Bruce Mau:

"Massive Change"

Since his 1998 Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, Bruce Mau has been considered a cross-grained design intellectual who distrusts answers, preferring to "ask stupid questions." Reflecting on what design is about and how it shapes the world, the occasional Koolhaas collaborator and Canadian cultural treasure is now working on a huge multimedia project about design and globalism called Massive Change. The name is a manifesto in itself. Commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery, the show, among other ambitions, will teach visitors about global energy consumption by supplying miners’ helmets that illuminate a giant mural of the world at night. It will tackle health by displaying genetically modified organisms. And it will offer lessons in mobility by recreating the inventor Dean Kamen’s studio. The exhibition opens in Vancouver October 2 and runs through January 3, 2005, after which it will travel in North America, Europe, and Asia. The project also includes an illustrated book (Phaidon), a documentary film, a series of public events, a weekly radio show, and an online forum (

email conversation with
Max Bruinsma

maxb: Bruce, much of what you address in Massive Change has also been a concern for me in my work as a writer and critic. So I want to propose a conversation, an exchange of thoughts, triggered by your project. On the one hand I am completely in accord with its message and goals, on the other hand I can't help being also skeptical vis-à-vis the 'massive' ambitions, or perhaps illusions, such a view (my own included) on design can entail.

You start with a question: "Now that we can do anything what will we do?"
In my more skeptical mode, I am inclined to rephrase the question: "Now that we seem to be able to do anything, should we find new limitations for our actions? And how do we define these?"
This addresses the moral and ethical implications you yourself have pointed out when mentioning the "ethical dilemmas of design in the contemporary world." We can make any image that our fantasy conjures up - should we do that? In connection to child pornography, for instance, there has been reported a growing number of images which are both very realistic and purely virtual (i.e. no children where abused in making them). Still, they depict persons in situations that are morally despicable and legally forbidden. In a sense, this potential for making anything we can imagine realistically visible leads to a shift in the boundaries of our ethical responsibility and legal liability: from the things that we can see to the things that we can think up.
In the wake of that: do we need a 'think police'?

