Bruce Mau is a designer who has shaped some of the largest companies in the world, and is now working on even bigger questions, like how to reinvent higher education, the future of Guatemala, and a thousand-year vision for the holy city of Mecca. In this conversation, Mau talks about the origins and themes of his latest book, MC24, and about how inspiration is key to changing the world for the better. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. It mixes conversation between Mau and Paddy Harrington with editorial interjections, marked by italics, from Harrington about the episode’s—and the podcast’s—broader themes.Episode Transcript
Bruce Mau: I’ll read you the first paragraph of MC24. This was written before the pandemic and I have to say that, when the pandemic hit, the book had already gone to press. And it’s radically optimistic. And I thought, “Oh my God! I’m gonna look like an idiot. [Laughs] I gotta rewrite the book.” I called the publisher and said, “Look, you’ve gotta stop it!” The response was, “Absolutely not! First of all, it’s already in the bindery. But also it’s exactly what we need to do. You’ll see.” So I went back and I looked at it [again]. This is the first paragraph: “Practically everything we do today needs to change. We’re still doing most things as if we own nature and have unlimited resources. We work as if waste is not a problem. We treat nature like a pantry and a toilet. We think short-term, party like there’s no tomorrow, and pass the check to future generations. We dump problems we can’t solve into places we can’t see. Many of our solutions create more problems than they correct. Things gotta change. Now.”
Paddy Harrington: To say that Bruce Mau is an eternal optimist is an understatement. When faced with any problem, whether big or small, he’s incapable of a negative outlook. As a world-leading designer and visionary, he has worked with the corporations some might describe as the biggest offenders when it comes to creating environmental and social trouble. At the same time, he has also worked on creating a thousand-year vision for the Holy City of Mecca, a vision for a better future for Guatemala, and a new way of thinking about education for Arizona State University. For him, the bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity.
In this episode, we’re looking at the idea of Purpose Design through the ideas of a practitioner who has been at the heart of this way of thinking from the beginning. The idea that the world we create should be both intelligent in its impact and inspirational as an experience is a theme that has permeated Bruce’s work.
But what are the challenges in the approach? How did we get to a place where the dominant philosophy is that the market economies can regulate and solve almost everything? How can beauty be a driving force for change? Fundamentally, how can we embrace our own humanity, our messy human emotions, alongside our rational problem-solving abilities, in order to effect and realize a more positive future?
From design leaders like Frank Gehry and Jeanne Gang to world-leading companies like Herman Miller and Disney, his work and career have been expansive. Massive Change Network, the company he co-founded with his partner Bisi Williams, collaborates with cities, corporations, educational institutions, and beyond to help them reimagine their futures with a profoundly optimistic outlook.
This outlook has sometimes led to criticism. How can you not acknowledge the negative? How can you work with companies that are creating global problems?
As an optimist myself, and having worked closely with Bruce for many years, I, too, was forced to regularly defend the philosophy. And I can say, with confidence, that optimism was not a luxury. It was a requirement of the work. When taking on complicated design challenges, which often begin with strategies and ideas well before they ever become tangible outputs, you have no choice but to believe you can come up with something better. And that was always the more responsible approach. Rather than turning away from these kinds of challenges, we chose to go at them. It didn’t always work; it was often extraordinarily taxing. But we knew we were working on things that had the potential to truly change the world, if only we could see a new way of doing them.
If, for example, Coca-Cola could rethink the essence of how it made and delivered its products, then the whole world changes. And, in my experience, while we approached each project with an unshakeable sense of optimism, we also invariably began with a level-headed and highly analytical immersion in the context for the task at hand. How many bottles produced each year ended up in the trash? What was the long-term impact? How might we change our perception and our process and think differently about how we might do it in the future?
Many simply don’t know where to start with big challenges. Bruce always began with analysis, inspiration, and an open mind free from the constraints that so often paralyze us.
BM: I was very fortunate not to be educated. Because I wasn’t trained to think in a certain way. I did have some education—enough to do what I thought education should do, which is blow your mind and introduce you to a new group of people, a new language, and a new job. [Laughs] And those, for me, happened very quickly. I did it in eighteen months, where most people do it in four years. And so I didn’t have a real good technical understanding of what design was or wasn’t. I was just fascinated by putting ideas and images together. I really enjoyed that. And it turned out to be graphic design.
