Q & A: Bruce Mau

The Massive Change designer on a future with less dependence on oil, losing weight, and why corporate social responsibility is a bad idea

Q & A: Bruce Mau

Photographs by Tim Klein/Getty

Bruce Mau, who started out as a graphic designer in the 1980s, uses design principles to develop strategies for a range of major clients—from big businesses (Coca-Cola, MTV) to governments (Guatemala). The 50-year-old, who moved from Toronto to Chicago two years ago, cemented his global reputation as a big thinker in 2004 with Massive Change: The Future of Global Design, an exhibition of the latest innovations in everything from health and warfare to transportation and manufacturing (a follow-up is planned for 2011). Mau, whose theories are the subject of Warren Berger’s new book, Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even the World, will be speaking at a symposium associated with Toronto’s Interior Design Show this week about a world less dependant on oil.

Q: So what does Bruce Mau’s world without oil look like?

A: It’s not a world without oil, but a world with an ecology of energy sources, where oil is used when it is the absolute right tool.

Q: How do we get there?

A: We’ve had 50 years of telling people to get out of their cars. In every one of those years the number of cars in the world went up. The idea that we’re going to punish or embarrass them into it has simply not worked. It’s like there was a focus group of six billion people around a table, and someone said, “Hey guys, give up your car” and they said, en masse, “No.” This is where design comes in. Ultimately, the way to solve the problem, and so many problems, is to make things cooler and sexier than the older ones. I have a friend who has a Tesla and a Ferrari. He says the Tesla is way cooler. That changes the game. We’re not telling him don’t. We’re telling him, here’s an exciting way you can do it that ultimately can be sustainable. How do we get to do the things we do without stealing from our kids or leaving a toxic legacy? And at the same time, how do we do them in such a way that is smarter and more fun than the old way?

Q: How far off is this future?

A: This is not going to be very popular with my friends, but there’s a long transitional phase. There are times when the energy density of oil makes a lot of sense. But there are lots of things we do where it’s not necessary and it has many negative effects. We can do those things so much more intelligently.

Q: What would be an example?

A: Think about flying. Producing flight takes a high density of energy. But when I’m driving from my house to pick up some milk at the corner store, the energy density doesn’t make any difference. So we’re using a tool that is super good to get an airplane off the ground to go to the corner store. The future won’t be a future without oil. It’ll be a future with 100 other things.

Q: So the major obstacle is getting people aware and excited about alternatives?

A: I think it is. We have ways of doing things now that would radically change our energy footprints, but most people are unaware of them. It’s about making those things normal, not special. That’s a design problem.

Q: Your definition of design seems broad.

A: Design is producing desired outcomes. Most people who hear the word design think of expensive objects. But when you listen to people talk, they actually use the word design more intelligently colloquially. They talk about designing programs, designing events, designing processes. Design is the methodology of producing what we want.

Q: In what ways should big business be incorporating design?

A: In an industrial era, producing quantity was the challenge. But when things are changing so much, the fundamental practice of business becomes design. It’s a process of constant innovation and development.

Q: Tell me about your work with Coke.

A: We worked on a project with them called “Live Positively.” The concept was to articulate the underlining values of sustainability at Coca-Cola. They’re doing a thousand projects about improving water access for people around the world, but even people in the company don’t know about it. So part of it is to make sure that people in the company are aligned to do the right stuff. You have to acknowledge two things: what you have accomplished, and the distance you still have to go. This is a project to articulate that destination—that everyone in the Coca-Cola system has their part to play. I have a life-long ambition to eliminate the idea of corporate social responsibility. It’s a terrible idea.

Q: Why’s that?

A: It’s like having an island of good in a sea of bad. Why would you have a department of good? What does that say about the rest of the business? The idea is to make the whole business good. That should be the DNA of business.

Q: Has the financial collapse created a perfect time for companies to redesign?

A: It has. A lot of the worst practices were basically papered over with cash. The automotive sector is a perfect example. When the crisis came, they realized, “Oh my God, we have no method for actually innovating. We’re really 20 years behind our competitor. And all of sudden we need to rethink, on a fundamental level, the practices that make up our business.” That’s not so easily done. This way of thinking is not just in the science, method and technology. It’s also in the mind and the spirit. Liberating the mind to imagine in a new way is much more difficult than developing a new technology.

Q: Would design have answers to the problems on Wall Street?

