• , Sep 2015
  • - PMA Collab

Q&A: Eleven questions for Bruce Mau

1. You’ve enjoyed significant moments of clarity that have guided your career, from the epiphany at age 15 that you wanted to go to art school to your understanding that design can save the world. When did the latter view evolve in your life, and was it the result of a specific project or series of projects?

I have always been interested in the changing world around me — always trying to figure out how I could fit in and how I might contribute in some way. Early on, I began to do my own research projects, studying cities, cinema, architecture, and imaging technologies and searching for the historical foundations of design. In retrospect I realize that I was trying to articulate the changing context of design in order to know how to contribute the best that I could offer.

Over time, I saw a pattern. Every five to seven years I would produce what I now call a “Context Project,” a project that explored and articulated the evolving, dynamic context of design. My first collaboration with Zone on the Contemporary City; S,M,L,XL; Life Style; and Massive Change are all Context Projects. Through those projects I was in a continuous process of questioning and learning and redefining design. Historically, design is so new that defining what design is and what it is capable of, and most importantly what it could become if we combine the right capacities in a studio practice is still an open question.

Massive Change radically expanded that thinking and for the first time drew a map of the new landscape of design. By defining the opportunity as a series of design economies — the regions of our life experience that are being designed or redesigned — and thinking of these zones of design practice as systems of exchange where massive amounts of new value is being created, we were able to change the language of design, and show people a road map to new design possibilities for great impact and opportunity.

We discovered that we live a designed life — where the design of our experience is good we have a good life, where it’s bad we have a bad life. Where we fail to design we design to fail. When we fail to design our way of life, we see the results in the destruction of our natural ecosystems. Our responsibility is to design the way we live to create the greatest beauty humanly possible — in a way that sustains the ecology that sustains us. With that urgent realization, I decided to fire myself from the studio that I ran in Toronto. I sold it, and working with my wife, Bisi Williams, set up the Massive Change Network to work on this extraordinary opportunity, and we are still working through the implications and possibilities.

2. You’ve said the “core DNA of design is optimism.” Is optimism an essential characteristic for a designer, and why?

We cannot afford the luxury of cynicism. Cynicism is for stone throwers and protestors. As designers, our responsibility is to inspire change and solve problems. The most critical thing we can do to a bad idea is to design a beautiful, inspirational solution that demonstrates the limitations of the old idea and makes it obsolete. You can’t do this if you are not optimistic about the possibilities for solving problems.

I am careful not to promote blind optimism — we are committed to fact-based optimism. I am optimistic because this is the best time in human history to be alive and working. More people, and a greater percentage of people are participating in the wealth and possibilities of our age. More people have access to democracy, knowledge and the potential to create wealth. More wealth is more widely distributed than at any time in human history — by a radical long shot, not a slight margin. The problems we have now are success problems, not failure problems. The great challenges we now face are a consequence of succeeding — in beating back hunger, in overcoming disease, in providing access to education, in building a global system of exchange and mobility. If we had failed more frequently we would have smaller problems. We would still be a billion people. We are seven billion because we designed solutions to global challenges and won. Now we face a new order of complexity in our challenges — and a new urgency in overcoming them as we climb to nine or ten billion people on our spherical space ship.

3. A Wired UK article called your 2004 show, “Massive Change,” the catalyst for several exhibitions concerning design for social change that popped up in the following years, as well as for corporations taking note of design thinking. Do you agree that the exhibition had this impact? If so, why did it have such an impact?

It’s hard to know. We discovered a movement that is still taking shape. People all over the world are taking on the challenges that we face, but they were somehow invisible. It was like we had discovered an image that was too beautiful to look at directly. So collectively the image had been cut into a million pieces and those mosaic fragments had been distributed to anyone willing to take up their part of the challenge, willing to design solutions to their piece of the problem. We tried to assemble that mosaic image so we could all see how beautiful we really are, how committed we are to helping one another create a just, equitable and abundant world. We showed that not only are we committed to that incredibly beautiful collective vision, it is not a utopian unreachable vision. Instead, it is a practical objective that is being driven by design. I think to some degree we gave voice and image to that movement, and allowed people to see it. We made one of the first maps of the terrain. And I think to some degree that did inspire others to see that it was real, that there was an extraordinary transformation happening — Massive Change — and they could be part of it.

4. Why do you think design thinking is resonating so far and so wide right now — and with such a wide variety of people, organizations, and businesses?

Everything is changing. That is putting things in play that for decades were stable. Jobs, businesses, industries, cities, even entire regions are in dynamic flux and in some cases in deep crisis. In response, people are looking for ways of solving complex problems that don’t fit neatly into existing categories.