When I applied for my first job as a designer, I just showed them drawings. [Laughs] I showed them my drawings. And they said, “We love these drawings. Can you design things?” And I said, “Yeah, I think that wouldn’t be too hard, you know. I like doing that sort of thing.” And so they said, “Well, you know, Ron”—who had introduced me, he was leaving the firm, and that created this opening—and so they said, “Ron is leaving in a month. So why don’t you come back in a month and show us your design work?” And so I went home and I just designed things for a month. I designed anything I could think of using my photographs of my drawings and putting typography together with it. And I went back and they hired me as a designer.
And so, not knowing the kind of formal definition or history of design, I think was actually very good for me because I didn’t start with a kind of fixed, constrained notion. I was just interested and kind of curious in a kind of, you know, pantheistic way. I was interested in everything. And I think that’s kind of still the case, I mean, the beauty of a designed life is the range of content that you engage with. You get to deal with problems that you didn’t even know were problems.
PH: Bruce once described a newspaper that contained every story that was happening on the planet. It was a mile thick and the first inch was full of stories that we see in the news every day. Scary, dark stories about wars, catastrophes, and all kinds of negative things. But the rest of the paper was good stories. Stories about people and groups working to make the world better. The idea is that human beings focus on the negative and ignore the many positive developments that are happening around the world every single day.
Is that too optimistic or unrealistic a view? Hans Rosling would probably agree with Bruce. His work as a statistician illustrated two key trends that United Nations data has revealed over the last century: childhood mortality is decreasing and household income is on the rise around the entire planet. These two critical indicators suggest that, overall, things are, in fact, getting better.
Still, any person using their common sense would agree that the human race is in trouble in many ways and Bruce is obsessed with understanding how we can work our way out of the problem.
At first, his focus was visual design and graphic design. In collaboration with some of the world’s leading thinkers, artists, architects, and designers, his work with Zone Books defined his early career. But as his work evolved, so did his medium. While he spent years thinking about and transforming the way we interact with physical things, he has focused his attention more recently on how we can transform less tangible things, like how we make decisions both individually and in groups. Because it’s one thing to design a master plan and a thousand-year vision for Mecca. It’s another thing entirely to make it happen. Because for anything to change, you need people to be both inspired but also engaged and, ultimately, active participants in that change.
We have to change our focus from that extraordinary exception to designing the new normal.
BM: I have this extraordinary image of what many consider to be the greatest meeting of the minds in history. It’s this extraordinary photograph of thirty or forty absolutely mind-blowing innovators: Einstein, Max Planck, Neils Bohr, Marie Curie. I mean, people who fundamentally changed our perception of the universe, our understanding of who we are and where we are in space and time. These people really changed everything. But they’re all dressed almost identically. They wear the same shoes, jackets, ties, pants. It’s stunning. Even Marie Curie, you can hardly pick her out. And what I realized is that it really shows the power of norms. Right? Like, Einstein could reconceive our understanding of the universe, but he dressed like everybody else [laughs]. And that is the power of norms.
And so, part of the work becomes really understanding. First of all, how decisions really get made—and now we have neuroscience that can help us understand that. And then developing methodologies. We found the work of this extraordinary guy named Paul Dolan, who developed a concept that he called SNAP, which is Salience Norms Affects Primes. Salience is, “I need to capture your imagination for you to consider something.” So somehow I have to get your interest. Norms we just talked about. Affects—it has to be emotional; I’m not making the decision on a spreadsheet. And primes are the most important design element. Primes are things that you can put into the environment that change behavior at the point of behavior. In other words, as I’m moving around, there are certain moments when I’m gonna do—I’m gonna make certain decisions. If I can put a piece of information in that pathway at just the right moment, I can help you see things in a new way and make better decisions. And that’s a very different work; that’s what we did at ASU. Like the ASU project was about putting the primes into every environment. So if you lived in Phoenix, if you went to Arizona State, you could not be ignorant of what we were trying to do. You could not be out of touch with President [Michael] Crow’s vision for a new American university. Because we put that messaging in very tight capsules—you know, like, two words, three words—everywhere on campus. You could not be in an environment and not have it in your field of view. And the transformation has been really profound. You know you now have—when we got involved they were the number one party school in America. They’ve been the number one school for innovation for the last three years. You know, we were asked to raise a billion dollars and they raised ten billion. And I think that—so that—for me that concept of defining the project in the right way [was important]. Defining, you know, how do we design the normal?
