Bruce Mau talks: from life-centered design, to events for preferable futures.
Every modern generation has a designer of choice and of reference, who captures the Zeitgeist and delivers the vision that stands for a better future, by design. After redefining what graphic design can do in the 1990s desktop revolution with his earlier studio, Bruce Mau Design, Toronto, Bruce Mau, author of “MAU MC24”, Phaidon, founder of Massive Change Network, Chicago, and currently Innovator in Residence at Freeman Company, Dallas, TX, the event sector leader, is one of such design leaders, and his time is now. With Filiberto Amati, of Amati & Associates, on 16/09/2021 we engaged in a deep dialog in a unique LinkedIn event, here on YouTube as a clip, as part of our series on the future of events as part of our extracurricular research commitments to foresight and futures.
By now, Bruce Mau needs no introduction. His work speaks for itself. I will therefore briefly introduce how Bruce came into my life, professional first of all. It was the mid 1990s, when Chris Bangle just designed the “almighty” FIAT Coupe before moving to BMW; when Oasis was making Britannia cool again; and when cyberpunk was a science fiction vision created by William Gibson to make punk meet the PC. In the mid 1990s, the dot.com revolution was starting to spread its vibes (the book “Clicking” by Faith Popcorn was just out) and the world of graphic design was in its major transition, from alternative fanzines crafted in underground cellar to desktop computing enabling universal creativity, or to put it simple: from ink to pixels, in just a decade. Mind you, the first iMac was yet to come and computers were just grey boxes with powerful yet very slow graphic cards and the software needed to run them. Bruce Mau needed no introduction in Summer 1996, in Milan as in the rest of the world, when we both worked at Giancarlo Politi Editore, Milan. I was a young, unknown underdog, appointed by Giancarlo as project leader and editor of a new Italian magazine in one of his typical twists, while Bruce -as Gea Politi recently recalled on her Instagram stream- was resident for a few weeks, skilfully leading the redesign of the Times New Roman logo of their flagship publication, Flash Art International. Thanks to his 1995 world class breakthrough with Rem Koolhaas, the 1376 pages opus magnus, “S, M, L, XL”, edited by Jennifer Sigler at The Monacelli Press, Bruce was virtually everywhere in the art direction department of my Milanese publisher and in the rest of the world, as every graphic designer dissected his unexpected solutions, embodying the new unforeseen possibilities of desktop design. “S, M, L, XL” rapidly became the “Bible of the Desktop Revolution”, displaying the unprecedented power of graphic design in the personal computing age. At the same time, while virtually operational in the very same office space, Bruce was never to be seen in person, because he kept -for a month or so- his daily routine based on the U.S. East Coast Time Zone, hence working at nights, every night, and resting during business hours. As a result of this atypical planning schedule (atypical at the time, at least), he achieved a major milestone in the minor world of contemporary art publishing, convincing even a publisher who had always been cautious and conservative on his look-and-feel like Giancarlo to adopt a new logo, without physically manifesting itself during daytime. In a formative year when I had the privilege to professionally interact with current and future leaders in the cultural and creative sectors, from Francesco Bonami to a younger but already inspired Atto Belloli Ardessi, I always felt I missed the opportunity to personally connect to Bruce and this is why I was delighted when the World Future Society 2006 yearly event brought me to Toronto, then his home base with Bruce Mau Design, and we could finally shake hands, eye-to-eye (during U.S. East Coast Time Zone business hours, of course).
Since then, I have followed with great gusto Bruce’s rapidly paced development from design leader, that was his acquired status in the 1990s, to thought leader tout court. This entailed enjoying how Bruce expanded the notion of what “design” is, from “desktop” to “top of mind” and from aesthetic revolutions to “Massive Change” to pursue preferable futures, and from innovating book design to rethinking innovation from human-centric, to a novel notion of inclusion and nature, hence the immense idea of a new life-centered design, where empathy, commitment, and care connect with context in its widest environmental sense. From these starting points, Filiberto Amati and I engaged on a publicly available dialog with Bruce Mau, who is also Innovator in Residence at Freeman, on the future of events, from business events to our massive challenges that will require massive change at planetary level.
Radical, fact-based optimism.
Beyond the anecdotal details above, that frame our common history in the design and contemporary art history (well, Bruce’s history and my modest contribution), it was easy to start our conversation from Bruce’s roots and his life-centered design turn, that brought him from his deep love for books and the printed page, to his notion of “massive change” and “design” as an ideological and organizational force to address major planetary challenges on behalf of every living being. It is a political view of design in line with some classic philosophical ideas of Flusser, however less confrontationally drastic in their tone of voice than those eloquently articulated by the likes of Tony Fry. Way further than people-focused design, Bruce referred to his collaboration with Dean Julio M. Ottino of Northwestern University, who believes that climate change cannot be addressed by human-centric approaches to the way we will design in the future. However, Bruce’s tone of voice is that of optimism, or we could even say: radical fact-based optimism as “the” mantra for those who pursue a better future. To face the risks ahead of us, cynicism is a luxury that humans simply cannot afford, and even more so designers, who are called to convert such risks into inventive and innovative ideas, solutions, and their pragmatic, applicative implementations into our everyday. As a matter of fact, new challenges of unprecedented magnitude will call not only for a new design ideology or methodology, but especially for a whole new league of relentless and even restless optimism, as Bruce himself stated in his Convocation Ceremony Speech at Northwestern University, McCormick School of Engineering, 2021.
