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'Cynicism is easy': Can we still find some optimism in these difficult times?

Design visionary Bruce Mau on how his childhood in a poor Canadian mining town influenced his visionary work today.

Bruce Mau
Bruce Mau

WE’RE LIVING THROUGH tough times right now. We’ve had two years of a pandemic – which still isn’t over, though our lives are more normal than they’ve been since March 2020 – and there is a war ongoing in Ukraine, alongside other conflicts happening globally.

So it might not feel like a time for positivity. But there are people out there who say that it’s not a time to think that the world is going downhill, or that overall situations are worse than for previous generations. They’re the type of people who can think big, who can recognise the incredibly difficult challenges the world (and individuals) are facing, but believe that positive change is possible.

One of those people is Bruce Mau, from Ontario, Canada, who is one of the biggest names in design. He’s frequently called a visionary, a radical optimist, a thinker for our times. He might not be a household name in Ireland, but he is a very big deal. He’s worked with huge brands like Coca Cola to get them to focus on sustainability and cut down on plastic use, he’s designed stadiums, he worked on redesigning Mecca, and he and his wife Bisi Williams run the Massive Change studio, where they and their staff work on thinking outside the box about big projects.

A new documentary about Mau – called, simply, Mau – is being screened this weekend at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival. It’s a fascinating look at the designer’s life and how he came to be how he is, and it’s certainly not just for design nerds.

One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary is Mau’s personal story: his journey of going from growing up in Sudbury, Ontario, a mining town where the earth was stripped and ruined in the search for nickel, to the glossy world of design. The documentary wasn’t his idea (it was that of the directors, brothers Benji and Jono Bergmann), but he tells The Journal “it’s a story that I’ve been trying to tell for 40 years”. 

In the film, he describes how his life now is a mirror image of his world growing up. Back then, he didn’t have books. Now he designs them. Back then, he didn’t travel (his first time leaving home was when he went to college). Now he travels the world and has connections across the globe. His life is radically different. But then again, it would be: he designed it himself. 

“For most of my life as a designer, I felt like I had two lives,” he says. “I had a life on the farm. And I had a life as a designer. And those two worlds were separate worlds. There really wasn’t any call for design on the farm. We didn’t talk about design. And when I discovered design, I left the farm life behind.”

It wasn’t until the last seven or eight years that he started to think differently about his childhood. “Growing up without running water during the winter time, and that kind of thing, it was embarrassing. It was something that I didn’t really talk about. I managed to get out of that, and I wanted to stay out of it,” he explains. He felt for a long time that if he got too close to his old life, he would slide back into it. 

Keeping his new life separate from his old one protected him from that. But his thoughts about his youth shifted when he realised that what he had experienced was also experienced by others. That he wasn’t alone. “Not having access to clean running water is something that I share with about a billion people,” he explains. Every day before school, he would get on his snowmobile and go fill two 45-gallon drums with water so that the family could wash, eat and clean. 

Knowing all this gives him “an understanding of, and an empathy for other people that is very important to my work”, he says, though he hadn’t realised until recently that it was important.

He describes the community he grew up in as “essentially lawless”. “I don’t remember anyone getting a licence or a permit, for anything,” he laughs. “We just did whatever we had to do – nobody hired an architect, we just built things. And consequently, a lot of things burnt down.” (His own family home burned down at one point.)

Source: Madman Films/YouTube

Thinking about possibilities

But growing up in that atmosphere, where everything was done “kind of haphazardly” was huge for how the young Bruce Mau learned to think. ”The thing about it was that you did whatever you wanted to do and whatever you had to do. And you didn’t have any boundary on your thinking,” he says.

 I live in, I think, in a lawless way. I don’t think about the constraints, I think about the possibilities. I think about what we could do, not what we can’t do.

Growing up in his small community, where everyone had to organise everything themselves, also taught him how to pitch his ideas at a young age, he says. Now he uses that skill to inspire people to do things. 

When you think ‘designer’ you might think of a graphic designer, or someone who solely works with visual design. Mau is more than that – he’s a designer of buildings, of books, of locations, of thoughts, of ideas.

He was hired by Guatemala to come up with a campaign to ‘design a better future’ for the country, which led to the GuateAmala (Love Guate) movement. He once told the Museum of Modern Art in New York, after they’d hired him to consult on changing their logo, not to change the logo as it was completely fine. He thinks outside the box. 

