Rick Poynor | Essays

Bruce Mau: The Aura of Power

Where Canadian designer Bruce Mau is concerned, I would have to describe myself as a troubled admirer. I have written about him off and on since 1990 when I selected him as a designer to watch in the decade ahead in a feature for Blueprint magazine. Mau didn't disappoint. S,M,L,XL (1995) was a breathtaking statement of designer ambition and Mau's cover credit, on equal terms with super-hip architect Rem Koolhaas, was one of the design coups of the decade. Mau has a masterly way of accruing cultural capital, by making high-level alliances with architects and intellectuals, and this took him to another level. By the time his own book, Life Style, also a whopper, appeared in 2000 he had constructed a formidable mystique around himself as a designer whose concerns and apparent brain power put him in a different league from most other visual communicators.

I read the book carefully, but I didn't much care for it. I found Mau's statements about the condition of contemporary capitalism and the image world in which he operates to be frustratingly unfocused. He was writing, after all, at a time when many were becoming much more outspoken about what ails us. Where did he really stand: was he opponent or collaborator? It was the way he chose to present himself, though, through the medium of design, that rankled most. The book was needlessly massive and it came in a choice of eight ostentatious satin covers. Before it was anything else, it was a designer fetish object, a coffee-table lifestyle accessory that screamed "Look at me!" more insistently than any design book to date. There is a simple word for this kind of over-emphatic publicity-seeking - hype - and it didn't sit well with the book's claims to intellectual seriousness. It worked, though. Time magazine listed it as a design of the year.

Mau came to London to tell us about the book. He did five events in a week. I attended the one that seemed most likely to take the discussion in unexpected directions, a conversation between Mau and Richard Hamilton, an artist he rightly admires, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Again, it was a status-boosting coup for Mau. Hamilton is one of Britain's greatest living artists, an intellectual whose interpretations of visual culture, beginning in the 1950s, were hugely original, perceptive and influential. Before the conversation we had come to see could begin, however, Hamilton had to sit there for half an hour, while Mau did an illustrated spiel based on his book (the artist, needless to say, did not present a slide show of his own work). After that, the discussion never really took off. Mau was over-earnest. Hamilton was wryly amused. John Warwicker of Tomato asked a pointed question about why Mau's designs always ended up looking so conventional.

This is not an aspect of Mau's work that especially bothers me. He is adept at making potentially dry and daunting academic subject matter look exciting and this is an achievement. His typography is seductively elegant. He places and sequences images with illuminating skill. His visual intelligence suggests that he is truly at home with this material. Mau is a fine designer, but I can't see him, in aesthetic terms, as a remarkable designer, though his clients and supporters, people whose knowledge of graphic design is perhaps limited, clearly believe that he is. The first issue Mau designed for the Victoria & Albert Museum's new quarterly magazine is classy but routine institutional design, yet he is once again presented as a figure of interest in his own right. One feature is a conversation between Mau and his old friend and collaborator, Frank Gehry.

Now it may be that all of this self-positioning has come about by accident, but this seems unlikely. It has the air of great calculation and it would be surprising if someone as smart as Mau presents himself to be had not thought carefully about the best strategies to achieve status and the freedom to pursue his own ends. What Mau transmits far more effectively than most designers, including other famous colleagues, is an aura of power. Quite apart from anything that he may be able to offer as a designer, it is this that makes him persuasive, convincing and attractive to other people, such as superstar architects, who enjoy a level of worldly power and influence far beyond the imaginings of most graphic designers. If you consult Robert Greene's book, The 48 Laws of Power, you find that Mau, unconsciously or not, does many of the things that the author argues are essential to the attainment and successful retention of power. Here are just a few: Law 6: Court attention at all costs. Law 27: Play on people's need to believe to create a cult-like following. Law 35: Be royal in your own fashion: act like a king to be treated like one. Law 37: Create compelling spectacles. Law 45: Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once.