The power of a book launch, reframed in the 2020s.
Vector par excellence of Bruce’s vision and views are his books, from 2004 groundbreaking “Massive Change”, through 2000 “Life Style”, to reach the maximum synthesis between visual appeal and verbal impact with his most recent, the aforementioned 2020 “MAU MC24”. The launch of this latter title, determined by Phaidon, its publisher, to happen during the climax of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, forced Bruce -like all of us in our work- to deviate from the standard planning of events, switching to virtual presentations all over the globe from his chair in his studio. This led to two observation: a) the fundamental lack of contact, as always experienced in prior events, in terms of informal networking; and b) the unexpected benefit to be in same day in a primary school in Europe, to then move to a design institute in Asia, and end the day with a third presentation or dialog with an American audience. This virtual ubiquity might be appreciated as a major benefit in terms of both productivity and quality of exposure and interaction. The beauty of serendipity, in the form of dinners or drinks, versus the privilege to reach out to a higher number of individuals; such tension was resolved by the quality of feedback in Zoom sessions, in the form of questions, comments, and other opportunities to engage in lively moments of true dialog. Now, at yet another moment when -Delta Variant permitting- we expect to revert to in-presence events, the peculiar option exists to actually stage a second round of in-person presentations to relaunch the book. This opportunity is rather unique in terms of marketing cycles supporting editorial products, given its timing -and of course -given the moment- its unique emotional, cultural, and social context. Said context might amplify the natural mechanisms at the roots of physical interaction, from the Chinese unspoken rules of Guanxi to the Latin ways of doing business over lunch or dinner.
Hybrid as the new balance?
What will be the new balance between physical and digital modalities of gathering in events? In the past, according to Bruce, it was possible to observe how the quantity of long distance calls between distant cities was parallel to the actual travel exchanges by plane or train or other vehicles, among the same cities. This insight matches Saskia Sassen’s 2006 observations, as presented during the Venice 10th Biennale of Architecture that saw Sir Richard Rogers being the recipient of the Lion award for Lifetime Achievement for his commitment to urban design and the well-being of citizens. Cities do matter also as event destinations, and already for a decade or two, therefore increasing the technological assets whereby people can remotely reach other does not mean indeed removing or replacing the human drive to physically meet. Of course, sustainability is key, and in that perspective, it cannot be ignored how people are ready to embrace new lifestyles, from mobility to nutrition, in order to contribute reversing climate change. Why would event designers, event managers, and the event industry not leverage digital opportunities to reduce, if not minimise their environmental footprint?
From subcultural events to tribal cities.
The current status of the event industry might be represented with a bell curve, between totally digital and totally immersive extremes. Hybrid will be the dominant mode of tomorrow’s events, however it will be a hybrid world of events where mindfulness will migrate into digital interactions, and digital itself will be a pervasive condition of our lives. On the short term, social pressure to return to live events, with personal presence and contacts by bringing people in even for an hour event, might dictate the return of travel, however on the mid term the lessons learnt during the Covid-19 in terms of efficiency will kick in. Digital giants like Google or Apple learnt, sometimes in the hard way, that post-Covid-19 staff demand mobility on demand and eventually the flexibility of remote operations, without the costs, the loss of time, and the impact in environmental impact that commuting implies. This future of hybrid events will leave cities under increasing pressure to attract visitors as destinations. Here, the tribe will lead, meaning that people will congregate wherever their values, lifestyle choices, and personal interests will find a match with the urban texture, both human and contextual. “Meaning” will therefore drive the industry. In this scenario, events will be scaling up in size, to reach, match, and connect the tribe. As an example of tribal event, the SEMA Show, a major custom-made car fest where that particular subculture gathers. At Freeman, the company behind this specific event, it is clear how supporting, nurturing, and inspiring this one peculiar “tribe” is key to their business. Cities will have to imagineer themselves from planning their destination marketing to embodying the spirit of any of such tribes, be it through attracting digital nomads in whole new exotic destinations, like Caboverde has been recently aiming to, or reverting the historical migration flows at national level, like Italy saw with the new phenomenon of Southworking, with huge implications on rich cities left behind as well as for new settlements. In both cases, as well as in the earlier references to corporations and enterprises, big or small in size, a business event can be efficiently limited to one hour online in between a day on the beach, as we have experienced the actual possibilities of remote connectivity by force majeure in the last 18 months. In this current technological landscape, one economic factor is mission-critical. Nowadays and in the future, economy does -and will- follow beauty.
Beauty and garbage. Today’s competition, tomorrow’s mindfulness.
