[Tom Biederbeck] Nothing seems beyond the grasp of Bruce Mau. Identities, books, environments, products and packaging, a 20-year plan for the Muslim holy city of Mecca — Mau and his associates design them all with a signature blend of radical optimism and regard for the planet. At the Compostmodern 2011 sustainability conference (Mohawk was a sponsor), Mau spoke of new ventures and ongoing commitments. Afterwards, he gave me what felt like a guided tour of the future.
Photos by Tom Biederbeck
In your talk, you said when you published your book Massive Change in 2004, sustainability was “a nascent impulse, starting to come alive.” Now, you say, “It’s a movement.” So what comes after a movement?
What come next are norms. The latest brain science shows how we actually make decisions and change our behavior. It turns out that norms are much more powerful than we ever imagined.
People want to be like other people, and we take our cues from how others behave. So, after a movement are new norms. We have to get to sustainability as way of living — not as a special thing, and especially not as a radical, marginal form of sacrifice.
What [a sacrifice] “says” is that a behavior is not normal. We need a transformation from these notions as “new ideas” to being “the ideas.” That’s a long and challenging process.
There is no guarantee it will happen. For instance, Bruce de Mesquita has done incredible research that says we have peaked out on our commitment to sustainability — basically, over the next 20 years it shows consistently declining interest in paying for anything that is “special” to be sustainable.
If we expect that people are going to move to sustainability altruistically, it’s not going to happen. Looking back, we’ve been trying out the idea for more than 40 years. Since Rachel Carlson wrote Silent Spring  we’ve been saying, “Get out of your car.” But not once in those 40 years did the total number of cars in the world go down.
If we were going to do it, we would have done it by now. We love the car. We love the idea of movement. The only plausible solution is to reinvent and redesign the car so it’s sustainable … and make it normal to be sustainable.
Your new focus is education — specifically education for the “99% of the world that doesn’t have access to a college degree.” In your Institute Without Boundaries, the goal was to produce a new type of designer that is, “a synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.” Are you succeeding?
That description is a quotation from Buckminster Fuller, who defined a new kind of design that way. We realize we haven’t yet generated those people. We need to create — if not individuals — teams that do it.
It’s one of the ideas that drove our concept of the “Renaissance team”: the notion that being a Renaissance person today is no longer possible, because the bodies of knowledge are too extensive. But you can form a Renaissance team. I can put together an economist, a visual artist, a technician and an engineer into one group, as long as that group understands a common design methodology.
Are schools doing this, or are they still working in silos?
Both. Universities are really slow. That’s their principle quality, actually — they’re stable. At the same time, they have little lifeboats heading off in new directions — institutes, centers, the “d. school” at Stanford. Schools have programs where they experiment. In a way they can’t afford not to experiment, for fear of being left out of the conversation.
When I started looking at “the other 99%,” I just about fell out of my chair. I thought, “Is this really possible to affect?” My whole life I’ve been talking to people who have university degrees; I have lived in very rarified air.
When you do the numbers, you find out that most people are not getting to participate in the possibilities of this new world. If you design a whole educational system around exclusivity, you basically are broadcasting to the rest that they can’t be part of it. Even amazing people like Ray Kurzweil — he started a new program called Singularity University. It takes in 40 people; for the first class there were 1200 applicants. So 1160 people are being turned away. I want all of those people.
You often deal with interdisciplinary work. At Compostmodern, there are lots of designers who are enthusiastic about sustainability. Do engineers react the same way? Why have graphic designers latched onto sustainability so readily?
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I realized graphic designers were among the first who really got onto the potential of social action and social development in their work. My theory — because I experienced it myself to some degree — is that graphic designers are called on in the corporate world to abandon their own voice and be the voice of the business they are working for — they’re creating the voice for Nike, Coca-Cola or whatever.
It’s capacity that isn’t being used. Someone at Compostmodern said, “Unused capacity is waste.” I think that’s a basic dysfunction and problem. There are a lot of people that are unhappy, because they are doing stuff they don’t like. They need to do other things to recover their well-being … their own internal equilibrium.
A lot of people who are in these situations, working in a corporate context, produce stuff for the insurance company, and it looks good and they go home. When they go home, they do this.
I gave a presentation recently and one of the people there was from Design for America, an incredible group out of Northwestern University’s School of Engineering. One of them stood up and said, “What Bruce just described, we don’t want to do that when we come home after working on the design of Pop Tarts. We want to do that all the time. We want that to be the way that we live.” Graphic designers were onto the problem early on.
Photo by Tom Biederbeck
How do you feel about the capacity of the profession to invoke that kind of change and really have an effect?
Ultimately, it’s where we’re going. It’s not sustainable to have people in unproductive, unhappy conditions. It’s not economically smart, it’s not ecologically smart. All the tools are being built for the liberation of that person: the ability to work on your own, to connect with other people, to collaborate. You don’t have to stay in that horrible place if you don’t like it. You can build your own online collaborative network of people doing new things.
There’s a lot of pressure pushing outwards. You saw it time and time again today [at Compostmodern]. All the people who presented were in some way pushing toward this kind of liberty.
Bruce Mau is chief creative officer of Bruce Mau Design in Toronto. Among his books are Massive Change (with Jennifer Leonard and the Institute Without Boundaries), Life Style, S M L XL (with Rem Koolhaas and Hans Werlemann) and Spectacle (with David Rockwell). For more provocative ideas on design, we recommend Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth.”
On Wednesday, February 2, I’ll offer a wider scope on Compostmodern 2011, right here at Felt & Wire.
Photos courtesy of AIGA SF, HoMan Lee, unless otherwise indicated.