Indeed "change" has become Mau's big theme. His ambitions are increasingly interdisciplinary. He employs a much broader range of talents on his staff than is usual in graphic design. In 2003, he started the Institute without Boundaries, a one-year educational project based in his Toronto studio. The first intake had backgrounds in journalism, psychology, science, publishing, communications and architecture, as well as design, and they lent their skills to a project that Mau calls, with his usual flair for understatement, "Massive Change". One outcome was a weekly radio programme; another a series of posters making such promises as "we will design intelligence into material, and liberate form from matter". (Law 48: Assume formlessness.) Mau's avowed desire to provide the world with food, health and unlimited supplies of energy suggests nothing so much as a new claimant to Buckminster Fuller's crown. A visit to the "Massive Change" website confirms the vast sweep of the project, which seeks to address design's capacity to plan and produce outcomes, and transform every aspect of daily life. The project will generate another big book and an exhibition that will open in Vancouver in June 2004, before travelling. A feature film is also planned, as well as an online forum and a series of public events.

Delusions of grandeur? (Law 32: Play to people's fantasies.) Or a public-spirited, visionary, grand project? (Law 23: Concentrate your forces.) The website, with sections about urbanism, transportation, manufacturing, energy and materials, is certainly impressive. Few designers would dream of initiating a project this wide-ranging, and fewer still could pull off even the early stages with this degree of conviction. The pursuit of power is never very edifying. It's often impossible to disentangle self-interest from the positive outcomes that the possession of power makes possible. That's just the way it is. Law 39: Stir up waters to catch fish.

Comments [32]

this brings to mind one of the most important but most overlooked questions in design education:

what is the difference between design and decoration?

remember design is not art.

never confuse dentists and doctors. never confuse the art with the artist.
art chantry

I share your troubled admiration of Bruce Mau. As a Canadian, I am proud of him; as a Canadian I am suspicious of his grandeur (we have a long history of this, which is hard to shake); and as a Canadian, I am sick to death of reading his opinions on everything from Christmas gifts to futurism in our national papers. He is our very own genius charlatan. When I heard him speak at the AIGA conference last year, despite my eager anticipation, I found I wasn't impressed with what he actually had to say, and I came out of the talk somewhat troubled.

I suspect that there comes a point when the public life of a person turns them into a Personality and between them losing perspective and us losing perspective some essential aspect of whatever made that person great gets lost or confused. Whether Mau has entered such a state or not I will probably never know, but for the sake of Design and in true jingoist spirit, I hope he vindicates himself in the end.
marian bantjes

Once a designer, and especially a graphic designer, positions him or herself in the public sphere the "h" word is invoked. It was said of Tibor when he was alive and in a few articles afterward. It is said in relation to Carson and Kidd, both of whom have acrued considerable amounts of publicity in the mainstream press. Once being cited in Time magazine was a coup, now it is a dubious honor because it raises the bar of expectation. Is it fair to judge people by the publicity they receive?

I suppose it's valid, but its also dangerous.

BTW, I remember when Marshall McLuhan was lambasted as much for his fame as his theories (appearing in Annie Hall was the coup de grace), only after his death did the backlash die down into balanced criticism.

I agree with Rick that Mau has something of a credibility gap between his public persona (which can be annoyingly theatrical) and pronoucements (which to me are heartfelt but sometimes timeworn - his "An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth" stated the obvious) and the work he has produced over the past couple of decades. I believe much of this output - from his Zone book designs to his exhibition and landscape conceptions to his Institute Without Boundaries - proves his value to the field and contribution to culture. But sometimes his rhetoric and the work are disconected, insofar as he is more articulate at one than the other.

It is dangerous (sometimes foolish), and yet oddly courageous for a designer to make grand social pronouncements because ultimately they will be judged against all other such ideas and philosophies in the world. Graphic design is arcane enough that it can (often) speak for itself, but stepping out into the general population is more demanding.