BruceM: Max, as you can imagine I am not proposing or supporting the notion of control or regulation of thought. However, what you have identified here is one of the central dilemmas of the project. Now that we can do - make real - anything that we imagine, what will we do with our imagination? We have to acknowledge that our collective will is a primal force with the power to shape the world with new and ever expanding capacity, and design is the shape of that power.
That implies that what you understand as design comprises much more than is usually seen as 'design'; it also embraces science, economy, industry and politics, in short the whole range of human 'institutions' geared at structuring and shaping our habitat, and organizing human 'commerce' therein… Isn't that too much for one catchword to handle? In other words, what is, or remains, the _specific_ task of design?
The specific ambition of design is control: the capacity to shape outcomes, to manipulate the environment for our own purposes. Many of the people we include in Massive Change at first say they are not designers. But when we listen carefully, they use the word design to describe their work -- they speak about designing a system, designing organizations, designing organisms, designing programs. I am not inventing the work, I am simply organizing it in such a way that we see the pattern. We are a designing species.
As that power increases it needs to be informed, to be given direction. One way that might happen is policing. What we are proposing instead is discourse. We don't need police. We need discussion. We need thinking. We need critical faculties. We need to embrace the dilemmas and conflicts in design, and acknowledge the power we are assigned and take responsibility for the outcomes of our work.
When I use the term "we", I don't mean designers as separate from our clients, or as some extraordinary class of powerful overseers. I mean "we" as citizens collectively imagining our futures.
This means design is, or has become, in essence a political project. Do you agree with that, and what are the implications? Can we design politics?
Design is absolutely a political project.
It is critical that the discussion go beyond the design fields themselves and reach out to the broadest audience, the people directly affected by the work that designers do.
Apart from the Orwelian perspective that might come up in this context - which is a caricature - we should, I think, ask what we, and especially designers, can and should do to provide insight in what's at stake: if the boundaries between our imaginations and our realities become as permeable as they seem to, how does that change the profession of design?
In short, what becomes the status of design as 'project'?
Design takes on a social dimension.
The critical development we discover has to do with the expanding capacity of design. The greater it is, the more pressing the need for an expanded engagement with the social implications of the design project. We have seen the struggle with this in recent years with things like the debate around the "first thing first" manifesto, and the ongoing discussion around the designer as author.
You were not amongst the signatories of the FTF2000 manifesto, Why?
FTF2000 was a struggle with the social and political dimension of design. But not a victory. Under that manifesto lies the faulty logic that somehow there is a "clean" and "pure" design practice that is free from the compromises of the market; that big organizations are bad; and as Michael Beirut has correctly pointed out, that dog owners are less as citizens than museum goers.
The first company I started over twenty years ago was called Public Good. Our ambition was to commit our work - our time and energy - to the things that we believed were contributing to the social good. What we soon discovered is that we live in a network economy. There are no longer discrete entities. All objects, practices, organisms, gestures -- and clients -- are woven into an infinitely complex web of relations. Every object is incorporated into systems at a larger scale, and every system incorporates objects, which are themselves composed of systems. Only the universe stands alone -- as far as we know.
The ideas of FTF2000 are from another era, the era in which it was originally conceived, the sixties. What we need today is full fledged engagement. Forward, not reverse.
I think the most positive expression of this new ambition or project for design is the embrace of sustainability in design practice.
When talking about 'sustainability' in the context of graphic and communication design, I am wondering what 'sustainable communication' or 'social sustainability' would look like… From the vantage point of design, can we consider 'sustainability' on such a 'meta-level' _and_ distill a practical approach from it?
Sustainability is a fractal concept. In other words it can be defined at any scale, in any circumstance. It is only a matter of deriving the factors that would affect the social, economic, and ecological impacts. That can be applied to communication as readily as it can be to architecture.
To incorporate the complexity of resolving ecological, social, and economic factors in the practice of design is to define design in the most ambitious and socially advanced way.
And perhaps most importantly, it takes design out of any claim to rarification or exclusivity and places it within the messy flows of public discussion. You cannot embrace sustainability on your own. It is fundamentally collaborative.
Looking at the range of subjects you address in your project, it spans all of humanity and most of its activities. The list of topics on the website looks like a list of governmental departments: 'the Ministry of Health and Living', 'the Ministry of the Image', and so on. Clearly, you are stepping outside the boundaries of the design trade as we know it. Does design really play such a fundamental role in all aspects of life?
You live in The Netherlands and Switserland; take design out of the equation especially in those two countries, and what's left?

As we began the research we made a discovery. Design has changed its scale of operation. Over the last hundred and fifty years, and at an accelerated pace over the last fifty, design has radically increased in its capacity to produce outcomes. More and more we live within designed environments, whether that environment is an environment of information, or the image environment, of the living environment, they are designed and produced to meet our needs.
We realized that we once imagined Nature as the category that contained all categories, within nature there was a realm of human action we called culture, and within culture a subset we called business, and that design operated as a subset of business. Over the last fifty years that diagram has been radically reconfigured. With the discovery of the structure of DNA, Francis, Crick and Watson rendered nature -- life itself -- as a realm of design, a system of information that we could enter and manipulate for our own purposes. With that, and many other developments in information and communication, design became the biggest project of all. Even nature has become a design project.

From there we made two decisions. The first was to abandon the classical boundaries of the design trade as you call it in favour of what we call design economies -- realms or regions of our lives in which design is a driver. Instead of looking at graphic design we considered the information economy, instead of automotive design we researched the economy of movement, instead of architecture we are focused on the urban economy.
The classical disciplines are relics of a previous regime, when the technical apparatus necessary to produce say typography and moving images were each sufficiently demanding as to keep those practices separate. Today, within our studio we have the capacity to produce sound, image, object, idea, text, material, cinema. We need to think differently about how we define design practice.