Part of our design has to change. We have to change our focus from that extraordinary exception to designing the new normal—and really helping people cross that bridge. Most people, when they look at the bridge, they think, “I’m just gonna hold my wallet and walk backwards. I’m not gonna cross that bridge. It’s too risky.” And you end up with a gap between the pioneers and the innovators and the rest of us. And so, once you start to say, “Look, our real project is to design a new normal”—that’s a very different problem.
PH: This question has been top of mind for many in the last two decades. We’ve known that our planet is in trouble yet consumption and growth seemingly outweigh any concern about the supply of everything we need for our cities, our businesses, our houses, and our lives.
Is there a different way of thinking about it? Can we imagine a different way of building our world that doesn’t require endless consumption and waste? And, importantly, can we do it in a way that creates more inspiring, equitable, environmentally responsible, and better human experiences for everyone on the planet?
There is a concept of circularity in design, whereby everything we use to create is considered part of a larger cycle. We take from the world what we need, we build with it, we use it, and then we return it to the place from which we got it. Consider birch-bark canoes made in traditional ways by Indigenous peoples, like those built by Chuck Commanda, an Algonquin master canoe builder from Kitigan Zibi, Quebec. The materials needed to build them come from the forest and when the canoe has reached the end of its life, all the materials naturally decompose and again become part of the forest’s life cycle. There is no synthetic waste. Car companies in Germany are required to take back the cars they produce at the end of their life cycle. That requirement transforms how they think about what they make. It’s thinking about such responsibilities that provides ideas for how we can collectively move forward. And it’s this kind of thinking that informs Bruce’s new book, MC24.
BM: MC24 is the twenty-four principles of designing massive change in your life and work. And it really came out of—I mean, it’s actually a funny story—I was made an honorary royal designer for industry in London as part of The RSA. It’s actually a very cool thing; it was started by Ben Franklin when he was ambassador to London. And he wanted to bring beauty into industry, because up until that time it was mostly industrial aesthetics and industrial products. And he thought, for people to really … for it to really change the way that people live, we’re going to need to make the products beautiful.
That’s how this all started. What happened is that they sent a group of young leaders from England to Chicago to meet with us. And for me to kind of show them the work that we do. And I did a presentation, I showed them the work, and they said, “Wow, you’re a really weird dude. What kind of designer are you?” And I said, “Well, I’m a designer. This is what we do.” And they said, “We—our experience of design”—they weren’t designers—“our experience of design is defined by the product, so a graphic designer does 2D things and an architect does buildings and a product designer does, you know, commercial products. But you’re doing carpets and social movements, institutions and cities, you know. How do you do it?” And I said—and I was a little bit irritated with them—and I said, “Look, I just showed you. You should have been paying attention.” And they said, “No, you showed us the results, but actually you said nothing about how you do it.”
And I realized that I actually didn’t really know how we did it. We had just developed a way of thinking and working that could master these crazy beasts over the years, that in the studio we’d developed a kind of culture that could take on really weird things. And it just evolved over time. It was one of those things where, you know, each time we went a little further. When I realized that my answer to their question was, “I don’t know,” it seemed like not a good answer. So I thought, “I should really have an answer to that.” And so I started to think about what are the principles that we apply, you know, why do I work this way? And how do I actually address these thorny problems? Are there principles that anyone could use to advance their work and solve their problems, whether it’s in their community, their education, their business, their life? These are design concepts that, once you get the concept into your way of thinking, you have it forever. So once you say, “Look, my job is to inspire people”—once I start to think like that—I develop an expertise in inspiration and I watch what other people do to inspire people. I use techniques; we use the manifesto. And manifestos have changed the world, for better and worse. But they’ve certainly changed it. So can we use a manifesto as a technique? As a design technique? As a design method?