When Tibor began his "offensive" against branding and design hypocricies his stage was small. He spoke to other designers (at a time when few spoke out). Later, after firming his positions, which were often a little shaky regardless, he ventured out into the broader world, where he wasn't always warmly embraced. I wonder how and where he would have pushed his fervency. Would it simply become his own brand, or could he have become a sharp social critic? Colors proved he had real potential.

One thing I do know is that he had more stagecraft than many. He really could command a podium with his brand of bells and whistles - and rousing propaganda skills.

Was it all just hype? I don't think so. But I do think branding someone with the scarlet "h" is dangerous. Maybe Mau just needs to adjust his public persona to fit the quality of his work. Maybe he should be more circumspect. Or maybe this is who he really is.
Steven Heller

I fully agree with your response Heller, which is kind of ironic to me, because I often see the same kind of skepticism surrounding your status as a design writer.

Judging mainly by the sheer amount of writing you've done, (I'm sure you're aware) many designers remark, "Another Heller book", "He's just putting his name on everything he can", etc. These comments rarely have to do with what your writing actually says. Personally I haven't found that to be rational (or very fair), because I've more often than not found your writing to be very informative, especially in situations where there isn't anyone else writing on the issue at all. The amount of writing you do only positively contributes to the small amount that already exists on forward thinking design.

Did you respond to Poyner because you might feel somewhat in the same situation as Mau? Am I right to make a parallel here?

I'm interested in your response because you are, like Mau, a very well known name among graphic designers. Maybe you can shed some light here and talk about your observations of your own criticism.

In Mau's case however, the scale of his work (his 1,000 page books) does not positively contribute to any amount of thinking or writing about design because of its lack of informative value. His ideas are usually vague, borrowed, and may be better left to a brain like Koolhas. However I do find his design work to be beautiful, and fairly unique. I think he should stick to what he's best at (at least publicly).
JT Helms

I don't think it's particularly unexpected that graphic design can now truly be concidered a player in the 'coffee table' book market.
In fact there is a growing trend as I see it of fat coffee table graphic design complilations like tachens 'Designing the 21st century' or the 'art of looking sideways' by phaidon.

Life Style though is perhaps the first solo book on one designer that has reached coffee table status. Doubtless it sits in trade ads with the latest Jamie Oliver cook book and the latest must have interior design tomes.

I don't think Mau's book was was quite coffee-table enough for the general public to get caught up in graphic design, and designers themselves probaly agree that much of it was a bit TOO coffee table to appeal to them fully either. Still, lets face it at the time there wasn't much competition in the design sections, so we bought it anyway.

The concept of the accessible coffee table graphic design book is a great one, though perhaps designers should team up more with design writers, or more design writers should team up with more designers to break from the traditional mould of design publications, as Mau has proved that on the surface at least the concept is appealing and there is a market.


Not sure how much of the publicity is self-made or made by 'journalists', but as long as Mau doesn't refute their claims, the burden of proof is on him. If he doesn't own up, the inevitable backlash will totally discredit him as punishment. Maybe you can stop short with the discrediting and reach a fairly good assessment earlier, if you think it's needed. What about Mau's work might result in a useful and accurate interpretation? What problem would you hope it to solve?

Finally, a criticism of Mau. I consider his popularity very similar to the path political candidates follow: establish credentials, issue-drop for credibility, grease the PR machine, associate with other famous people -- get their blessing, publish your autobiography. I find neither his critical thought nor his design exemplary. I believe TIME has honored the work of a loud designer, but not a great one.
Michael Hendrix

bruce mau seems to bve famous in a very tiny subculture - "design" subculture - and primarily in nyc and a few major urban centers and academic circles. outside of that tiny subcultural dialog, he has no attention given whatsoever.

design subculture is not that important.
art chantry

You may be right as far as the United States goes. But as I understand it, the view in Canada is different. There, Bruce Mau is viewed as a recognized nationally as a serious intellectual figure, and his influence extends beyond the subculture of design.