How would you define it now, now that the former disciplinary or technologically based definitions don't apply anymore?
The new design is synthetic cross-disciplinary action.
-Synthetic: the solutions that we are now searching for are not being developed for a tabula rasa, (no matter how attractive that notion is to architects) but are calling on a complex of inputs and finally co-ordinating their placement into already existing configurations. That is why for me the two disciplines most interesting to design are architecture and cinema. Both are synthetic disciplines that pull together wildly disparate practices and orchestrate the synthesis within an existing context.
-Cross-disciplinary: an important nuance in our approach is that the disciplines remain. We are not positing this definition in opposition to the classical disciplines as practices. But suggesting rather that there is a new design methodology that takes as its ambition to bring these practices into play with one another.
-Action: design is not merely about thinking. Design is doing, characterized by thinking. The difference between design and criticism, both thinking practices, is that criticism takes no burden of responsibility for action.

Design defined in this way is a practice that is not limited or defined by its products. The new design practice is defined by the following qualities:
-Educational – It’s about experience, growth is inevitable
-Synthetic – integrates other practices, operates one register above conventional design practices
-Boundaryless – mobile, transgressive emergent; comes from inside content
-Scalable – font to park, the same approach can generate any object
-Opportunistic – searching for partners
-International – a global orientation allows for maximum opportunity and optimum partners
-Wild and free – committed to life

This is something that we have struggled with in our studio. Our first thought was that we could abandon the disciplines, which turned out to be hubris and arrogance. We realized finally that there is no conflict in both sustaining the disciplines and even deepening specialized knowledge and expertise, and at the same time developing a practice that works to sythesize outcomes across the disciplines.
The second important decision was to abandon form. We deliberately took the visual dimension of design out of consideration. (Something that happened in art fifty years ago, but had yet to be applied to design.)
So you envision something like 'abstract', or 'non-representational' design, analogous to abstract and non-representational art?
Which ever way you go, a form
will result from the design process - what is the meaning, the status of that formal outcome? In social communications terms, it can't be what Frank Stella said abstract art was about: "What you see is what you see". Visual communication (i.e. the form of things) always sends a message; what you see is also what you project onto it in terms of what you socially and culturally expect to see, and what is contained within it in terms of cultural, iconic references… How do you see the role of form, of the formal accentuation of a design product then? What is the role of what you call "the aesthetics of capacity"? What meaning will transpire from this aesthetics?
It is something more akin to what happened in the practice of conceptual art. The idea becomes the form. Its material expression is secondary. We like to say, "We don't care what it looks like." Now, since we are designers, and deeply visual characters, and spend most of our working lives looking at things to decide their meaning, it is a very difficult position to sustain. What we discover is a very new image. And like all things new, one that is ugly and troubled and awkward and shaky. But it is clearly a different way of understanding design, that is very exciting precisely because it liberates us from endlessly re-forming the image, and instead points to new possibilities with infinite depth.
All the traditional considerations of design aesthetics -- colour, shape, texture, etc. -- were rejected in favour of capacity -- what design makes possible. What we discovered is that a new aesthetics emerges in this way, a strange and beautiful new image of design -- an aesthetics of capacity.
The idea (ideal or nightmare) of the designer as 'demiurge', as builder of worlds, reasserts itself. The modernist utopian character of design (of the 'design project') as blueprint for a perfect world has exhausted itself, so its critics say, in the clashes between dream and reality that resulted from it. Designers may have the vision and visualizing powers, they generally lack both power, capital, and education to be the ones to realize their visions. Who should they look for to collaborate on "making things better", as the Dutch multinational electronics brand Philips used to state? Can we think of new alliances, beyond the standard client/designer roles?
In other words, how can we make the ideal that design, as a method, can help build a better world, practical?

You are absolutely correct in your catalogue of the limits of the designer as it has been conceived in the past. And you are right in rejecting the binary notion of client/designer. For guidance here we need only look to what is already happening. The old fashioned notion of an individual with a dream of perfection is being replaced by distributed problem solving and team-based multidisciplinary practice. The reality for advanced design today is dominated by three ideas: distributed, plural, collaborative.