The beauty of the Massive Change design process that we developed is that it is “product agnostic.” It is not defined or constrained by any particular output or product. It is really a thinking system, and what ever challenge or problem you apply that thinking system to, it will help produce optimum results. In my own work it happened organically. People came to me with increasingly complex and thorny problems — How do we design a social movement to overcome 36 years of the culture of death and allow our citizens to dream again? How do we conceive an institution committed to biodiversity? How do we design the world’s biggest brand for perpetuity? How can we redesign our university around purpose?

Many of these questions seemed beyond the definition and reach of conventional design. But the Massive Change design thinking system can be applied to any problem, and with hard work and talent it will generate potential solutions. It doesn’t eliminate the need for hard work, nor does it somehow magically replace talent — both are still needed for the best results — but it allows anyone to apply design thinking and explore creative solutions. People discover that they have more talent than they realized. The harder they work the more talented they seem.

The reason this way of thinking is finding such a deep resonance right now is that the world has fundamentally changed. The biggest change was the distribution of computers and access to the Internet. That changed the world from opaque to transparent. Suddenly, everything behind the curtain was visible. Consumers could see behind the brand image, citizens could see behind the photo op. People could now connect the dots and compare what brands, politicians, and institutions were saying — with what they were actually doing. When this happened, everything became part of the story. Designing communication now means designing what we do, not only what we say.

If there is conflict between what we say and what we do, there will be lack of trust. This is why our political and economic institutions are in crisis. This is why there is a crisis of trust. Most people are still operating as if the old rules still apply. But the new technologies of transparency are unstoppable and they will expose their behavior. As I am writing this, the CEO of Volkswagen is confessing. It is worth noting that his company lost 33% of its value yesterday, and the other German carmakers also declined, even though they had nothing to do with VW’s problem. They were implicated in a crisis of trust. It is no wonder that there is a global movement to apply design to organizations, businesses, and challenges that might seem out of the reach of design, like social movements and political action. All these things are design problems, and the best way to overcome these challenges is to use design thinking to visualize and systematically execute the solution.

That is why I am committed to the design development of Personal BlackBox. PBB is designed to build a trust relationship with personal data and to give brands and marketers an opportunity to change their relationship with their consumers, from shooting at them like “targets,” to joining them in helping to accomplish their life goals. It is designed to eliminate the black market in personal data and instead allow people to own their personal data and directly benefit from its value. The design of PBB is not only a visual and technical interface — it also a legal design. The PBB Trust allows people to secure their data in perpetuity and to control who sees it and sells it. It is designed to give the power to the people where it rightfully belongs.

5. Like the “Massive Change” exhibition, your show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be packed with content, a “cabinet of wonders” — but it seems less about objects than about redesigning the intangible. Is that an accurate comparison? In your eyes, how will this show compare to and differ from “Massive Change”?

In Massive Change I did not show any of my own work. I was careful to avoid conflict of interest in the projects we were featuring in the exhibit. Our work was the Massive Change Project and the intellectual construct. Here at the Philadelphia Museum of Art we are working with Curator, Kathryn Heissinger, and showing how we developed Massive Change and applied the method of design thinking to a diverse range of projects. And yes, those projects push design beyond the visual to the application of one of the 24 Principles of Massive Change: Design the Invisible.

Much of what we take for granted in our modern life is supported by invisible systems that make our way of life possible — and delightful. When you sit on an airplane and quietly read the newspaper before take off, you are blissfully unaware of the massive design systems that make your flight possible and safe. You don’t want to experience the extraordinary explosive force it will take to smoothly lift you aloft, or the stresses that the landing gear must absorb to bring you safely back to earth. Similarly, if you were to stand in the room with the un-muffled internal combustion engine from your car, you would not be able to hear yourself think, and you would be dead in half an hour. Designing the invisible systems that move energy and matter to make them sustainable and beautiful and inspirational is one of the great challenges of our time and is now the principle focus of the Massive Change Network.

However, perhaps the biggest difference between “Massive Change” and “Work on What You Love,” is that we are now able to help people do massive change. The biggest criticism of Massive Change was that people were very excited, but they couldn’t do it. We are organizing our project in Philadelphia around the 24 principles of Massive Change — the concepts you need to understand to apply design thinking to your life and work — so that people can walk away with a tool kit of ideas. We will demonstrate how each of the principles has been applied to one of the projects, and also how they will be applied to the workshops that will take place during the show.

6. You started your career as a graphic designer but you’ve gone on to design exhibitions, stores, a museum, an urban park, and even uniforms – and across many different industries and categories. In order to reinvent something, don’t you first need to understand it completely? How are you able to become expert enough in each new arena to be able to tackle it?

