An interview on “The Nexus”, the 2022 book by Julio Mario Ottino and Bruce Mau

To envision or just grasp the future of design and Design Thinking, a multidisciplinary stretch is required, where a deeper understanding of fine arts archetypes, technology trends, and scientific thinking is required. Filiberto Amati of Amati & Associates and I turned to Julio Mario Ottino, Guggenheim Fellow and founder and former co-director, Northwestern University’s Institute on Complex Systems, and Bruce Mau, co-founder, and CEO, Massive Change Network, Chicago, and “designer extraordinaire”, to capture their vision, their wisdom, and their views on the future. The occasion was the publishing of their 2022 new book, “The Nexus”, where all these intellectual challenges and mission-critical themes are brilliantly captured in a beautifully designed object.

Marco Bevolo
6 min readAug 17, 2022

Sometimes books are born out of a specific trigger or opportunity. Other times books are born out of necessity or will. “The Nexus”, the new book by Julio Mario Ottino and Bruce Mau, was born out of dialog, discussion, and conversations over 10 years of coffees, completed and refined in 3 years of Zoom meetings during the pandemic crisis. As with every title designed by Bruce Mau, this book cannot be discussed solely in terms of visual design as opposite to intellectual ideas and textual materials. In this latest publication, however, Bruce went back to the roots of both his graphic design practice as well as his creative practice, that is rooted in scientific interests, artistic studies, and -of course- design. Bruce developed a design to achieve a synthesis of his own experience. But probably more than any previous collaboration, this became a Nexus partnership — one that embodied the spirit of the book. Every component of the book was the product of a discussion. Julio Mario, on his end of the authorship, brought to the table his span of knowledge across multiple disciplines, his dual experience as scientist and as painter, and earlier collaborations with Bruce at Northwestern University. Throughout his career, Julio expanded the excellence of engineering studies with a qualitative twist, something that became known as whole brain engineering. The Nexus is an outgrowth of those ideas.

An alchemist between chemistry and fine arts: Julio Mario Ottino

But why “The Nexus”? What is “The Nexus”? “The Nexus” is a place where multiple visions occur at the same time, breaking down disciplinary barriers and boundaries. Even in domains led by creative thinking, innovation and ideas emerge from a common grammar, where continuity prevails. If you could look at your world with the eyes of a specialist who is rooted in another scientific or professional domain, then you might access new opportunities that exist in “The Nexus” only, and not in given existing silos. Even more urgent, the challenges we face as humankind do require “The Nexus”, as the space of opportunities where multidisciplinary divergence and convergence enable the necessary shaping of the new world.

A poster to introduce “The Nexus” (1/5), by Bruce Mau

In this book, there is plenty about Italy, and its 1500’s Renaissance. From this golden age of creativity, the notion of the “Renaissance Team”, as named by Bill Buxton, the first Chief Scientist of Massive Change, or the “Nexus” team, emerged. The contemporary impossibility of embodying in a single individual the complete universe of a practice or a scientific discipline, from mathematics to physics, leads to the natural need of a team, where multiple sensibilities, skills, and talents co-exist.

A poster to introduce “The Nexus” (2/5), by Bruce Mau

Next to “The Nexus”, the notion of “The Blur” exists. Filiberto Amati and I explored a native concept of “The Blur”, by investigating as early as 2017 and printing in 2020 a peer-reviewed paper on the blurring of leisure and work, of categories and industries, as inspired and instigated by digitalization and lifestyle trends. “The Nexus” proposes a synthesis, where the problems we used to have are addressed and solved beyond reification. Problems used to be analyzed by extracting details from context, fixing those details and then returning them to the context. However, this meant negatively impacting the context by unexpected impact. Likewise, you cannot solve human-made problems with Human Focused Design. A new synthesis is required, where hundreds of inputs are required to generate a coherent output. Hence, “The Blur” of competences, as routinely seen in cinema or in architecture.

“The Nexus”, Chapter 3

The challenge is then, how to inspire current leaders of industry, policy-making, and other fields of human activity, in order to scale up to the challenges and the opportunities that lie in “The Nexus”? Within their book, Julio Mario and Bruce display the 1912 Harley Davidson and the 1913 Harley Davidson; the 1912 on cylinder and leather belt; the 1913 two cylinder and chain belt. This can be seen as a divide between the past and the future. Today, even brands like Harley Davidson will be challenged to go beyond everything they stand for, like in Harley Davidson going into electric bikes. Just as in the case of Polaroid or Kodak, the transition to digital meant seismic change. And the same applies to science, where one epistemology is never final and absolute. In chemistry, for example, the paradigm was going from envisioning a molecule and making it, to combinatorial chemistry, with an enormous variations of molecules being produced at the same time, and natural selection thereof. Similarly, with the perspective of the 1960’s, before the A.I. winter, the concept of A.I. based on machine learning would be considered inelegant. However, what looks inelegant today, might likely be mainstream tomorrow. Disruption is not exceptional. It might be perceived as brutal, however it is inevitable. “The Nexus” is a non formulaic formula where a new way of thinking happens.

“The Nexus”, Chapter 5

And then, there is beauty. Beauty is intrinsic to “The Nexus”, where the culture of the place produces the design vernacular, or “lingua franca”, that articulates the design standards of the time. Be it Renaissance Florence or Apple’s “Designed in California”. Owning raw data, without emotional dynamics, leads to poor brands, as in the case of Meta. On the opposite side, luxury brands like Ferrari or Louis Vuitton are capable of combining an aesthetic vision with technological excellence, leading to “the beauty standards” of their age. In this game of synthesis, solution cannot be a given, something that practice or business determines beforehand. Looking at the problem holistically and ecologically, and being “product agnostic”, means being allowed to conclude that the roots of the problem lie elsewhere than what is designed as its own business output. Or it might be the case that the best solution is to make no change to what exists, as most notably advised by Bruce and his team to MoMA, New York, when hired to redesign their visual identity.

Visions of design based on radical optimism: Bruce Mau

“The Nexus” is a book with a clear message of radical optimism. The world is more and more complex and challenging, however the belief in “The Nexus” is the belief in human imagination, in the current and future ability of Renaissance Teams to find the synthesis that will make the unconventional and the inconceivable, possible. From Bauhaus to Black Mountain College, exceptional people did gather in the past, sometimes for short periods of time, even in the harshest conditions, to optimistically shape ideas, insights, and visions for preferable futures. This will undoubtedly continue to happen in the future. From this viewpoint, “The Nexus” is both a testimony of this great tradition of beauty, as well as an appreciative statement of hope, against all odds.

To watch the integral interview by Filiberto Amati and Marco Bevolo with Julio Mario Ottino and Bruce Mau, click below:



Marco Bevolo

Italian living between NL and Japan. 1967, born; 1994, Literature and Philosophy; 2016 Behavioral and Social Sciences; 5 books; 20 scientific papers; Keynote.