Manifestos are super powerful. They galvanize. I remember when I was working with Marc Mathieu [former CMO at Samsung, now at Salesforce]. Marc said, “You know, the most important thing that you did, you didn’t mention it, you didn’t tell me you were going to do it, and you didn’t charge me for it.” And I said, “What was it? [Laughs] I wanna know!” He said, “When you walked into the room, you told us what we were all doing together in a way that galvanized everyone in the same direction.” He said, “Before you came on I had 150 people going 150 different directions. When you shaped the project the way that we did it, suddenly everyone was pulling in the same direction and that made the thing work—that made the project happen.” And so that kind of galvanizing … the ability to say, “Look, here’s what we’re really capable of doing in our best selves, in our biggest ambition.” This is what the opportunity is. It’s really exciting to see that in this crisis we’re going back to the manifesto. So, even in the kind of depths of this crisis, we’re going back to the manifesto to say, “What did we articulate? What was the vision of our company? Of our—and more than our company—of our culture, our place in the world, our contribution? You know, what are we really here for? You know, what do we add to the world?”
PH: Bruce mentions Marc Mathieu. For a long time, Marc has been leading—and reinventing marketing for—companies like Coca-Cola, Unilever, Samsung, and now Salesforce. The value he describes Bruce bringing is key. You can make significant changes if you align groups of people behind a clear cause. But you also need to illuminate a path toward action. And to do that, you need to inspire them. More and more, we’re finding that people respond to the need to change for reasons beyond profit-making. More people are looking to change because deep down they know that we all have to. Even those who have only ever cared about business results.
But in every case, we need inspiration. It’s the energy behind what we’re saying. It’s the conviction and clarity that comes when we feel confidence that what we’re doing is not only wanted, but needed. Inspiration is not an abstract notion; it’s fundamental. It’s one of many strategies. But it’s a critical piece.
Every design is a movement. Everything we do, we’re proposing a new world.
BM: I think a couple things that you have to – some of which are so inherent to the way that I am in the world, that it’s hard for me to see them. It’s like the concept of a fish seeing water. And Oone of the things that I’ve tried to do in MC24 is really to drag those things out to the public and say, “Hey, these are the things that you have to start with.” So, for instance, the first principle is first: inspire. Design is leadership; lead by design. In other words, your principal job is to inspire. It’s not a side effect. It’s not a kind of hoped-for outcome. You have to put it right dead center of your work, to say, “I need to inspire.” And that means that once you do that, you can start to say, “Is this inspirational? Am I creating an inspirational idea? Is this going to move people? Will it touch them? Will they open up? How can I help them open up?” So you start to build a practice around inspiration. And the reason is that the reality of our world is that we can’t make people do things.
We need a better way that’s more exciting, cooler, sexier, more interesting, more compelling, more beautiful—just a better way of being. And when we do that it’s inspirational. And when we do these things that really are a different way of living, that are really beautiful and exciting, that’s how we’re gonna do it. That’s what the great innovators and designers are doing.
Every design is a movement. Everything we do, we’re proposing a new world.
PH: This is the premise of this podcast: The real path toward a better world is forged by creating better human experiences built on strong environmental and social foundations. It uses design and inspiration to accelerate positive change.
I was lucky to have spent my formative years as a designer working with Bruce. At first, the thrill of making inspiring and beautiful things was enough. But as the projects we worked on became larger and more complex, the preoccupation with making beautiful things evolved into a fascination with how to turn that inspiration into action. We became obsessed with changing behavior within organizations through inspiration so they could become force multipliers for positive change.
When you’re not a part of a company like Coca-Cola, it’s hard to imagine why it can’t just change. But once you’ve spent time studying it, you realize that it is an extraordinarily complex system of people, regulations, relationships, resources, policies, borders, and more. These companies are as interwoven into our world as the roots of trees. To change an organization at that scale requires understanding all those things, to say nothing of human psychology and what frames of reference people use to see the world.
It’s hard work. It’s work that requires a long view. But it’s also work with the potential for enormous impact. If a global company changes, even something simple, it has a ripple effect on entire industries.
And that’s what makes Bruce’s work so exciting and challenging. If companies are like trees whose roots are deeply interwoven with the world, then it’s the potential for those trees to engage with the systems that sustain them so that they can provide direct support to what helps them thrive in a virtuous cycle. MC24’s twenty-four principles aren’t guaranteed to bring change in twenty-four hours. But with the right inspiration among people with a shared vision for a better future, each hour spent reorienting the way we think about our world has the potential to turn into positive change that will weave its way through generations.
UPDATE, April 20, 2022: The initial version of this transcript incorrectly asserted that Hans Rosling’s research revealed that child mortality has been increasing, when in fact it has been decreasing. We have updated the text to correct the error.
To learn more about Bruce Mau and the Massive Change Network, visit MassiveChangeNetwork.com.
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