Do you ever get the impression that a lot of designers act as if they have two choices: sell out, or be marginalized?
Michael Bierut

Marian has already pointed out Mau's ubiquity in the Canadian press. In the original post, I note that Time - an American magazine, I hear - selected Mau's book as a design of the year. Other designs in the spotlight that year were the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York, and Tate Modern in London. Pretty heavyweight company. Most graphic design monographs should be so lucky. One reason for mentioning his week of London lectures was to show that he has been intensively promoted by his publisher, Phaidon, which excels at attention-commanding Big Books. They are taken very seriously by bookshops, too. Again, I gave the example of the V&A magazine, produced by one of the major international institutions of applied and decorative arts, to show that Mau is noticed by people with institutional power outside the "subculture" of design. Mau plays a big game and he does it with considerable success. Any worthwhile analysis needs to be grounded in the facts.
Rick Poynor

As a quick addendum to this tangent... My brother-in-law is an urban planner in Toronto and has quite a few times mentioned Bruce Mau. And, my brother who is an architect in Mexico City knew about Mau because of S,M, L, XL because he is a huge Koolhas fan. Of all the "graphic designers" Mau is by far the best known outside the tiny design circle.

PS. Art, just wanted you to know that I'm not on a crusade to contradict all of your points.

armin -

no offense taken. tossing things around is the point of these things.

like i said, bruce mau is nobody outside of design culture folks. honest. just check for yourself. step outside of your own little world of contacts and try to find ANYBODY who knows who he is. in fact, start calling "graphic designers" in the phone books and start asking. maybe a 25% hit at best (guesstimating high).

look, graphic design is like plumbing. other plumbers are really into it - they recognize good work and maybe even collect. beyond that there are a few afficiandos of fine plumbing who get all excited. beyond that you get a huge yawn and a shrug.

the fact that bruce mau got reviewed in time has a whole hell of a lot more to do with corporate publishing politics and pressure than anything to do with recognition by the public.

fame is EXTREMELY relative.

bruce mau had better come up with a decent follow up or two or he's toast on the "famous designer" fan scale. he may not be all that great, ya know?
art chantry

This may not be entirely germane to the discussion, but can anyone explain design is always equated with plumbing? (Pause for the blue humor.) Why is that? I mean, I get it that the intended point is that design is a trade, or that it's an insular set of concerns important only within the profession (thus go the arguments of those making the plumbing analogy). But why, specifically, plumbing? I have yet to hear a graphic designer equate themselves with violinists or aerospace engineers or sneaker designers, all of which also exist in their bubbles of specialized tools and concerns. Not even electricians or arc welders or auto mechanics--though I'm not sure that it's the blue-collar element that's the reason for the plumbing analogy. It's always specifically plumbers, and it's made so often by so many different people that it's got to signify something.

All this talk about fame is relative.

The most famous graphic designers tend to be best known for things other than graphic design. Bob Benton (former art director of Esquire) is celebrated for his films (i.e. Kramer v. Kramer), as is former agency a.d. Ridley Scott. Michael B. may disagree, but Massimo Vignelli is better known for his Lexington Ave church interior than for his typographic style. Tibor was best known outside the graphic design field for his social activism, and most lay people wouldn't be able to name what he graphically designed. Alvin Lustig earned lots of press for his furniture and interiors, not his book jackets. Oh yeah, Andy Warhol was known as Andy Warhol pop artist not as the struggling illustrator who worked successfully for ad agencies in the 50s. Even Edward Gorey is not known as a book cover designer, but rather for his illustrated books, turned into a Broadway plays and TV. Milton Glaser is one of the few household names (well in a few households) for his posters mostly, which always carried his losenge shapped signature, but much of his mainstream press came for his supermarket and restaurant design.

Getting press as a graphic designer does not insure fame outside the profession, or respect in it either. Or own Mr. Chantry got a great write-up in the Times for his PS 1 solo exhibit, which I might add was a monumental accomplishment for MoMA, and he deserved it too. But dare I say, he's probably only famous in (adored, more like it, by) our small sub culture.