One of the 24 principles defined in “MAU MC24” is that beauty is and will remain a key driver in terms of perceived value and therefore, the willingness of people to pay more for products, services, and propositions will be ignited by beauty. Even more: we will do more for beauty, because it is the highest point of human experience. Every city, every enterprise will require a “beauty strategy”. Anecdotally, Steve Jobs once defined “beauty” as the only real strategic asset within the Apple portfolio and proposition. Of course, you need infrastructure to make the world go round and our cities and societies to function, however beauty is the current currency and the future strategic differentiator.
At the opposite of beauty, we have “garbage”, and events might be interpreted from the viewpoint of their negative environmental impact, where an illegal rave party in the woods alone might produce 50 or more black bags of mixed waste. In this perspective, “MAU MC24” advocates a systematic vision where materials are opportunities for recycling, and designers are agents of perpetuity, with an “edible approach” to their work, meaning: everything produced should be consumed and return to nature, as nature itself. Celebration is in balance with the environment when its impact is zero thanks to recyclable and -even better- compostable materials, that leave the planet as it was before them. System thinking and a sense of urgency will be required, and it might be seen as complementary to a “beauty strategy”, leading to the necessary mindset, and eventually mindfulness.
Indigenous cultures as the source of preferable futures for us all.
Mindfulness itself might be seen as the “next Design Thinking”, meaning that you might expect “mindfulness” to trickle down into MBA and business school curricula just like Design Thinking did a couple of decades ago. In 20 years now, according to Bruce’s life-centered design vision, consciousness and awareness are key. Just like Galileo proved, we as humans are not the center of the universe. We are not the only ones on the stage of life, therefore a strong mindset with empathy at its core. The “rest of life” is not separate from humans, as “we” are part of life without owning it. Awareness and mindfulness will convert into a new sophistication and a novel vision of “us” in a system of relationships around and above us, hence into different and more suitable methodology. From this viewpoint, the experimental work of McEwen School of Architecture in Sudbury, Ontario, a new Canadian institute that was validated as the 12th fully accreditated provider of architectural education in the country, might be worth considering as a front runner. With a leadership equally shared among the indigenous, French, and British roots of Canadian culture. Indigenous cultures have evolved different cosmologies than Western cultures, where “we” as humans are just “part of” nature and not against nature. That is the case with Canadian First Nations. This is a Copernican revolution in terms of self perception, awareness, and mindfulness. Just think of our contemporary cities, that are largely conceptualised, designed, and built “against” nature. Our future cities need instead “to be” nature. As Ryuichi Sakamoto once said, after traveling all cultures in the world, you go back to Africa as the first mother and the source of all rhythm. Likewise, indigenous cosmologies offer us the opportunity to represent ourselves differently, in holistic terms. We, as members of advanced economies, still primitively think in externalities, with animism surfacing in our behaviours, rituals, and relationships with physical objects and digital interfaces, whereas First Nations view of the world generally speaks of inception, integration, and inclusion of women and men in the world, within nature. In “MAU MC24” Bruce recalled his formative years as a young canoe trainer in Canadian wildlife and Northern Ontario parks as “the” moment of his epiphany on this topic. Immersion in nature might open our eyes also about our sense of separation between “private”, to be nurtured and protected, and “public”, to be used and abused. The way “average folks” behave in their backyard garden in terms of waste management and care, is sometimes different than how they behave in a natural park or an open area they visit, e.g. for a picnic. The notion of responsibility implies the exclusion of the exterior. This clashes with the notion of sacredness, e.g. a sense of sacred when visiting a forest. A lack of sacredness is at the roots of climate change, because our advanced economies, societies, and cultures have lost the notion of what is inviolable, and therefore sacred. It is possible to turn to Jerry Mander’s 1991 classic title, “In the Absence of the Sacred”, as one of example of critique whereby technology is described in its risks for failure, and indigenous cultures are explored as depositaries of potential alternatives. In this sense, we should “kill” the very concept itself of parks, natural reserves, or even CSR departments in corporations as obsolete, because they represent the way of thinking whereby we aim at creating and maintaining islands of intelligence in an ocean of stupidity, or islands of creativity and care in a sea of selfishness and destruction. The notion of a park is the protection of a minor part of nature, say 3% of a river, versus the exploitation of the larger part that is not included in the park, say the remaining 97% of the same river. This must be reverted, and whole rivers, whole forests, whole mountains, whole corporations, and whole cities should become sustainable in the way they are conceptualised, designed, and managed.
This was an inspiring conversation in the same style as our earlier dialog with Bruce’s fellow Canadian citizen, Johanne Schroeder, UN WLO President and Chair at Vancouver Island University, who leveraged “events” as a starting point to stretch the boundaries to the peripheries and the next core of leisure, tourism, and sustainability. Three quarters of an hour with Bruce are one lifetime opportunity to open your mind and learn to reframe and rethink your job as design professional, your views as a world citizen, and your vision as a living being on this planet, that we share with endless species and life forms.