A MAN WORTH LIS­TEN­ING TO

Sharp - - CONTENTS - By Eric Mutrie • Il­lus­tra­tion by Chloe Cush­man

Bruce Mau has spent his ca­reer ex­pand­ing the lim­its of de­sign. His lat­est am­bi­tion: to change the world.

Is de­sign­ing away our wor­ries

THOUGH “CRE­ATIVE” CAN BE AN OB­TUSE JOB TI­TLE, in Bruce Mau’s case it’s the only word that re­ally does his full spec­trum of work jus­tice. Af­ter start­ing his ca­reer in Toronto as a graphic de­signer, he’s gone on to serve as a mag­a­zine ed­i­tor, an ar­chi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor, an artist, and a cu­ra­tor. Now based in Chicago, Mau spends his days as co-di­rec­tor of the Mas­sive Change Net­work, a con­sult­ing agency that counts Coca-cola as a client. With a side gig as chief de­sign of­fi­cer of trade show man­age­ment firm Free­man, he’s no stranger to plan­ning splashy events, ei­ther. So when the team be­hind Toronto’s De­sign Ex­change mu­seum set out to launch a 10-day de­sign bi­en­nale this fall, they knew who to turn to for vi­sion. Tak­ing place from Septem­ber 28 to Oc­to­ber 8 in the city’s for­mer Unilever soap fac­tory, the re­sult­ing fes­ti­val — dubbed the Expo for De­sign In­no­va­tion and Tech­nol­ogy, or EDIT — show­cases re­cent in­no­va­tions in hous­ing, health care, ed­u­ca­tion, and food. Mau’s con­tri­bu­tion is a fea­ture ex­hi­bi­tion that jux­ta­poses photojournalist Paolo Pel­le­grin’s snaps of global con­flicts with more up­beat ev­i­dence of our re­cent suc­cesses as a so­ci­ety. If that sounds op­ti­mistic, well, meet Bruce Mau.

I’m reach­ing you in L.A. When was the last time you con­sid­ered de­sign to­day?

The shower in my ho­tel this morn­ing was too small. I spend a lot of time in ho­tels, where your ex­pe­ri­ence is largely a re­flec­tion of the qual­ity of the de­sign. And the shower, for some rea­son, is con­sis­tently bad. In too many of them, the cur­tain touches you while you’re show­er­ing. The Westin in­tro­duced a curved shower rod, which solves the prob­lem by draw­ing the cur­tain far­ther away. But there are still mil­lions of ho­tel rooms that haven’t im­ple­mented it.

I pre­fer a glassed-in shower my­self, but those can be cramped too. To shift to the pos­i­tive, then, what’s a re­cent de­sign that has you par­tic­u­larly ex­cited?

The best ex­am­ple is the Tesla. It just of­fers a pro­foundly dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence than other cars. Shortly af­ter we bought ours a few years ago, we re­ceived a no­ti­fi­ca­tion ask­ing us to plug it in that evening for an up­date. An­other Tesla had hit some de­bris that dam­aged the car’s bat­tery and started a fire. It was only one of 200,000-odd car fires that year, but Tesla iden­ti­fied a way to pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing again. They raised the sus­pen­sion to cre­ate more ground clear­ance — all through an up­date in the mid­dle of the night, with no me­chan­ics in­volved.

What’s your take-away as a de­signer from the vi­sion you see at Tesla?

They have a de­sign think­ing process that’s about ques­tion­ing ev­ery­thing. The old style of think­ing was de­vis­ing dis­crete so­lu­tions to dis­crete prob­lems. That meant never think­ing about cli­mate change while de­sign­ing a car. But just aim­ing to cre­ate a more beau­ti­ful, more ad­vanced ob­ject will never solve larger eco­log­i­cal is­sues.

Con­trast that with what Elon Musk is do­ing. At EDIT, we’ll be dis­play­ing his new so­lar roof­ing prod­uct. Keep in mind that when Tesla first ac­quired so­lar panel in­staller So­larcity, their stock price went down. In­vestors won­dered, “Why is my car com­pany up on my roof?” But Tesla is not a car com­pany. They’re en­vi­sion­ing a fu­ture where one

day the en­ergy you cap­ture in your home can be used to power your car. It’s a full en­ergy-move­ment ecosys­tem.

With EDIT, you push back against a nar­ra­tive of doom and gloom by cel­e­brat­ing suc­cess sto­ries. How do you feel about the news you read each day?

We’re prac­ti­cally not get­ting any good news. When peo­ple read the pa­per to­day, they’re afraid. The New York Times scares the liv­ing day­lights out of you, which is a shame, be­cause a reader’s nat­u­ral re­sponse in that cir­cum­stance is to pro­tect them­selves. They be­come de­fen­sive. They close the borders and lock the door.

But when peo­ple see that oth­ers are en­gaged and in­vest­ing in the fu­ture, they want to be in­volved. When peo­ple launch a cam­paign to build a new mu­seum, it’s ex­cit­ing and there’s a sense that there’s a com­mu­nity some­one could be a part of.

