Throughout the Canadian design industry (and worldwide) Bruce Mau is known for his unconventional, almost radical, approach. In the recently released documentary about his life, MAU, renowned architect Bjarke Ingels calls him “a designer who has massively expanded the notion of what design is, and expanded the potential scale of impact.”
Unconstrained by his job title, Bruce Mau has elevated the term “designer” to include everything from product design to transforming entire countries. Now, he wants to take on the world. For positive transformation on a global scale, Mau believes each of us can redesign the future. Now, his mission is to teach us how.
“We have the opportunity right in front of us to really design the life ahead of us, to be richer and more equitable and more exciting than anything that’s happened in history. It really is possible. It’s right in front of us to do,” he told Bay Street Bull in a recent interview. Many of today’s challenges are “success problems,” Mau explains. For example, the consequence of curing fatal diseases is a larger population to support, which is a somewhat “better” problem to solve. In many cases, he says, the source of a problem lies in our failure to consider the total ecosystem in every step of design. Unanticipated, and often dire, consequences are the result of human-centred design, according to Mau.
Traditional, human-centred design creates products without considering the ecosystem they occupy, he argues, essentially ignoring the fundamental (and often detrimental) impacts.
“The core operating system of design is caring,” Mau says. “What we care about is the user, but you can’t have a thriving citizen in a toxic community. So we naturally extend our caring to the community, and you can’t have a thriving community in a toxic ecology. So we naturally extend our caring to the ecology, which explains why so many designers are involved in the environmental movement.”
Instead of human-centred design, he explains,”We have to put life at the centre, along with all other living species, and honour and respect life. When you do that, it changes everything—it changes how you use materials, what kind of energy you use. It really informs everything else that you do.”
Mau’s design philosophy is heavily influenced by his childhood on a remote forested property in the outskirts of Sudbury, Ontario. “Think like you are lost in the forest” is one of the maxims outlined in MC24: 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in Your Life and Work, his guidebook for transformation. Mau’s latest book, The Nexus: Augmented Thinking for a Complex World, co-authored with researcher-artist Julio Mario Ottino, suggests that a modern Renaissance is possible, but only with “a radically new way of thinking—one in which art, technology, and science converge.”
An advocate for what he calls “fact-based” optimism, Mau believes that enlightened design can solve almost any problem. He knows from experience, with commissions spanning everything from redesigning Mecca to practically “rebranding” Guatemala. The popular ¡GuateAmala! (Love Guate) Movement embarked on an ambitious goal of helping the country’s collective psyche recover from decades of civil war. Mau’s assigned task was to “rename” the country. Instead, he devised a way to honour the existing identity while incorporating a new meaning, to refocus on the positive.
Now 62 years old, Mau’s reputation for innovation was solidified in the mid-1990s, when he collaborated with Rem Koolhaas to co-author the now-legendary S,M,L,XL, a design bible of more than 1,300 pages. Published a few years later, Mau’s seminal essay, “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth,” was his first attempt to answer the question: “How does one sustain a creative life?” Mau was inspired to explore the topic when his friend and mentor, Canadian architect Frank Gehry, warned him to “focus on the work, not the fame,” to avoid the fate of many designers who faded away in the glare of public attention. This conversation was the springboard to help Mau realise that the design industry wasn’t accountable for the impact of its work: “They were committed to the form but not the content.”
More than a decade ago, driven by his urge to transform the way the world works—and, of course, how it’s designed—Mau left his eponymous Toronto-based Company Bruce Mau Design and launched the Massive Change Network (with his wife, Bisi Williams) to implement his ideas on a global scale.
At a time when many of us are overwhelmed by instability, Mau admits that he sees infinite potential for positive change. “It’s really a thriving, beautiful, rich, accessible, equitable world,” he says. “I make it a practice to consciously focus on positive things that are being produced in the world. What I’m trying to do in my work, and everything that I do, is to help designers really understand that we have a leadership role. We have the power to envision a future and systematically execute the vision. That’s the best definition of leadership I can find.”
Mau believes we can redesign the world. If we follow his lead, it might be possible.
Listen to Bruce Mau on the Bay Street Bull Mission Critical podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts.