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Bruce Mau: From Innovative Graphic Designer to World-Class Conceptualist

THE TRANSFORMER: Bruce Mau has gone from innovative graphic designer to world-class conceptualist, producing books and museum shows, collaborating with star architects, and rethinking and revamping education. Several years ago, the Canadian native moved to Chicago, where he’s been embraced by the city’s movers and shakers (including Mayor Daley) and where he now pushes his empire toward its modest goal: using design to change the world

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The works of Bruce Mau

Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth

Mau was born and raised in the tough mining town of Sudbury, a small place five hours north of Toronto. (Recently he accepted the town’s proposal that he work on a creative blueprint for the community’s future.) His stepfather worked in the mines; Bruce and his four sisters worked the family farm, which had no running water during the winter months. As a child, he felt different; he says he didn’t inherit the hunting and hockey genes. He loved the science lab of his local high school, but when he was 15 he had an epiphany: He wanted to go to art school. The school counselor told him it was too late. “How could my fate have been sealed at 15?” he asks. After putting up a fight, he was allowed to enroll in a special art program, and he stayed an additional year in high school, taking extra art classes. The school had an old one-color Heidelberg offset press; Mau reconfigured it to make his own four-color prints. The strength of those prints won him entrance to Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design.

But he didn’t like the restriction of classes, and he soon dropped out and made his way to London, England, where he was hired by the prestigious design firm Pentagram. He got politicized in London, in reaction to the conservative policies of Margaret Thatcher, who was then the prime minister, and the fit with Pentagram quickly felt too corporate. He returned to Toronto and, in 1985, opened his own studio. He also began to wonder: Is design just to meet the needs of the client? and How am I not going to be bored? (Number 15 of his Incomplete Manifesto: Ask stupid questions.) The answers started to come when he was hired by Zone Books in New York City to design a new book series. Mau’s work on the series—including a pre–digital age digital-like book cover image—was considered highly inventive at the time, combining various mismatched types and images with striking results.

The Zone books made his name, but eventually boredom set in. After designing a book for Frank Gehry, Mau was offered a collaboration with him on what would become the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Mau and his design studio created a signature identity for the hall, including the use of “environmental graphics.” After testing more than 5,000 existing typographic fonts, Mau and company merged several together to invent the new typeface A Font Called Frank. This typography was then integrated into the outside of the building by creating perforations in the metal that spelled out the hall’s name. By design, the perforations allowed light to “emanate from within,” as Mau puts it. After this project, he began to change his view of design and, hence, the possibilities in the world. “We can make things happen,” he says. “We have the abilities to transform our lives.”

As Warren Berger notes in Glimmer, the idea that design can solve the world’s problems goes back at least a century. The British designer William Morris, a leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement, saw design as entwined with utopianism. The modernism and futurism movements of the early and middle twentieth century had ambitions to improve the quality of life for large populations. And the geodome-designing Buckminster Fuller envisioned an environmental design democracy. Mau continues in that tradition (number 23: Stand on someone’s shoulders), in a constant quest to reshape and rethink life around him.

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Does he believe one can design happiness? He hesitates for just a moment. “I think it would be a mistake to imagine that there is a place you can get to where you would be happy. But I do think you can design a life that is fulfilling on the road to that place. Of course, it has pitfalls and wrong turns—bad people, accidents. But I do think it’s possible to apply design in a much broader way than ever imagined. We get calls every week about applying design to holistic systems.”

A system, he explains in his quiet, almost hypnotic voice, is anything that we do over and over again. The way McDonald’s makes hamburgers is a system. A business that has a seven-year plan to scrap all its mechanics is a system. And any system is open to design, he says.

Mau is not given to sound bites or easy-to-digest quotes, but in a long, reasoned monologue, he lays out the groundwork for his thinking: Every system has a flow, and every flow has cycles. Every cycle is an opportunity for massive change, and the longer the flow, the more important the design decision is. “We can look at each cycle as a design problem, and this way we can help businesses make decisions that are more intelligent, much more ecological, and much smarter economically.”

And that will make us happier?

“Relatively, yes,” he says with a laugh. “Quality of life is based on the environment—all aspects of the environment—around us.”

On his own road to happiness, Mau is determined to move away from what he knows best. He wants new challenges, and he thinks he may have found them in the design of education. Arizona State University has hired him to redesign how people experience a college education. He has already proposed that ASU create a “purpose-driven” curriculum that allows students to pick and choose various department offerings rather than stick to a prescribed, cookie-cutter major. And he created a dazzling four-minute promotional video for ASU that includes language sure to be an aphrodisiac for potential students: “Go Ahead. Fail. Learn. Fail Again. Learn More. Succeed.”

That, plus his recent work on The Third Teacher, has him thinking of schools as the next arena ripe for massive change. “Freedom is one of the sources of an entrepreneurial world,” he writes in The Third Teacher. “You learn that you can make things happen. So I think that anything we can do to give children free time and free space in a rich environment that is not determined, not programmed, is a huge asset for them.” Now he is exploring the idea of expanding that concept for adults by applying his methodology to design labs at various universities. He’s also pursuing the idea of designing Massive Change classes online. “Oh, I think the potential is incredible,” he says, although how that potential may manifest itself is unknown. After all, number 17 of the Incomplete Manifesto for Growth is: _______________. Intentionally left blank. Allow space for the ideas you haven’t had yet, and for the ideas of others.

And so, as Mau believes, if design can be applied to anything, then, like one of those living room red balloons—buoyant, fragile, and needing a bounce to spring into action—the world awaits him.


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