Making a Map to a New World

For Bruce Mau, design is a way to help solve the planet's biggest problems. That's why he hopes to start a global conversation about how to create change in the world.

Back in 2002, when Bruce Mau was less in demand than he is now, the Canadian designer was entertaining some two dozen prospective projects. Mau couldn't seem to resist the lure of a new challenge. At the same time, his interdisciplinary design practice, Bruce Mau Design Inc., was reeling from a series of projects that were critically acclaimed but largely unprofitable. The studio's manager, Jim Shedden, was losing patience. Feeling the sagging economy's squeeze, and pressure for the place to grow up, Shedden wasn't amused by Mau's unflagging juggling act.

So one day, he stole the show. Shedden jotted down each project's name on a separate piece of paper and laid each page face-up on a table. He then told Mau to turn over every single page, except one—the project that he most wanted to take on. Before long, Mau turned all but five pages over. At Shedden's insistence, he eventually made his choice.

But Mau kept mulling over other possibilities. Days later, he returned to Shedden with an idea that wasn't even on the table: Take those final five proposals—an exhibition on the future of design, an experimental design program for a city college, a product line for housewares maker Umbra, a television series on design, and a book with Phaidon, the studio's publisher—and combine them into one gargantuan, groundbreaking endeavor.

Today, those five ideas form the foundation of the 45-year-old designer's biggest project to date: "Massive Change"—a traveling multimedia exhibition that amounts to a global catalog of many of the world's most innovative projects as seen through the lens of design. This past October, the exhibition debuted at the Vancouver Art Gallery; since then, its ambitious mandate for design has won it worldwide attention. The two-year international tour is scheduled to hit Chicago, with plans under way for additional venues abroad. The exhibition's message: Design can reframe the world in unfamiliar and meaningful ways to help solve the problems—social, economic, environmental, political—that stand in the way of progress.

The Road to "Massive Change"

It's the Monday morning before the kickoff of "Massive Change" in Toronto, Mau's hometown. Outside the Art Gallery of Ontario, the words Massive Change—big, black, in the stark typeface of Mau's choice, Helvetica Neue Bold Condensed—are emblazoned across the museum's entrance, along with a giant photograph of a pink, featherless chicken. Inside, Mau is pacing the floor, talking with his hands flying; as usual, his loose black shirt is untucked. His commanding presence is occasionally punctuated by a burst of laughter. In due time, he will explain the deal with the chicken. Right now, he's about to give dozens of his staffers a tour of nothing less than, as Mau himself puts it, "the design of the world."

When most of us think about design, we tend to picture its outcomes—Apple's iPod, Ford's Mustang, Nike's Swoosh. Mau is drawn to the innovative thinking that went into creating those icons. Case in point: A cluttered room in the exhibit is papered with life-size, color photographs of the workshop belonging to Dean Kamen, the modern-day inventor. On one side stands a series of prototypes of Kamen's Segway Human Transporter, the two-wheel electric scooter. On another are a half-dozen more prototypes of Kamen's wheelchair, the one that climbs stairs. Neither invention is exactly high impact—yet—but that's not entirely the point. Mau revels in possibility. He wants to make visible the thing that's often hidden in a design show: the thinking. "A lot of the most interesting design is invisible," he says. "So we took the visual off the table and focused instead on the things that design makes possible."

For Mau, design is a powerful tool that's best used to attack vexing problems. The exhibition leads viewers through spaces defined by challenges where there are new opportunities—many spurred by technology—for design to play a problem-solving role. There is, for example, a humble but elegantly designed purifier that makes drinking water accessible to the developing world. More than anything, Mau's goal is to push people to rethink their preconceptions about design and what design can accomplish.

During an hour-long tour, Mau navigates his staffers through a hopeful spectacle. It ranges from relatively straightforward medical devices and a curtain wall of recyclables—FedEx boxes, Coke cans, Styrofoam cups strung like popcorn—to a replica of a featherless chicken bred to withstand tropical climates and a giant, hand-drawn map indicating the untapped solar energy in the world's poorest countries. Of course, Mau's designers are familiar with the creative process's messy starts and stops. They understand that he's trying to make Kamen's iterative mental model (and others like it) apparent to the rest of us. But for most of them, this is their first time seeing the show, live and up close. The reason: They weren't part of the actual project—which is, instead, the work of a bunch of (mostly) thirtysomething students.