A: The fundamental problem was that there were two design engines on Wall Street. You had an entrepreneurial design engine in the market. And you had a regulatory design engine in the government. So you had two innovators. In the market, you have this incredibly innovative, ravenous, progressive designer, constantly innovating new ways of putting things together. But over the last two decades, we unplugged the regulatory designer, and said, “Stop designing in response to the market.” So you had this radical disconnect between the innovation in the market and the lack of innovation in the regulatory sector, producing an absolute calamity. We ripped out huge amounts of wealth from the system in the last two years because we didn’t design the regulatory infrastructure to produce stability in order to embrace innovation.

Q: So you do see it as a design problem?

A: Is there another way of looking at it? I’m sure if you go back and look at their documents, and their language, they would have used the word design.

Q: One of the more interesting projects I’ve read about is your work to redesign Mecca [Mau was presented with the project by the department of transportation at Northwestern University, which was working with an agency of the Saudi government]. How did you go about tackling the challenge to better accommodate religious pilgrimages?

A: It’s a logistics nightmare when suddenly you have three million people descend on one place, and a lot of people were getting killed just by the sheer quantity. Their original idea was to think about the next 20 years of Mecca. And we thought, well, that’s kind of crazy. It’s Mecca, we should do a 1,000-year plan. In the long term, how do you structure the city? And what are the underlying cultural values in Islam that we should think about in developing the future of the city? Our project was to develop a model that says look, the idea that a car is going to be a car and a bus is going to be a bus forever isn’t plausible. So we should think about what the future is going to be like.

Q: How is it different from what you plan on doing in your hometown of Sudbury?

A: The biggest difference is that I’m not interested in producing a vision of Sudbury. They have lots of those. What they need is a methodology for execution.

Q: To solve what problems specifically?

A: They graduate about 5,000 university students a year and almost all of them leave. Something we’re doing is sending the wrong message. I showed them the original landscape. Then I showed them four typical street corners, and said, you started with this extraordinary landscape, the subject of the Group of Seven, and this is what you did with it. If a kid walks in this environment, what story are you telling him? You’re basically telling him, get your stuff and get the hell out of here as fast as you can. If you want him to imagine his future here, you have to think of the story differently.

I’m not going to solve their problem. That’s something we learned in Guatemala. We did a big project there trying to change the way people see their future. The first day I arrived, they took me to meet the vice-president, and said, “This is Bruce, and he’s going to redesign Guatemala.” I said, “Guys, that’s not what we talked about, and that’s never going to work.” Nobody is going to get off a plane and solve your problems. People naturally get excited about somebody else solving their problem, but in fact, I will only succeed if they do it.

Q: When did you realize that design thinking could be branched out in these ways?

A: It was actually a very slow, organic process. People saying, now that you’ve designed that, you can probably design a strategy for a library, and you can probably design a museum, and you can probably design a business strategy. As you do it, you say, “We could apply this to a problem like the citizens of Guatemala not being able to imagine their future because they’ve had 36 years of civil war. You could design a solution to that.”

Q: I read that you’ve lost a lot of weight recently, but only after treating it as a “design problem.” What exactly does that mean?

A: If you look at a show like The Biggest Loser, you realize these people are not attacking the fundamental problems in their life. They’re making this heroic effort, but the underlying design problems remain. I met this extraordinary doctor who asked me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, obviously, I have to lose a few pounds.” And she said, “I thought you were the Massive Change guy? Is that the approach you would take with your clients? You’d recommend they implement part of the solution? Or would you want them to implement the comprehensive solution?” She was right. I wasn’t applying design to myself. Why wouldn’t I use that same methodology to produce the desired outcomes?

Q: So what did you do?

A: There were two big intersecting challenges. One of them is that I travel a lot. That disrupts sleep, which is probably the most important thing you can do for your health. And I wasn’t eating and drinking in a way that is healthy. It’s not that I don’t have the knowledge, but actually designing the methodology in your own life is really challenging. I completely changed my diet and the way I travel and sleep. It’s been transformational.

Q: After seeing Massive Change in Chicago a few years ago, I remember thinking how optimistic the project was. Do you ever lose hope and wonder if the problems are too big?

A: Rarely. A designer can’t afford the luxury of cynicism. I can’t say to my client, “Man, this is really f–ked up.” I’m obliged in a way, by my practice, to see the possibility.

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