It is no longer about one designer, one client, one solution, one place. The problems that we face as a global culture are distributed world-wide. They are taken up everywhere, solutions are developed and tested and contributed to the global commons, and those ideas are tested against other solutions. The process of development is increasingly complex in response to both the complexity of the objectives and the escalating ambition to resolve ecological, economic, and social factors.

The effect of this is to imagine a future for design that is both more modest and more ambitious. More modest in the sense that we take our place in what Bill Buxton, who has generously taken on the role of Chief Scientist in our studio, calls the renaissance team, a group that collectively develops the capacity to deal with the demands of the given project. (A Renaissance team knows what it knows and knows what it doesn't know, and has the capacity to go out and get what it needs to know.) More ambitious in that we take our place in society, willing to implicate ourselves in the consequences of our imagination.
The 15th century AD Renaissance is the first 'project' in western civilization that consciously comprised all the arts and sciences from a decidedly 'human' perspective (as opposed to a religious or magic perspective). Since then (to summarize very roughly ;-), the Enlightenment has deepened that humane project, while Romanticism relativated it; Modernism once again established it as the central human endeavor and, lately, Post-modernism 'unmasked' it's failure to control the total complexity of human actions. Does your allusion to the Renaissance mean that you want to go back to the 'original project', i.e. to a vision of the world as 'makeable' by human genius and creativity?
I think the critical and subtle distinction that we are seeing is that we are going forward to a vision of the world as 'makeable' by collective human genius and creativity. The idea of distribution and circulation are fundamental to this new potential. The notion of the singular solution is not central to what we are exploring.
The utopias and distopias that have served our cultures as reference for ages have, it seems, now become the territory of design. With one distinction: these days, the virtual projections of how humankind sees itself more and more coincide with its realities. Western media saturated culture lives its dreams, illusions and delusions in real time.
The 'massive change' we are witnessing is deeply connected to this growing ability to visualize our dreams, to treat these visualizations as designs and consequently to execute and realize them. With that, I feel, the position of interpretation becomes more and more essential. Thomas More's Utopia is not a blueprint; it can - and has - been interpreted in radically different ways.
Should designers become the censors of their own projects, in order to prevent 'false' interpretations and realizations of them? Or should they remain the 'problem solvers' they are, and relegate the responsibility for the realization of their visions to those who commission them and finance the production, or those who listen to them and realize their own interpretation of what they heard? Or should they become participants in a globe-spanning 'open source' project in which everyone's individual creative contribution dissolves in the collective achievement that results from it?
In other words: how are designers to deal with the responsibility for the consequences of their creative work?

Here we face one of the paradoxes of Massive Change: We are calling for greater discourse and responsibility for designers and their project, but at the same time we are thrilled by the open source effect of the cultural project of design. The effect of the new conditions is to distribute potential world-wide and allow contribution by anyone, anywhere. In this condition there is no possible censorship. Dean Kamen pointed out to me that the unintended consequences of any action always outnumber the intended consequences.
So, on the one hand we need to anticipate the consequences of our work, but on the other it is mathematically impossible to calculate them. Instead of thinking of control in negative terms -- subtracting or stopping - we need to conceive of control in positive terms -- adding and starting.
That is why communication, telling our own stories, generating our own images, is so critical to practice today. Look at the most important and consequential designers today, from Frank Gehry to William McDonnough, and the degree to which they have integrated public relations into their careers. Rather than trying to close down and control their output, they proliferate a promiscuity of image that they want to see produced in the world.
You wrote: "…design (…) is now a catalyst that is changing the natural world in profound and significant ways."

