I’ve seen the future of design. It is short, portly and dressed from head to toe in black. I am referring to the Canadian designer and theorist Bruce Mau. Thanks to an invitation from the design group Thoughtful, I attended a recent talk by Mau in Liverpool, where he is consulting on the redevelopment of Everton Park. The talk was a revelation.
The first thing that struck me was the audience. There was a smattering of design students and a few Converse-shod designers, but most were besuited professionals – the sort of people you might find attending a conference on health funding or urban redevelopment. They listened to Mau with rapt attention. He achieved this without ever resorting to business speak or brand gobbledygook, and by discussing design in a way that was fresh, convincing and visionary.
He began by saying that he no longer views design as being about ’the object’ (a logo, a chair, a house). In Mau’s opinion, design doesn’t even have to be visual. Rather, it is about designing outcomes, which can relate to anything – health, the reclamation of public spaces, even the wellbeing of nations.
In a way, this view of design is similar to the purely business-centred view that states that a logo, for example, doesn’t have to be ’well designed’ just so long as it delivers the desired financial outcome. In other words, it’s OK for a brand identity to be visually impoverished if it achieves the stated business objectives.
Nor is Mau saying anything new. The notion of design helping to solve social and environmental problems has been around for a while, especially in the US. But Mau has developed a methodology – and acquired a portfolio of successful projects – that lifts him out of the realm of speculative think-tank musings into the realm of doing. His project for Guatemala demonstrated his credentials and brought a lump to my throat.
Asked by the minister of education to help build a new vision for Guatemala – a nation emerging from 36 years of civil war – Mau went about it like any half-decent branding agency. He proposed various initiatives and even started a national movement centred on changing the name Guatemala (meaning ’bad place’) to Guate Amala (meaning ’place I love’).
So far, so conventional. But Mau showed how his thinking differs from the normal consultative branding process when he described being introduced to the vice-president of Guatemala as ’the man who was going to redesign Guatemala’. Mau protested that this was not what he was going to do: he was, he said, the man who was going to help Guatemala redesign itself.
When he talks about community involvement, which he does frequently, Mau is not advocating a lazy focus-group abdication of responsibility. Quite the opposite. For him, designers should design responsibly. But this can no longer be done in isolation, he argues, it has to be done with the support of the communities involved.
In Mau’s view the world has become so complex and so threatened by environmental apocalypse that we have no choice but to design nature if we are to avoid disaster. ’Our only chance,’ he says, ’is that we design our presence in the natural world.’ This, he stresses, is not megalomania or designer hubris. Rather it is about responsibility and obligation. Of course, this is not the language normally used by designers. Yet it was clear listening to Mau that it might have to become the way designers think.
Adrian Shaughnessy is an independent designer, writer and broadcaster, and co-founder of publishing company Unit Editions