Great question: we must be experts coming out — not going in. Designers begin with “we don’t know.” By not knowing, we learn in a way that so-called experts don’t. We question everything. Nothing is out of bounds. As a consequence, we see opportunities that they are blind to. We ask questions that they would never ask. Because they already know how things are supposed to be done. That is the blindness of expertise. We don’t pretend to be experts. We rely on expertise where it is critical — but we don’t allow it to stifle opportunity and creativity. Experts created the system we have now. They like it the way it is. If you are going to design new solutions you have to help them disrupt and get past what they created.

The Massive Change design method begins with defining the opportunity. That first engagement with a problem when you are exploring, questioning, learning and working to define the scale of the problem, the complexity of the challenge, and ultimately the scale of the opportunity, is critical to success. Once the problem is set, the scale of opportunity is set. When you arrive at a challenge with a fresh perspective and don’t know the boundaries, there is an opportunity to think bigger than the experts, and to explore the full economic potential of a new way of thinking.

7. You are so effective at spreading your beliefs, principles, and points of view. How have you been able to be so successful at this – and what is your advice for others who want to do so?

I’m not. At least I don’t feel that I am. I always feel that I should be doing more. The degree to which I have been successful, I have stayed true to my beliefs. I work hard to passionately advocate for the citizen. So long as I am staying true to that goal of caring for the citizen, and by extension the environment, I believe the argument and the position brought forward by design is very compelling. If I abandoned that responsibility I think my relevance and authority would evaporate.

I believe that the designer’s total obsession with the quality of life of the citizen, the justice and equity of the citizen, the freedom and sustainability and health of the citizen, with the experience and beauty of the citizen is what has given design a voice in our culture. We stand against injustice. We stand against rapacious business practices. We stand against violence and the destruction of our ecology. Designers stand for beauty and health, for social equity, for genius and joy. Designers stand for intelligence and the absolute brilliance of the collective human imagination. So long as we live by that commitment we are a voice that is worth listening to.

8. In your work there seems to be a tension between overarching principles and digging into details – how do you reconcile the two?

Massive Change Design is a fractal methodology. The vision is the detail. The whole is the part. The principles that inform the strategic vision must also tell you how to solve the details. You need everything consistent to the story you want to tell. That is where the 24 Principles of Massive Change come in. The principles are designed to help anyone accomplish this, to help them apply design thinking to their life and work so that the results are holistic.

9. How selective are you with clients and projects? How do you decide to take on the ones you do? Can you speak specifically to the appeal of some of the projects in the exhibition, such as Arizona State University, Zumtobel, and Freeman, and how they came about?

In the end, the work is about people. “Work on what you love” could also be “Work with the people you love.” I love the people I work with, and I work with the people I love. I used to have a complex system of evaluation for projects, five P’s — project, profit, place, etc. In the end I realized there is one P that can solve every other P — People. That is what matters.

Michael Crow, the President of ASU is a hero of mine. His mission is my mission — the transformation of the education experience to deliver both excellence and access. Michael proves that we don’t have to exclude people to be great, in fact, excluding people means that we are not great.

Michael saw the work that we were doing with the Institute without Boundaries, and invited me to lecture at ASU. “Tell me about your Institute without Boundaries, what are you doing there?” I said, “IwB is a purpose-driven, entrepreneurial, experience-based design education experiment. We take on a real tough challenge in a very public context. The combination of purpose on a public stage drives entrepreneurial learning like nothing else. In fact, 50% of our IwB students start new businesses, compared to 2% of graduates of American business schools.”
Crow: “How many students do you have?”
Mau: “We have about a dozen.”
Crow: “Well, we’re going to do this together for 65,000 students, going to 90,000.”

A few months later I received a call from Michael Crow’s office asking me to work with the ASU Foundation on a project to raise a billion dollars for the University. I told them I thought they had the wrong number, that I had never done anything like that. They told me that President Crow asked me to collaborate on this. I suggested that I would write a letter describing my approach to the project. If it was exciting to them, I would be happy to collaborate. If not, they could move on and find someone who actually knew how to do it. So I wrote a letter describing how purpose was the most powerful educational accelerator, how people would break the box and become entrepreneurial learners when they were driven by purpose. At the time, Phoenix, where ASU is located, was the fastest growing city in America and it was being built in a desert. The challenges all around us provide purpose for the next generation. They inspire us to give our very best. They attract the best talent. If we could design the university around purpose, by taking on the great challenges before us, we would inspire students, faculty, staff, parents, donors, alumni, and even government to support and drive impact. These great challenges don’t fit neatly into the classical domains of knowledge. If we design the University around purpose, we will no longer have a department of astronomy — instead we have a school of earth and space exploration — that is purpose. Students want to explore the universe, and to do that they will need astronomy. They will learn astronomy in a way that has meaning for them — they need it to survive, astronomy is a matter of life and death. That’s the impact of purpose. My collaboration with Michael Crow and the folks at ASU, has been one of the most exciting projects that I’ve had the privilege to work on.