Mau has soaked up alot of ink, and continues to get it because he does public work with esteemed collaborators that interests style and culture writers and editors, sometimes for the right reasons.

Whatever the critique of his public persona, which I'm still not sure is all that relevant, his work is proven to have merit beyond the confines of our little world.
Steven Heller

Interestingly, not only is Bruce Mau rapidly becoming all-Canadian recognized, but I think that most people don't actually know what he does. He's just this big, bearlike guy in a black shirt who keeps turning up all over the place. He looks kind of like an architect--in fact, I bet they think he is an architect.

In general, Art is right. Almost all of our design heroes are complete nobodies as soon as they step outside of the AIGA conference hall (probably the best kind of fame you can have). In some ways there may be a Canadian analogy here, in that most of our Canadian heroes are complete nobodies outside of Canada ... but when they become somebodies outside of that we tend to dis them.

Funny, I got into a discussion re Mau's seeming lack of critical thought just the other day, with a photographer (and I didn't bring the subject up)--we both had the same shocked and disappointed experience at different lectures by Mau.

And say what you want about sloan, but The Tragically Hip now, I will defend to the death.
marian bantjes

Tragically hip? There's nothing tragic about Mau. He's savy. And is he hip? Yes. My architect friends know Mau before any other designer. I see countless design students close their emails with citations from his Incomplete Manifesto.

Mau has mastered the art of self-promotion. Most designers must perform this act in some way. We sell our ideas and our selves. But with Mau--as with McLuhan--the man has become the product. Some products stagnate while others evolve. The "cool" products are constantly evolving, and constantly changing for the audience and/or consumer. I'm wondering the same thing as Art. With Massive Change, will Mau prove himself as a Merchant of Cool or simply be deemed conventional? And after Massive Change, what will Mau change next (about himself or his work) to remain viable?

That's pretty funny. I actually never thought of Bruce Mau as The Tragically Hip (The Hip are a band that is huge in Canada, but virtually unknown elsewhere). There's a thesis in there somewhere.
marian bantjes

What is at stake here?

Rick, your initial post faults Mau for his pretension to and aura of "power". In your first paragraph, you read S,M,L,XL not as a book about architecture in which the design of the book intersects in meaningful ways with the questions raised by the content but as a "statement of designer ambition". You then claim Mau's ability to accrue "cultural capital" through personal affiliation - which I suppose means his ability to make and maintain friendships - "took him to another level". But, simply put, what "cultural capital" and what "level"? You actually suggest that Mau might actually be plotting his career based on Robert Greene's book on social power. (Why not Machiavelli's?)

What are we talking about? Mau's work as a designer? His writings about design? His forays into cultural criticism? His "ideas"? None of these topics really reach the table. Most significantly, none of these topics touch Mau's real contribution to contemporary culture.

Mau is faulted for his pretense to power (and grandeur, whatever that may mean). Art faults him for being a bad student, for having failed to learn his place as a designer, ie not an Artist. But who said Mau thought he was an artist? And what would that mean? What else might he be?

The most common group of faults: Mau courts fame but is in fact "disappointing". He's not compelling enough as a public speaker. His ideas are not cogent enough, or original enough. This "disappointment" leads Marian to "hope [Mau] vindicates himself", as if he were accused of some crime. (On this point, see Hal Foster, Design and Crime.)

Where does this disappointment come from? What gives us the right to it? Does Mau truly create expectations he fails to fulfill? Or does he situate his work in some other way?

Is it a simple product of "fame"? What encourages us to regard Bruce Mau as a trick pony?

But there is also disagreement as to the nature of Mau's fame. Is he famous for being and / or famous among designers? Among architects? Among cultural critics? Among Canadians? (Why we should celebrate a man who runs an Institute without Boundaries for his nationality escapes me.)

In response to all of this, I say that Bruce Mau is important because he is asking important questions in important ways.