Mau's studio is a think-and-do tank that's housed in a sun-drenched loft space on the edge of Toronto's Chinatown. It is home to about 40 employees—a stable of filmmakers, architects, writers, and artists—many of whom affectionately call the studio "Bruce Mau University." It is also home to the Institute Without Boundaries, the in-house school that Mau formed in collaboration with George Brown College, the local city college that had approached him three years ago. The school wanted to create an innovative, experimental program on design; Mau pitched his own studio's project-based learning environment.

The students' assignment was to create the extravaganza that became "Massive Change," including the book, Web site, radio show, and product line that accompany the exhibition. Mau supplied the vision—a rough scheme that he concocted on a five-hour plane flight—and then unleashed a team to research it, stretch it, flip it, break it, and otherwise workshop the hell out of it. Ultimately, the school is a prototype for using extreme collaboration to take on the demands of a major public project. The team brought together people from different backgrounds—from social science to business to design itself. "We created the dirty dozen," says Greg Van Alstyne, the school's director and Mau's first employee. "We wanted people with different skill sets to push themselves as hard as they could and learn from each other." Leaders such as Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, are paying attention. "It's proving the power of interdisciplinary thinking in the realm of design," he says.

All Change, All the Time

Mau is an unlikely design revolutionary. The son of a nickel miner, he grew up on a farm six hours north of Toronto. His parents were divorced when he was in grade school; his father was an alcoholic. He lived in a "crazy, violent environment," he says. Eventually, he attended what was then called the Ontario College of Art, in Toronto. He lasted all of 18 months before dropping out.

He struck out on his own path. At 23, he cofounded a three-person design studio called Public Good. The vision was simple: Do work that matters. Three years later, he launched Bruce Mau Design. His first assignment was to create a series of titles for New York-based Zone Books. He found early success with highly conceptual graphic-design work for volumes on such subjects as urbanism, philosophy, and critical theory. Those designs informed many of Mau's subsequent projects.

In the early 1990s, he designed S,M,L,XL, a 1,300-plus-page book on the studio of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Rejecting the traditional lines between designer and author, Mau contributed to the text as well as the graphics. Then there's the collaboration with architect Frank Gehry, Mau's mentor. Their work together has evolved from designing signs—which Mau had never done before Gehry approached him with a proposal for the Walt Disney Concert Hall (new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic)—to an exhibition for a biodiversity museum.

Today, the studio's agenda is all "Massive Change," all the time. Projects are now viewed through the exhibition's wide lens. Last fall, when a high-profile, ad-hoc group of Guatemalan business leaders, educators, and artists approached Mau to design a book on the country's future, he persuaded them to create instead a 10-year vision for the country—a framework that would help its citizens navigate political, environmental, and economic possibilities.

"The stakes are high enough in an art gallery," says Shedden.

"But we're talking about playing a modest role in helping to reinvent a country—to change people's fundamental ideas about who they are and who they could become."

Mau is attempting to reframe design in a broader cultural context—and some people are put off by that endeavor. Skeptics wonder whether the "Massive Change" model can live up to its lofty goals. They knock the exhibition's mental leaps ("Everything = City = Design = Hope") and splashy pronouncements ("We will build a global mind"). In Toronto, there's a debate over whether "Massive Change" and its featherless-chicken mascot should even be featured in an art museum. Mau seems unperturbed. "Massive Change" chronicles achievements, for the simple reason that Mau believes that success is contagious. It inspires action.

Ultimately, the project is imperfect and ever evolving, by design. Taken in its many forms, it amounts to a rough map of the world's change makers. What's missing from the map is noteworthy—Mau's own accomplishments. "We don't claim to be there yet," he says. "We'll carry on with our work in hopes that one day we will be."

Christine Canabou, a former Fast Company staff writer, will attend the Harvard Design School this fall.

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