Is there a risk to pre­sent­ing such a sunny out­look?

Well, it’s an­a­lyt­i­cal. I’m a de­signer, so I start with anal­y­sis. It’s fact-based op­ti­mism. The truth is that we are fac­ing “suc­cess” prob­lems. Our prob­lems to­day are be­cause we suc­ceeded in fight­ing back hunger and dis­ease. Right now, the In­sti­tute of Food Tech­nol­o­gists think tank is try­ing to fig­ure out how to feed 10 bil­lion peo­ple. But if we’d failed more, we’d only be a bil­lion peo­ple, which shows what we’re ca­pa­ble of.

It’s the best time in hu­man his­tory to be alive and work­ing, by a rad­i­cal long shot. In Ro­man times, we were killing kids for en­ter­tain­ment. At dif­fer­ent times in his­tory, women were prop­erty and vast num­bers of peo­ple were slaves. For most, the life ex­pectancy was 30 years. So for the vast ma­jor­ity, the past was much worse than to­day, even with to­day’s dis­par­ity. It’s still not evenly dis­trib­uted, but there are le­gions of peo­ple work­ing on dis­tribut­ing it bet­ter. So let’s de­sign so­ci­ety so that even more peo­ple can par­tic­i­pate, be­cause that’s how we’re go­ing to solve the next round of prob­lems.

“Let’s de­sign so­ci­ety so that even more peo­ple can par­tic­i­pate, be­cause that’s how we’re go­ing to solve the next round of prob­lems.”

When peo­ple hear “de­sign,” they tend to think of graphic de­sign­ers or ar­chi­tects, but you’re us­ing the word as a very broad term. And EDIT looks at in­no­va­tions made by doc­tors and chefs. Why ex­tend the fo­cus of the show be­yond just the usual sus­pects?

We use the word “de­sign” col­lo­qui­ally more in­tel­li­gently than we do pro­fes­sion­ally. There are lots of places that the word “de­sign” now be­longs where it still isn’t be­ing said. In busi­ness schools, for in­stance. We don’t need MBAS any­more. We need MBDS. Ad­min­is­tra­tion was the chal­lenge when a com­pany was just mak­ing one thing and had to scale it. Now, busi­nesses should be em­brac­ing de­sign think­ing and con­stantly re­con­sid­er­ing their prod­uct.

EDIT is tak­ing place in a gritty for­mer soap fac­tory. De­sign­ers have a rep­u­ta­tion for lik­ing things very clean — spare, so­phis­ti­cated, and sim­ple. What’s the ben­e­fit here of em­brac­ing some mess?

Per­son­ally, I’ve never strived for a clean no­tion of de­sign. I don’t think of de­sign as pris­tine, fancy things. I know that a lot of peo­ple do, but my de­sign is tak­ing on the tough­est chal­lenges that we face.

In line with that, this lo­ca­tion demon­strates the power of trans­for­ma­tion. The shift from an in­dus­trial past to an in­for­ma­tion-fo­cused fu­ture — which is what’s driv­ing this whole new cul­ture of de­sign — is pro­found. We have mil­lions of in­dus­trial build­ings all over Amer­ica and the world that we’re go­ing to need to re­pur­pose soon. An old soap fac­tory is a great place to have a con­ver­sa­tion about that.

One of your many jobs now is work­ing for Free­man, which plans events. What’s changed about how you reach peo­ple at an expo or a trade show, in a dig­i­tal age?

The in­dus­try event once had a lock on the dis­sem­i­na­tion of up-to-date in­for­ma­tion. It was enough to just bring in a ta­ble, set a new ob­ject on it, and run a demon­stra­tion. But that’s no longer the case. Al­most ev­ery­thing at an event is now avail­able on­line.

Now, events must of­fer in­spi­ra­tion, pos­si­bil­ity, and the chance to con­nect with like-minded peo­ple. We’re us­ing data to un­der­stand what your goals are and to help you reach your goals. We also cus­tom­ize a show in real time. That might mean mov­ing some­one from a meet­ing room to a main­stage based on the at­ten­tion they’re get­ting on­line. That sort of flex­i­bil­ity is im­por­tant.

At the an­nounce­ment event for EDIT, you com­pared it to Canada’s Expo 67 cen­ten­nial fair in Mon­treal. How did that event in­flu­ence your ca­reer?

It blew my mind. At the time, I was eight. I was liv­ing in North­ern On­tario out­side of a min­ing town, and I had never been to a city, but I saw footage on TV filmed from a he­li­copter that was fly­ing around the grounds.

The con­cept of de­sign just wasn’t part of my life on the farm be­fore that, but it be­came what I wanted to do. I’ve been col­lect­ing books and brochures from ’67 ever since. And even though EDIT is a small per­cent­age of what that was, our pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity is still to in­spire. That’s the real test of our work. To in­spire peo­ple, you have to be brave enough to show them what’s pos­si­ble.

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