Mau started making waves as a young man in Chicago, when he and the architect Rem Koolhaus published the book S, M, L, XL, a radically new style of writing about architecture and design (it’s considered a classic in its field today). It showed that he was doing something different to his peers, and since then he’s been able to continue to do things differently. 

That lawlessness prepared him for the way his career would go. “It just happened organically, like people asked me to do weirder and weirder things,” he says. “I started doing more or less conventional graphic design. And I just did it in a different way. So people asked me to do more and more strange things.” He didn’t say no to the strangeness, even if he had no idea how to do it. He’d think ”let’s give it a try”.

That’s not to say he doesn’t get fazed by these things. He says it can be very challenging, in part because “the problems keep getting more complex, and diverse and challenging and weird”. He never feels like he knows what to do, but he does feel confident he has a methodology that will work.

“I realised some time ago that I have a very weird business,” he says. “That I get paid to do what I don’t know how to do.” 

Design your life

In 1998, Mau wrote an Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, which is still referred to by designers today. Its principles are applicable across the board, right into our everyday lives. In his most recent book, 2020′s MC24, he shares 24 design principles for life and work, one of which is ‘think like you’re lost in the forest’. It’s a guiding principle for him when he’s working on projects, as it helps him to think about approaching things in a totally new way.

If at this point you’re thinking – but what does design have to do with my life? Mau has an answer for you. “Most people, when they hear the word ‘design’, they think: fancy expensive objects,” he says. “I like to say that the moment that you have an idea of something you would like to do, you’re a designer.”

“Because what you’re doing is you’re visualising a destination and a future, and you’re working systematically to get to that vision.”

The next question is are you using design method to get better results, he says. Interestingly, Mau says that through his work they’ve realised the design result doesn’t have to even be visual. It could be designing towards an economic outcome, like higher profitability, or even designing towards getting more Instagram followers. 

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Think of design, though, and you might imagine a rarefied world that’s not for the likes of you or I. “Most designers are so obsessed with visual things, and fancy things. It’s all about that kind of special object,” agrees Mau.

And I am much more about the common experience – how can we make the common experience better? How do we make everyone have a better education? How can we make everyone have better health? A better life, a better built environment.

He does love special things, he adds – he’s obsessive about what things look like, and loves details and colour, all the things that got him into design in the first place. 

“But I don’t privilege them over the bigger ideas of sustainability and ecology and making things for future generations.”

The year Mau published his book MC24, the pandemic hit. As we talk, war is raging in Ukraine. He’s known for his optimism, his ability to challenge difficult things and find something good and new in them. Is it hard to be optimistic right now?

“It’s always challenging to be optimistic,” he says. ”Our neuro engine is designed to focus on the negative. We’re hardwired to actually look for problems. So we need to actually develop a methodology of looking for opportunity and seeing possibility.”

One of his principles is ‘Begin with fact-based optimism’. “I like to look at the real data and not the short term problem. Because the short term problem is: Putin is an asshole, and he’s destroying a culture. And what a disaster, a terrible problem, and I’m going to do everything I can in the immediate term to help those people. We’ll do what we can.”

“You can see immediately what’s happened in the last couple of weeks is really so encouraging in terms of galvanising the positive force of the world,” says Mau. “People coming together to say, ‘absolutely not, that’s not going to stand. We’re going to contribute any way we can. We’re gonna try to avoid escalating, but we’re gonna make sure that we can do everything we can to to reinforce justice and equity’.”

He says that if you look at long-term trends, though the last few years have been very rough, the overall movement of the world is positive. He points to the project Our World in Data by Max Roser, which looks at metrics from over the last 200 years. “What you see in all the important metrics like literacy, longevity, infant mortality, we’ve had a positive inversion,” he says. For example, just 200 years ago, 6% of people did not live in extreme poverty, whereas now less than 10 in 100 people are in extreme poverty.

As he’s an optimist, he must surely encounter cynicism along the way. How does he feel about it? “I’m allergic to cynicism. I kill it where whenever I see it,” says Mau.

“My position is I cannot afford the luxury of cynicism. That’s for other people. Cynicism is easy. Optimism is hard.”

Mau will be shown at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival at 4.30pm tomorrow (Saturday) at the Odeon Point Village. Click here to book tickets.

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