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Bruce Mau On Optimism and Why Designers Thrive in an Upside-Down World

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By definition, design is an optimistic profession. But Bruce Mau, an Ontario-born optimist and multi-faceted design thinker, brings such a jovial, joyful mindset to collaborations with everyone from Koolhaas to Coca-Cola that the name of his organization, the Massive Change Network, seems more about hope than swagger. Mau's embrace and advocacy of design thinking, and his Massive Change philosophy, a methodology of sustainable design and problem-solving, may be best known to architecture fans via projects such as S,M,L,XL, his huge book with Rem Koolhaas, or his work with Frank Gehry to design a museum in Panama. But his work on processes, branding and visual identity have been adopted by some of the globe's top companies and organizations. Work on What You Love: Bruce Mau Rethinking Design, a new exhibition that opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on November 21, provides an overview of his work and career. "I didn't want to do a retrospective," says Mau."I didn't want to look backwards, I wanted to focus on what's exciting about the next 30 years, not the last 30 years. They just managed to trick me into some things that were retrospective, but in a great way." Curbed spoke to Mau about his philosophy, his drive to design, and a new book in the works.

Your work is so much about process and philosophy. Is it weird seeing your work frozen in a museum? You seem like someone who'd want to get up and talk about it.
"That might explain why I've been so difficult for them. That's a good insight; I like to keep things open and in play. From the very beginning when I started to work, I thought it was weird to see that at a certain point in the process, you're supposed to stop being creative. Once everyone agreed on something, you stop being creative and start executing. In my own work, I keep the creative process open very late in the game, which is some cases, causes consternation. What you describe is quite accurate. It's about a philosophical approach to what's possible. Sometimes you don't understand what's possible until it's very late."

Recently, IBM embraced design thinking and is implementing the process on a massive scale. Are we passing a tipping point where this is a standard approach for businesses as opposed to the exception?
"We have a long way to go. It's a tipping point in a sense because thousands of businesses will do what IBM does. It was the same kind of thing when we worked with Coca-Cola, and why that felt so important. Most businesses don't have the wherewithal to figure this stuff out, but they'll look at what the leaders do. I think we have a long way to go for businesses to embrace the methodology and culture of design thinking. But it's important that companies such as IBM are carving that pathway."

Are you someone who, when they watch the news, can't help but think, "I can solve that, or I can change that?"
"It's a terrible affliction. I've realized I can't take holidays anywhere but at a beach, because if I go to a city, I see it as a catalog of opportunities. For instance, take the situation with ISIS. We need to innovate. We're behaving like the red coats in the Revolutionary War. We're marching through the forest in formation in bright red jackets. We need to apply innovation to that problem, and really use our creative potential to change the dynamic. We can't keep doing the same things and expect different results. Designers see the world upside-down. If things are bad, that's good. If things are terrible, that's awesome. That situation is incredibly terrible, so this is a great opportunity to use design thinking. It's a method that's product agnostic -- it's not just for creating, say, a building or a book or an experience. It's a design method for solving leadership problems and innovating solutions to whatever the problem is."

Can this idea of design thinking and design strategy be applied to something as big and multifaceted as environmental issues? How can you solve problems when they depend on actors in other places doing things that you can't control?
"You can't solve everything, but you also can't let the fact that you can't solve everything paralyze you. You have to accept your powerlessness and contribute what you can. So many systems need a fundamental reboot, that if you cataloged all the changes that were needed, you'd jump off a cliff. We have a responsibility to accept the challenges and engage as we can and not get paralyzed."

Were there moments for you when you were starting the Massive Change Network where you felt that way?
"Yeah, we don't know what we're doing. You're inevitably going to make mistakes and miss things. Sometimes, you think, 'We're so slow,' but then it's really exciting when it works."

This is the 20th anniversary of the S,M,L,XL book. Who was the most unexpected person who told you the book was a big influence?
"It's definitely been influential in ways I didn't imagine. There have been a lot of people I've met over the years who come from very different domains and have been inspired by it."

Have you ever thought about what a XXL, or a sequel, would look like?
"I'm actually working on another book called XL,L,M,S about redesigning myself. It's about health and getting to healthy."

In 30 years, say they do another exhibition about your work: what would you want to see in that exhibition?
"The Work On What You Love title comes from the question I get asked most frequently by students. They don't directly ask that, since it's a little emotional and exposing. They ask. 'How do I get from here to there, how do I do that?' You seem to be living the life of ideas and meaning, and I need to get a job. How do I make those worlds come together? My answer to that question is, imagine there's a thin layer around the world and there are a few particles spread out across the globe. Those are the people I want to work with, and they want to work with me. They're in LA, and New York, and Rotterdam. And the only way they can find me is if I put out a pure signal about what I want to do. Anytime I don't do that, or compromise, I muddy that signal. So in 30 years, I just hope I'm putting out a pure signal and attracting those people. I'm not sure what that'll look like, but it'll be a journey based on what I love."

Work on What You Love: Bruce Mau Rethinking Design opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on November 21 and runs through April 6.

· Gehry's Colorful Panama Museum is Ready for Its Big Debut [Curbed]