This is not to say that he is particularly original (which he both occasionally and significantly is and is not). He doesn't need to be. Rather, his work situates itself at the nexus of several strands of disparate but related cultural inquiry and practice. He is important as much for the way he works as for his work itself. Mau seems to conceive of his work as an open site and meeting place, a place of intersection, what René Char would call a "thicket of questions". His work is an on-going investigation rather than a closed collection of answers to a limited set of questions. This can be disappointing if we are fixated on the new and original, in particular, if we are fixated on a single area of interest, ie Mau as designer commenting on type, etc.

Mau is most interesting and perhaps most frustrating when he asks the question: what is design? He investigates this question in two dimensions in his work in and comments on graphic design and typography. He investigates it in space and the environment through his work in architectural and environmental design and theory. We could go on with this list.

More so than anything else Massive Change asks a question about the role of rational planning in all areas of social, individual and environmental experience. This is no longer a discussion about graphic design.

Because it is a question, and therefore it does not fulfill the ambitions or functions of power mongering.

The Massive Change, too, is structured in such a way that it limits the distinction between those who "participate" and those who merely comment.

Stuart Kendall

Thanks to Stuart Kendall for bringing the discussion back to Rick's original concern - that of power, or the illusion of power.

Mau does not wield power as a graphic designer, except to say he maintains a studio and directs an educational program, overwhich he has directorial power. That he is an entrepreneur may suggest he has the power, if that's the right word, to convince clients to offer him and thus select assignments that suit him.

This not the kind of power of which Rick speaks. Instead what Mau does have is influence. He has leveraged himself (and this is not meant as a criticism) into a position where, through his collaborations and his force of will, he's made inroads into design practice that have, to a certain extent, built upon the old Modernist ideals, i.e. good design is good citizenship.

Although few people actually adhere to a Mau style (indeed I don't think there is such a manifestation), various students (and doubtless some professionals) look to Mau's practice as an inspiration - regarding authorship, collaboration, and expanding the roles of graphic design into other two and three dimensional realms. Not unlike what Massimo Vignelli and Chermayeff & Geismar did decades ago.

I don't see this as an "aura" of power. Perhaps it is a concerted strategy on his part to build a business around a philosophical construct, but it is not, despite Rick's citations, a power principle.

What's more, even if Mau was attempting to acquire power, towards what is the end? Is he trying to rule the soveriegn nation of Designania? Is he running for President of the AIGA, to accumulate all the wealth and riches that will stem from this post? No, he's building a design practice, to acquire good (and perhaps well paying) clients, so that he can follow his related pursuits.

Again, that his persona has certain quirks, or his writings may be flawed, does not add up to some power-hungry conspiracy.

Chantry is correct insofar as Mau's fame is limited, even though he is known beyond our little circle. And while he may get some noteriety and speaking engagements in London and other hotspots around the globe which may be the result of good PR, it is not an indication that he has the aura of power, or a hunger for it.
Steven Heller

Although self-initiated projects are worthy, in graphic design the biggest projects need clients or at least patrons. That means that in graphic design, like architecture, the most important principle is "First, get the job."

Call it influence, call it power. To get the job -- and, more importantly, to control the outcome -- requires not just talent or good intentions (cheap commodities both) but the ability to bend other people to your will in a way that makes them grateful for your guidance. If more designers read The 48 Rules of Power and fewer read New Ideas in Logo Design, the profession, and the world, would be the better for it.
Michael Bierut

Stuart poses some good questions and I am glad we have returned to the theme of power, which is the point of this thread.

No short post can encompass every aspect of a designer's career. Elsewhere, I have favourably reviewed S,M,L,XL and Mau's work on it. Here, I was talking only about the way in which the book functioned in terms of his own career. Mau himself makes a wry comment about the misreading, or non-reading, of the book in Life Style. He shows a photograph taken from a Dutch newspaper supplement in which a beautiful model rests her head on it as a pillow. The book was used in this way to "dress" such photographs for the simple reason that, like it or not, whatever valuable observations it might have had to make about architecture, it became emblematic, a kind of talisman, a hip book.