I wrote: "Design (…) becomes agency and the designer an agent: catalysts in the cultural processes in which both are taking part."
(ref.: agency)

It seems we have quite similar ideas about the notion of 'design as catalyst'. Do you agree that, analogous to the chemical metaphor, for a catalyst to function, it is as dependent on its context as its context depends on the catalyst for the desired reaction. In other words, design's mediating potential is largely dependent on whether clients and the public accept design's role as one of the forces that shapes our cultures. Your project clearly takes the position of advocating and highlighting that role - what are your hopes and expectations of the effects of the project? Will it succeed in further establishing the central position of design as a cultural force?
One of my ambitions is to articulate the context in which we are working. McLuhan defined an artist as someone who's contribution was to show us the environment in which we are living. I've always thought that was the highest ambition I could hope for in my work, that somehow it would help us make better decisions. And since I am a practicing designer, it is in fact quite selfish.
Perhaps more importantly I think we are in a precarious moment, where the mood of the day has shifted significantly to the negative. While that has the potential to be productive, or at least corrective, it also has the potential to be destructive in that if we fail to acknowledge the gains that we have made, we risk losing them. So part of the ambition of Massive Change is to consolidate our project, and articulate our successes.
You are talking about the risk of 'throwing out the baby with the bath water' as the expression goes. As real as that risk is, don't you think we should do both: acknowledge the failures and disasters that have grown out of a history of 'changing the world', and focus on the positive results of 'project humanity'? This also raises the question of how to combine (or reconcile) critical analysis and optimistic projection - skepticism and faith. The latter is, in my view, a core issue in a world torn between those two positions, and between incompatible faiths… As optimistic as I am about the possibilities for communication design, for design in general, to make a difference in this field, I am also skeptical about the scale of this project: it simply seems too big to be 'solved as a problem'. I wonder what your position on this is…
Our problem is that we don't seem to realize there is a baby. We are certainly not proposing that what we are doing would be "solved as a problem". And we absolutely agree that the ambition is to acknowledge the limitations and hubris in our collective project to fashion the world after our needs.
Finally, isn't the Massive Change project a utopian project in itself, in that it attempts at showing - in practice - what it addresses: the seminal role of design as cultural force, of design as envisioning "the best of all possible worlds"?
When we began our research we found an extraordinary lecture by Lester B. Pearson, a former prime minister of Canada, who in 1957 won the Nobel Prize for inventing peacekeeping. In his Nobel lecture he talks about how all the problems of the future would revolve around living together. Cultures that had evolved for millennia as island ecologies were suddenly, radically connected.
In that lecture he quotes historian Arnold Tonybee, who says, "The twentieth century will not be remembered as an era of political conflict or technical invention, but as an era in which we dared to imagine the welfare of the entire human race as a practical objective."
The moment I read that I knew we had our project. Because, when Toynbee used the phrase "practical objective", he changed the objective, the welfare of the entire human race, from a utopian ambition, one that is by definition out of reach and will remain in the realm of art, to a design project, a practical objective.
Massive Change is obviously ambitiously positive, and might be misunderstood as utopian at first glance, but it is not futuristic, it is about what is already happening.
This leads me to an open question: do utopian ideas stand a chance in cynical times like ours, in which the optimistic rhetorics of both socialism, liberalism and capitalism have been reduced to one word: spin?
There is a proposal integrated into Massive Change for a right angle shift in the axis of discourse defined by Right and Left, Socialism and Capitalism. The new axis is defined by Advanced and Retrograde, forward and reverse. Plainly, Massive Change is a project that embraces the potential of advanced capitalism, advanced socialism, and advanced globalization.

What we discover is that not only are we as a global culture committed to Toynbee's vision, but we are actually pushing beyond the human race in our consideration to imagine the welfare of all of life on earth as a practical objective.
That, of course, is a very beautiful thought. In order to help fathom the scale of this project, maybe designers ought to also give more insight into the dynamics and mechanisms that accompany such an objective: it will go _very_ slowly. One of the most destructive and potentially disruptive characteristics of humans is their impatience; in Jim Morisson's words: "we want the world, and we want it now." Maybe you should add a section to your project: 'slow change, massive repercussions'. That, also, would mean a shift in focus, and would point once again to the fact that our actions bear (massive) consequences for many generations to come. Visualizing that seems to me a very important task of (information)design as well…
In the words of John Cage, "The world is getting better,

As always, in two minds,
Max Bruinsma

Bruce Mau

This text is an extended edit of an email conversation of which a shorter version appeared as 'Q&A' in I.D. Magazine, September/October 2004

max bruinsma