Bruce Mau on why human-centred design isn’t enough

Bruce Mau, who spoke recently at Design Week Ireland, talks to CR about his design philosophy, how he defines the role of a designer, and makes a case for optimism in dark times

Image shows a Bruce Mau exhibition
Bruce Mau exhibition

There are few designers who have been the subject of a documentary film, but considering Bruce Mau’s track record of big, galvanising ideas, coupled with his motivational speaking style, it’s easy to see why he has.

He’s strived to imagine new possibilities for all kinds of contexts, from the pages of a book (see the 200+ titles he’s contributed to) to change on a national scale (he was invited to steer Guatemala towards a more positive future). The Canadian designer remains lauded for S, M, L, XL, his collaborative book with Rem Koolhaas – the founder of architecture practice OMA – first published in 1995. The book presented 20 years’ worth of OMA’s projects, which were spliced with essays and other texts meditating on globalisation, urbanism and beyond, all arranged according to scale. The introduction to the book concedes that, by trying to “find a new realism about what architecture is and what it can do”, it is “a painfully utopian enterprise”.

It might be tempting to apply the same sentiment to Mau’s own practice. However, his ideas, even if grand, have always been driven by optimistic realism. The ethos behind his landmark 2004 exhibition Massive Change – which presented radical ideas in areas like transport, health, and politics – can be traced back to the historian Arnold J Toynbee. He predicted that the 20th century wouldn’t be remembered for violence and conflict, nor technological innovation. “Instead, it will be remembered as an age in which we dared to imagine the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective,” says Mau, paraphrasing. “And when he said ‘practical objective’, he made it into a design project, not a utopian vision. It’s not by definition out of reach. It’s actually something that we’re going to undertake.”

Massive Change, first commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery and later staged in Toronto and Chicago (breaking attendance records in all three locations), was a call for optimism where he felt it was lacking. “At the time, there was something that really bothered me, which was that I saw a very negative mood even in the creative fields – so even in people who are ostensibly charged with problem solving and being creative, there was a very negative energy. And I saw things quite differently.”