Bruce Mau on Stress, and Why We Should Embrace It

The ideas and issues Bruce Mau and his collaborators raised sixteen years ago, in their project “Stress,” seem as relevant as ever.

If you had wandered into the Vienna Festival sixteen years ago, you would have been confronted with seven large screens projecting images of stress spanning the twentieth century: the blitzkrieg, refugee camps, urban riots, people attempting suicide. The exhibition, called Stress, was conceived in part by Bruce Mau. He described it as an “alphabet of stress.” Twenty-six short videos of the things that push us as humans to the limit of breakdown, and sometimes beyond.

The project happened before 9/11 and long before the global financial crisis, the war in Syria, or the prospect of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States.

Yet the ideas and issues Mau and his collaborators raised seem as relevant as ever.

And they continue to guide Mau’s thinking. The Canadian-born designer now lives in Chicago, where he runs his firm Massive Change Network.

At a time when there seems to be no end of stress in our lives, from the most personal to the most global, Mau argues it’s time to embrace it. We have built a culture based on stress and we’ve done it on purpose, he says. Virtually everything we do is about pushing boundaries, whether that’s in personal relationships, our jobs, even the way we treat the environment.

Bruce Mau: If you think about everything that we’re doing—land speed records, space travel, work hours, productivity, efficiency, consumption, and all these different aspects of our culture, they work in this boundary-testing paradigm.1 Everything we’re doing is about finding those boundaries. For the longest time, gravity was the boundary, and we escaped gravity.2 We looked at that boundary as something that was fundamentally not permanent. It wasn’t a forever limitation. And so, when we did the project Stress,3 it was an alphabet of stress, it was all the different dimensions of stress and the culture of stress. It was a seven-screen digital projection. It’s interesting to note that at the time that we did it, doing that was an innovation; it was hard to do. It was itself testing of the boundary.4

William Daubney Holmes: How do you reflect on the exhibition now? Have things changed? Has it got more intense? What do you think so many years later about those ideas?

Well, I think the thesis was absolutely right. I’ve seen it over and over again since then. Some of the boundaries are real, physical, technical challenges. But some of these boundaries are just in our imagination—you know, that lawyers aren’t supposed to also be artists, that this kind of person shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing.

Is that about eliminating stress or is that about embracing it?

That’s a good point. It in some ways increases it because when you do that, you create a condition of not knowing, which is a highly stressed condition. So it does produce a certain amount of stress and it establishes new boundaries, new conditions that are much more productive.

What about the relationship between stress and creativity? We’re all trying to be creative people. And in a daily situation, we have the stress of a deadline. If it wasn’t there, I don’t know how I’d be creative. So you need stress, and yet there are times when stress can be too much and can shut you down.

I think that I am also very much deadline-oriented and project-oriented. I joke with my wife that left to my own devices, I would do absolutely nothing. That’s my preferred state. But all these people call and they need stuff done.

I’m working as a chief design officer for Freeman Company. We do over half of the major conferences and trade shows in America. And it’s an extraordinary business, but it’s absolutely deadline-driven; you cannot be a day late. We produce these massive shows, like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES),5 and stress has to be there. It drives innovation and creativity because we have to be ingenious and absolutely be brilliant about how we get there in the time that we have. When you go back-of-house at CES,6 you realize this is a military operation, I mean, it’s gigantic, and Freeman has a way of making that look easy. It’s certainly not easy. But the design and creativity that goes into making that look easy and seem effortless is extraordinary. Under those conditions, it’s easy to keep doing what you already know. The challenge is to embrace innovation all the time; to be constantly innovating and keeping pace with the product itself, so that the way that we’re doing it is as exciting as the project matter itself.

We’re working on a methodology of orchestration. If you think of an event that’s really beautiful, the calibre of the orchestration is the quality of the event.7 In other words, if you think about when you hear a beautiful piece of music played by an orchestra, all those instruments could produce cacophony, or they can produce beauty. It’s the orchestration that gets them to beauty and gets them to something that will make you cry because it’s so beautiful. And so what we’re working on at Freeman, it’s that method of orchestration.8

Where we see trouble, we see opportunity.

You’ve always had a pretty strong sense of optimism.

Yeah. We cannot afford the luxury of cynicism.9

And yet it’s interesting that when people are stressed—like being stuck in traffic or being late for a meeting, dinner, or whatever—that’s hard.

B Yeah, but we don’t solve problems we don’t have.

Always search for the worst. In other words, where the biggest problems are, are also the biggest opportunities. Designers can see the world upside down. Bad is good, but terrible is awesome. Because terrible means I have a lot I could contribute if I could solve that; I can contribute to humanity. So where we’re stressed, where we’re pushed to the limit, those are all the biggest problems. Take traffic, for instance. Think about what driverless cars will mean.10 It doesn’t mean that you’re not driving. It means that you’re not wasting time. Your car could be completely reconceived as space. Right now it’s designed so that you could drive.11 But if you don’t need to do that, what else could you do? It could be a completely different experience. What I find really interesting about the driverless car is that it makes the suburb plausible again.12 Because if I’m in the suburb and if it takes me three hours out of my day to get to and from work and that time is just sucked up and I never get it back, then it’s tough to be out here. But if I can sit in a car and work, why is it a problem to live out here? It’s a totally different perspective. I think that there are so many interesting opportunities where the problems are.

