Bruce Mau made a name for himself as a graphic designer. Now he's rejecting that title and taking a more expansive view of design itself.
by Christine Canabou
In Massive Change, Mau's latest project in collaboration with a student team, the 45-year-old Canadian argues that the power of design runs far deeper than aesthetics. The traveling multimedia exhibition on the future of design catalogs some of the world's most innovative projects and their promise, from relatively straightforward if not modest-looking medical devices to a replica of a featherless chicken bred to withstand tropical climates. But that's not all. There's also an accompanying book, radio show, Web site, film, and school curriculum. Fast Company asked Mau to talk about Massive Change and his declaration of a design revolution.
Fast Company: When you talk about design, why do you talk about taking aesthetics off the table?
Bruce Mau: We took it off the table as a method, not as an ambition. In other words, to get people to understand design in a more complex way, we had to take aesthetics off the table. For most, design is purely object based. It might be a cup, for example.
But everything in the world is being designed. Design is about process and approach. Consider that cup. The design is actually the cup's whole life process — the flow of material, the energy, the intelligence, the formal expression, the useful life, and the eventual disintegration and re-emergence as matter. If you look at design through a visual lens, then you're only going to see the cup, because you can't stop looking at it. We're a culture that's obsessed with the visual. And while the way something looks is a consideration, it's not the only consideration.
So we made a point not to make the visual the deciding factor. Instead, we decided to articulate what was left. And what was left are a lot of important images that we've never seen before, because we've been so focused on the cup. You've never seen the images of the whole systems-level thinking and process behind the the cup. And they're just so much more interesting. They look at the capacity of design.
FC: What tenets of this new design reality have emerged so far?
Mau: The single most powerful idea is that there isn't one answer. If you look at design movements, like the Bauhaus, say, there was only way of doing something. Everything else was wrong, whereas the new condition is plural. The solutions are going to come from anywhere in the field. It's not going to be one person, one agenda, one sensibility that rules the day. It's about a different kind of collective, global, interconnected enterprise that is pluralistic. Solutions are going to come out of India as much as they are going to come out of San Francisco. For designers, this new reality means leaving behind the natural arrogance that we as designers tend to have. We have to be collaborative. We have to confront the unfamiliar.
FC: Define this new kind of designer for us.
Mau: You can attack it from two ends. First, we can ask, What are we doing with all of these capacities that we are developing in terms of design? In our case, a lot of our work is in communication design. That's our expertise. What if we develop those communication skills and develop a corresponding skill set around trying to make meaningful change in the world? We use our expertise in communications to articulate that change. The other way is to ask what is changing in the world that makes new kinds of things possible, and therefore what kind of person is standing at the crossroads of those possibilities? It used to be that possibility was about bringing something into the world. The expertise was producing an object. But increasingly, we're investing design expertise into systems. The new breed of designer is at the interesection of disciplines. So you're actually producing a different output.
One of the things we're grappling with right now is the question of whether we are designers. On the one hand, we're not in the classic sense. On the other hand, we're pretty invested in the term. At our studio, we not only produce objects, but also sound and images, text and research. There's a whole range of things. Twenty years ago, it would have been very difficult to integrate all of those forms. Today, that kind of integration is entirely plausible — and, in fact, compelling, because most of the world's problems today don't respect boundaries. Companies, for example, don't have graphic design problems; graphic designers do. Cultures, be it the culture of a company, a place, an experience, have cultural problems. And our work, at its core, is cultural. Designer need to develop a kind of elasticity that isn't bound to classic demarcation.
Expertise still matters. We're not saying there is no need for expertise. You have to respect the depth within your field, and at the same time, somehow incorporate that knowledge into a more comprehensive methodology. That's the challenge.
FC: You talk about daring to imagine the best for mankind through design. How do you stay so optimistic?
Mau: I find it truly amazing that people can be so certain that we're going to hell in a handcart when without a doubt this is the best time in history to be alive — by a long shot. Most of the problems that we have to solve in the next generation come from our success and sheer quantity. For example, if we weren't successful, then the world's population wouldn't have gone from 1.5 billion to 6 billion people in one century. That kind of success has put us in a position where we're now a stress on the planet. And while a lot of things get solved because we become conscious of crisis, if we're not conscious of achievement at the same time, then we run the risk of losing those achievements. My optimism is based in reality, not in a cynical, present-tense mood of the day. And in fact, designers are not afforded the luxury of cynicism. We can not not act. I also have children. Three beautiful girls. How can I be anything but upbeat about the future?