Brooks, “have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew”. To create an environment that lends itself to this kind of deep thinking, some people need a “quiet room”, whereas others opt for something more playful – New York designer Stefan Sagmeister takes periodic sabbaticals to remote places. At the time of writing, he was somewhere in Asia, unreachable except by hand-delivered letter.

But whether one journeys to another country or another part of the house, the goal is to end up, in Mau’s words, “lost in the woods” with a challenge or a problem that needs solving.

Allow events to change you. You have to be willing to grow. Growth is different from something that happens to you. You produce it. You live it. The prerequisites for growth: the openness to experience events and the willingness to be changed by them.

In his own work, Mau applies these principles to projects that have become increasingly complex: helping the country of Guatemala figure out how to design a better future for itself; finding new ways for the television network MTV to remain relevant. Mau has been enlisted by the president of Arizona State University, who wants to reinvent college education, as well as by Saudi Arabia, which approached Mau to help in possibly redesigning the holy city of Mecca to better accommodate the growing crush of the annual religious pilgrimages. Perhaps the strangest proposal came not long ago from Colombia, whose government asked for Mau’s help in an effort to rehabilitate former drug-dealing cartel members and welcome them back into society as functioning citizens. Attempting to socialise gang members and drug dealers: how would a designer even begin to approach something like that? Mau’s answer: “Very carefully.”

All of these diverse projects – from Fortune 500 companies going green to drug dealers coming clean – somehow find their way to the Bruce Mau Design studio, a bright and airy fourth-floor loft that overlooks Toronto’s Chinatown district (Mau is now based in a second studio in Chicago). At the studio, Mau is constantly on the move: when he does stop to sit and study a design problem, becoming deeply absorbed in it, he tends to tap his foot or jiggle his leg. He’s all bustling energy that cannot be contained. Mau loves surprises and incongruities. The artist in him is always sketching little visions of how things might be – and the engineer then has to figure out how to make it work.

Recently, Mau has been working with old clients MTV, Coke, Indigo stores and Shaw carpeting, shuttling back and forth on the Mecca project and looking forward to the opening of his Museum of Biodiversity in Panama. And he has new iterations of his Massive Change idea.

One involves a network of schools, or “centres for massive change”. This was a plan brought to Mau by one of his new partners, Seth Goldenberg, who suggested it might be possible to effectively franchise the concept of massive change to universities or companies, enabling them to set up their own design/innovation labs using Mau’s methodologies. He has also been working on an ambitious exhibition and public event for the Denver Biennial of the Americas, in mid-2010. Mau sees the event as a call to positive action (he’s named the event “In Good We Trust”) and to that end he hopes to focus the biennial not so much on art as on inspirational examples of recent innovations – a combination of TED conference and Obama campaign, with a dash of Bucky Fuller’s “World Game” thrown in. “Something is happening out there,” Mau states. “People are seeing the world around them with greater resolution, because there is more information available to them. For the first time, they are seeing patterns that have been invisible to the larger public in the past. We are moving toward global clarity – to people finally being to say, ‘Oh, I get it. Now I see what’s going on in the world.'” And what happens when everyone sees and understands and recognises the need for change? If you ask Mau, what happens next is – of course – design.

In Mau’s words: ‘Yes is more’ “When it comes to changing behaviour, we have 50 years of evidence that going negative doesn’t work. For over half a century, environmentalists have scolded us to ‘reduce’, ‘use less’, and, most pointedly, to ‘get out of your car!’ Over all those years, the total number of cars in the world inexorably increased. Last year alone we produced roughly 66 million new cars – adding four times as many cars to our roads as we did in the 60s. Around the world, many cultures and countries may not have fully embraced human rights or secular democracy – but they have embraced traffic. The few outposts that have yet to get cars in large quantity are desperate to have them. “Most innovation and advancement in energy efficiency is not to make cars lighter and cleaner, but to make them bigger and more powerful. As the bicycle-riding environmentalists scolded, we closed our power windows and turned up the air-conditioning. When it comes to changing attitudes about the environment, apparently

‘No!’ is not the answer we were looking for. Getting hit with a green stick has had little effect. “So how do we convince six-billion-plus people that changing the way they live is important? Think carrot, not stick. Seduction, not sacrifice. ‘Yes!’ not ‘No!’We must reimagine everything we do. But we must do so in a way that allows people to experience beauty, exhilaration, love, pleasure and delight. “There is only one way to make this happen: use design to make the things we love more intelligent. Embrace the revolution of possibility to radically reduce the material and energy consumed, while increasing the positive impact of the things we use. Make sustainable more compelling, more attractive, more exciting and more delightful than the destructive, short-term ways. Compete with beauty and make smart things sexy. “So far, we have failed in designing a real alternative to the car. Compare the bus and the car as experiences: there is a clear winner and loser. Why does my minivan have 17 cup holders – but my bus has none? Why is my bus shelter not heated, but I can start my car remotely and let it warm up? Why is my bus uncomfortable and noisy when I can listen to Beethoven in my car? My bus is a design failure. It’s a stick painted green, and out of desperation or inspiration I’m supposed to want the experience. In Toronto, the slogan of the transit company is ‘the better way’. Well, it’s not, and everyone knows it. Until the bus experience is more attractive and effective than the car, we will always be selling a losing proposition. “The same applies to the car. We must imagine the car as a product with a positive impact – not make our design objective a car that is less negative. We must design an ecology of movement options that are thrilling in every way, and that also fit together as an ecological, sustainable – but most important, sexy – system.

We have to get beyond ‘No!’ and define what ‘Yes!’ would look like – not simply continue to hope that one day we will somehow wake to a world of altruistic people who reject the car. ‘No’ is not the answer. Yes is more.”