This is the best time in human history to be alive by a radical long shot.

Where we see trouble, we see opportunity. Where they see trouble, they see fear; they see stress.

I worked with [former] Mayor Daley here in Chicago, and he talked to me about this incredible idea, which I think is one of the most amazing political ideas I’ve ever heard.

He said, “Reinforce stability to embrace change.” He says you should reinforce all the things that we’re going to maintain and under those conditions, people can embrace innovation. The population can embrace new things when they feel confident that the things they love will be sustained and developed, as opposed to thinking that everything is being wiped out. I mean, look at the political landscape in America right now.13 It’s a mess because the political class has failed to reinforce stability.

Right. There are a lot of people who think they’re losing everything that defines them.

Yeah, when in fact, this is the best time in human history to be alive by a radical long shot. And America is certainly one of the best places in the world to be doing it. The freedom and wealth that you have here, even if you’re poor, you still have access to extraordinary opportunities that we mostly take for granted. Someone asked me the other day if I could itemize and put a cost to what’s free inside of your phone.14 You have a recording studio. You have a camera. You have a set of encyclopedias. But we never think, Hey, I got all this amazing stuff for free. It’s become invisible, and instead, we walk around complaining, instead of realizing we have access to things that for most of history, royalty didn’t have access to.

I grew up on a farm that didn’t have running water in the winter. Every time I turn on the tap, I’m like, Wow, that’s amazing! I don’t think people realize how extraordinary that is. In most of the world, it’s not true. It fails every now and again; it failed in Flint.15 We make mistakes. But for the most part, just as an idea, I love the idea of tap water. Because it’s just astounding that it happens every day.

And there’s an orchestration that makes that happen, right?

There is an extraordinary design project with thousands of people committed to it, millions. That makes it happen every day, and yet for the most part, very few people wake up in the morning and say, “This is awesome.”

I worked on an amazing project in Guatemala,16 which was designing a social movement so that the people could imagine a positive future. They had thirty-six years of civil war, and their citizens had lost the ability to imagine a future that wasn’t dominated by violence, poverty, and corruption. They said our children don’t dream. If you asked them what they want to be when they grow up, they didn’t have an answer. Because for most of their lifetime, people didn’t grow up. People were killed. The prospect of actually having a dream had been lost through their culture. Could we help them recover that? That was the question. And I was just blown away by the problem. In our culture, we take for granted that we can dream.

A design-thinking method is a method against fear.

Guatemala is one example. But you turn on the news and the intractability and size of some of the problems we have now—whether it’s war in Syria, Russian aggression, or climate change. You said the bigger the problems, the bigger the opportunities. But does that get hard at some point, because the problems are so big?

Well, they’re certainly challenging. These are cross-disciplinary problems, and that’s why we’re developing cross-disciplinary methodology. The challenges are damn complex. And if you stick into your category, if you stick into your silo, you’re never going to solve them. I’m humbled by the John Kerrys of the world—just unrelenting in their efforts to solve these problems. There are some bad places in the world today, but it’s a rounding error on what was happening in the Second World War. Believe me, I’m not trying to make light of the horror that the people are experiencing in the mass refugee crisis.17 But we can absorb those people, no problem. We can absorb all of those people, carry all of those people, and still be making two or three times the GDP that we were making during the Second World War; individual wealth is still double what it was. People like Donald Trump and the like18 are running around like this is the end of the world. No, actually, it’s not. We have more than the capacity that we need to provide for these people.

Bad is good, but terrible is awesome.

We just have to open the door and accept them, is what you’re saying?

Yeah, and look at the numbers. Look at the data on the reality of immigrants. They’re less likely than American-born people to commit crime. They’re more productive, less criminal. The facts don’t fit the hysterical rhetoric. And I think that’s the world over. Britain left Europe because of immigrants. The real reason is xenophobia, and they voted themselves out. It’s just insane. You know the number one search term the day after the vote? “What is the EU?” Unbelievable!19

But your point is that that’s fear at work, not a search for opportunity.

Yes. A design-thinking method is a method against fear. What we do every day is lean into the fear, lean into the problem to say, “This is where we’re going to make the most impact and create the most value.” And for me, that’s the opportunity of a lifetime. And it’s the opportunity of a historical lifetime. There’s never been better opportunity than there is today, ever. I challenge you to identify a time in history where you would prefer to be living. How about Roman times,20 where we killed children for entertainment?

I mean, go through history and pick out a time. For most of history, women were property. I don’t think there’s a better time to be living; there’s nothing but opportunity.

The world really bifurcates into accident or design. You either leave it to chance or you design it. Chance? It’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to succeed. It can happen. A monkey could eventually type Shakespeare, but it’s probably unlikely.

And you can scale that down to an individual, right? You can design your life?

Exactly. When I was in high school in Sudbury, somebody gave me this terrible book called Living and Selling. I’ve been thinking about it recently because in the book this guy had a metaphor and it was one of those sales pitches—training for salesmen. He said in life, there’s a parade going on. Ninety people out of one hundred don’t even know there is a parade. Ten people will know there is a parade and they want to go. Of the ten, nine want to watch. One person actually wants to be in the parade. I definitely want to be in a parade. And that’s what design is all about. It’s actually getting in the parade.21


Bruce Mau lives and works in Chicago.