I believe that Mau is a significant designer in exactly the way that you suggest: "his work situates itself at the nexus of several strands of disparate but related cultural inquiry and practice". But this is a very abstract way of describing something that can be partly accounted for in much more worldly terms. My aim with this post was to address the way in which Mau presents himself and the situational benefits that result from this. I do not say that he has read Robert Greene's book; only that some of the ways that he behaves have been identified as techniques of achieving power. In fact, the post ends on a positive note. I mention "Massive Change", a hugely ambitious project that many Design Observer readers may not have known about, and I point out that this project is seeking to ask questions and make connections far beyond the sphere of graphic design. I thought it would be clear that it is the success of Mau's self-positioning (whether this is strategically planned or ad hoc) that has brought Mau to the point of being able to contemplate such a project.

What I hoped to do here was to raise the whole question of power in relation to design practice and consider the accommodations that designers must make with it to accomplish anything large in the world. This, I would suggest, is a key point for other designers. Without worldly power, without high-level alliances, without cultural capital, design's influence will remain severely limited and "massive change" is nothing but a pipedream. Many designers are not good at making these accommodations. They can be insular. Those that do achieve a level of power and influence are often undistinguished. They lack intellectual ambition and political insight. They do not have people like Rem Koolhaus and Sanford Kwinter as friends. Mau stands out and he is considered here because he goes much further than most.

Rick Poynor

My apologies for the length of this post and if it reiterates much of what I said a year ago in my Rant essay.

I remain unconvinced that Bruce Mau represents anything significantly different in his professional activity from previous or contemporary notorious designers. Or that he is worthy of respect and emulation. Overall, I find myself more in agreement with some of Steve Heller's points, though with my own spin.

I absolutely agree with the need for everyone, not just designers, to make accommodations, to form alliances, to be ambitious for good, and to affect change in this world. But I am skeptical about "massive change" --the specific project and the concept--and feel it prevents real action toward improving lives.

Like Steve Heller, I see Mau as playing out a Modern role. But my possibly cynical take is that it's more top-down directives from privileged intellectuals. Bruce Mau, like Paul Rand or David Carson (to name just two) has shrewdly (not necessarily a pejorative) parlayed ambition, talent, happenstance, and connection into design work favorable for them. Like Rand, Mau rationalizes a societal good attachment to his design. No concrete evidence exists for this good. What is definitive is personal gain and notoriety.

What would represent a significant change is a challenge to our society's enthrallment with Great Men and the idea that their ideas and actions will usher forth change. It dovetails perfectly (or is) our obsession with celebrity. This model needs to be critiqued and replaced. True action is always deferred as attempts are made to gain the ears and confidence of the people with capital. Usually, this goes no further than entertaining or flattering them.

Rick seems to claim that being friends with Rem Koolhaus and Sanford Kwinter is a de facto good thing. It sure is for Bruce Mau and his career. But I think the burden of proof is on these three men, or anyone championing them, to prove they are demonstrably making anyone's life better through their activities. Or that they wield any substantive power to affect any change. Their grandiose theorizing is intellectually alluring but practically devoid of worldly power where it counts. (I say that an essential component of such theorizing is that it is impossible to prove how or if it will actually do what it says it will do. If you keep the question open, you can write more books, have more conferences, etc.) They do have the power to gain funding for the permanent international floating cocktail party of exhibitions, lectures, conferences, and symposia which are Spectacles for the intellectual class who consider themselves immune to or above them.

For me, the physical existence of Life Style closes the book on Bruce Mau's true priority--and the content only drives nails into it. It's vainglory and ambition for its own sake; it's hazily theorizing solutions rather than rolling up your sleeves and doing something. As an opposition to Koolhaus' architectural abstractions, I'd offer the late Samuel Mockbee as someone whom directly and demonstrably changed people's lives for the better. As an opposition to Mau's problematic gestures, I'll offer Garland Kirkpatrick's Saturday art classes in L.A. Unfortunately, these activities aren't glamorous or require heavy theorizing. We don't need more dilatory conferences: most problems and solutions have been identified and massive change can be realized if some people would just do something rather than talking about it.

