Design’s Inspiring Possibility

A new documentary profiles the life and perspective of Bruce Mau, a designer who had contributed more to my passion for the field than any other.

Bruce Mau is an enigma. He is a designer in the fullest sense of that term and has demonstrated the power of design thinking (in it’s fullest sense of the term) better than anyone. He enables people to think differently and because of that they make things differently. His blend of thought leadership, generous practice, and commitment to education is what makes his design work (and design thinking) stand out from others in the field.

His work is also an inspiration to other designers.

I’m one of them.

It was Mau’s 2004 exhibition (and book) Massive Change, first staged at the Vancouver Art Gallery, that showed me what design could be. The sheer scale, ambition, boldness, and assertiveness about what design could do shaped my life and career. Where design was something I had interest in before, I soon had a passion and drive to live it afterward.

At first, I thought I could bring design and design thinking into my work as an applied scholar in public health and behavioural science. While I tried this, I soon realized that the goals of design were incommensurable with academic life. Where scholars study and inform, designers inspire.

Only, it took me years of work as an academic and later as a professional designer to realize this was the case.

A Designer Named Bruce

Reading Bruce Mau’s recent book, MC24, and participating in a few events in support of that book, reconnected me to that purpose of design: inspiration.

Mau says this himself:

“If you are a designer, your responsibility is to inspire people. We can’t make people go, we can only inspire them. You cannot make them do new things. The way we will change the world is by leadership, by design, by inspiration.”

I trained in and studied psychology with a focus on behaviour change and organizations. My field of practice was about bringing about changes in how individuals, organizations, and communities worked, lived, and grew (in health). For all the theories, models, and research, nothing has produced more impact than the work that was design-driven. Not only evidence-informed, but design-driven. (The two can go together).

Rational models for change, while attractive to those seeking control, add little to what we understand about change. I can provide endless facts and figures to my clients in compelling and colourful ways, but if they don’t fit with who they are and how they live, it will be meaningless.

Designers like Mau know this:

“When things are bad and getting worse, people do what makes sense. They behave selfishly. They close the border, they lock the doors. When people see that we are investing in the future, they behave in the opposite way, they come out, they contribute, they want to be in.”

When we drown people in data and evidence that skews negative, we lose people. In Mau’s view, the aims isn’t to convince people of reasons to do something or avoid something else, but use fact-based optimism to inspire change.

Positive, By Design

Bruce Mau might be the most positive designer I’ve met. He’s not naive — any reader of his books Massive Change and MC24 will know he has a healthy appreciation of the challenges the world is facing — but he is positive about what can be done about them.

This month a new documentary premieres in theatres that highlights the man and his work. Judging by what I’ve seen and read, it is an adequate capture of his thinking and character. It’s a positive take on how we can inspire something that makes a difference to our lives and livelihoods.

Rather than paint a picture of problems or prescribe solutions, Mau inspires something further into the mind, the heart, and into the world. Whether it’s redesigning Mecca, branding a country like Guatemala, or shaping design education, Mau has a knack for taking outsized problems and making them manageable.

When I use the term Design Thinking this is what underpins it. When we are inspired we draw energy to our intentions. Converting our intentions into actions is change by design.

Thanks for all you do, Bruce. If inspiration is your goal, you’ve been a success.

Design is about connecting what we see, make and do together creatively. If this is an approach you want to take with your organization let’s grab a coffee and talk about inspiration.

Image Credit: Sookie and Mr. Waldo via Flickr used under Creative Commons License

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