In a similar way, the Freeman Family and the people at Freeman are fundamentally aligned with my values. The Freeman Values —integrity, empathy, enthusiasm, innovation, performance excellence, and collaboration — are design values, and they are the core values of everything I do.

Freeman produces more than half of the major exhibitions and trade shows in America. In the Freeman enterprise I saw a business that produces Massive Change. Every day Freeman connects people with opportunity. They produce the intersections of capital and innovation, resources and potential, and support the human interaction that makes change possible and creates wealth.

I first met the people of Freeman on a project I designed and they produced. I was deeply impressed by their character, the scale they work at, and the cyclical nature of their business. Like me, they have very long term relationships with their clients. Unlike my business, they know when things are going to happen. They produce their shows year after year, for decades. Because they know they will be producing these shows for years to come, I explained that there is an opportunity for long-term investment in design innovation that could have profound impact on the quality of experience and the performance of the business.

It was several years later that they called to explore the potential we first discussed. We had a long discussion about what we might do together and explored the collaboration for several months before we started work. When we talked, we realized that the nature of the cycle would allow for the development of a design-learning platform that could fundamentally change the business. Because of the values of the family, and the business that now bears their name, taking the long-term view and applying design to every dimension of the business, from the design of the events they produce, the experience of the Freeman employee, to the ecological impact of the way they work, can all be articulated and undertaken as design projects. The Freeman comprehensive embrace of design thinking — internally and externally — is one of the most complex, demanding and exciting projects I have ever encountered.

As for Zumtobel, it was a beautiful opportunity that landed out of the blue. Zumtobel is also a family business based in Austria. They have no obligation to produce an annual report, but they like the idea of making one, so they take the annual opportunity to do something special. Every year they commission an artist to create their annual report as an artwork that they distribute to their clients. The book has to include some technical content, but other than that it is really carte blanche for the designer. I took the opportunity to create a new “life form” — an order of creatures that are based on the science that they use in producing their light fixtures.

When another beautiful opportunity landed out of the blue — an invitation to be artist in residence at Pilchuck, the glass school founded by Dale Chihuly — I thought it would be great to create some of the creatures I had imagined for Zumtobel. Pilchuck provided me with an extraordinary team of “gaffers,” people who would work with me for three weeks to realize my projects in the hotshop. In the process of collaboration, a whole new cast of characters emerged. I call them, “Big Head Little Body.” I fell in love with them at Pilchuck in the north woods of Washington State and we are still exploring where we are going together.

10. You’ve said that the hybridization of designers is the model of the future. Can you explain why and how designers might hybridize or reinvent their practice?

The real project of design is: “How to live?” As technologies continue to create new possibilities and shake cultural foundations to the core, designers need to be constantly synthesizing and hybridizing in order to make the most of the new potential. The old categories don’t make sense in the new world. Where does graphic design end, and interface design begin? What is product design in this new world if not communication design? If we always return to “How to live?” we will remain relevant no matter what develops in the world around us.

As I said, I have always been engaged in understanding the context of my work. Not only what I was interested in, but all the things that are developing that could impact what I was doing. When I began to research the changing context in order to understand where I had the most to contribute, I became an author. I didn’t set out to become an author, but it was necessary for my practice as a designer. That changed my understanding of design practice and demanded a deeper engagement that informed everything else I was doing. That willingness to take on the evolving dimensions of design practice is the key to a successful practice — and an absolutely extraordinary life of adventure and learning.

11. Name some arenas you haven’t worked with yet that are ripe for reinvention – or for massive change.

I have been blessed with the most extraordinary adventure in a life of design. I have been engaged on profoundly challenging projects, like !GauateAmala!, and a thousand year plan for the future of Mecca, that I never could have imagined being part of the work of a designer. I have no doubt that the adventure will continue, and take me to places as yet unimagined.

However, there are a few areas that I am very interested in exploring. Education is still a big opportunity. Our conventional way of thinking about the problem in education is to replace one monoculture of thought with another, replacing one singular educational system with another singular system. Instead, I believe we need a diverse ecology of educational innovation and that means plenty of innovation and design. Government and regulation is another area of interest. That may sound strange from a free thinker, but I think that designing a new class of dynamic regulation that is not static and crystalized, and instead responds dynamically to the fluid innovators in the market will be necessary if we are to fully realize the potential of new currency and market innovations. And finally, I am exploring what I call WHEALTH — the intersection of wealth and health — how do we design a way of living in the 21st century that doesn’t destroy one for the other. The American health care system is the most expensive in the world — one sixth of our GDP — and delivers a level of service that ranks 37th according to World Health Organization. Massive opportunity.

Published on the occasion of “Bruce Mau: Work on What You Love” an exhibition of the work of Bruce Mau at the Philadelphia Museum of Art