I haven't given up on the possibility that individuals may parlay ambition, alliances, and idealism into sweeping changes in society. But I can't see any evidence that Mau's "power" has produced, or will produce, anything for anyone but Bruce Mau. We might admire his accomplishment but I hope it's not widely emulated--but it will be. Nor do I see Mau (or Kwinter or Koolhaus) as having a coherent, straightforward strategy for doing real, on the ground, verifiable good for society in the future. But I see more exhibitions, more conferences, more good times for Bruce Mau and his friends. Mau isn't a path out of design insularity, he's a conduit to a larger indifference.

It's often a case of: do you want to do design (or art, or architecture) or make a difference? Who's going to do the scut work that's really needed? As long as our best design minds gravitate towards capital, and great design gets defined as aesthetic excellence possible only through the courting of and exercise of this capital, nothing's getting better. (I find myself kind of aligned with Robin Kinross, having greater respect for designers who concentrate on making readable forms.)

I honestly don't begrudge Mau or anyone else finding successful, personally rewarding design work. I am bothered by probably sincere but practically useless gestures towards making change when there's a crying need for real action. And I'm bothered by the inordinate attention given to Mau--this thread included. I believe you can have design, art, and architecture AND real change. However, Bruce Mau represents the same old dead end, only cooler.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Interested Party

This post has proven interesting.
I have a few questions perhaps someone can help with.
Is it most useful, productive and interesting when a designer leaves the birthing world of form slightly behind to assume a more important position in relation to the content? Is this fair to the content, design and more importantly their integration as a whole?

I fear sometimes we are slipping back to the past, relying on ideals for formal explanation and validation (Steven's post says "..he's made inroads into design practice that have, to a certain extent, built upon the old Modernist ideals, i.e. good design is good citizenship."). There is a large problem when such Modernist ideals become stylistically fashionable as I can see evidenced in Mau's work, among others. Besides, who has the final say on what is and is not good design(Steven). Perhaps this is the point where Mau's power proves most influential. Shouldn't an intelligent and honest approach to any sort of "Massive Change" project reflect the formal pluralism evident in the global community? I think anything less carries this extremely stubborn and complacent design ego, be it Mau's, the profession as a whole or that of design critics, much too far. I do not mean to poke, but I question if institutions such as the AIGA (I fully understand the need for the AIGA and good apects of this organization) have had a heavy hand in creating the perception of and commercial desire for a singular graphic voice.
Hell is a bland world.
Lastly I have to definitely agree with Chantry that Mau's fame is very limited on the outside of our bubble.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

What is the problem with Modernist ideals? What is wrong with ideals of progress, rationality, and communication? What's wrong with believing in truth?

I do believe that the new Modernists will have to be more different from the old Modernists than Mau is. But my Neomodernism is fairly radical.

Why would any "Massive Change" project want to reflect the current conditions? That doesn't make sense to me, but maybe I misunderstand what "Massive Change" means here.

I haven't been attracted to Mau's work at all; I don't enjoy that kind of big picture-book and his manifesto reads like it could have been written by anyone who just fell in love with Tony Robbins. Then again I've never met him.
Tom Gleason

I agree with Ryan. This post has proven interesting. Passions, it would seem, have been awakened. Though it may not have been apparent from my previous posting, I do appreciate Rick's having raised the issues here raised. They are both myriad and, I think, crucial.

Rick's question as to whether or not one must make "accommodations" in the acquisition or exercise of power, and just exactly what this means, remains an open question.

Power, undoubtedly, and as Steven and Michael suggest, includes the power to persuade. Michael's phrase here is pointed and subtle: power includes the power to "bend people to your will in a way that makes them grateful for your guidance". (Paula Scher has fascinating things to say about this in Make It Bigger.)

The confusion seems to consist in the purpose and extent of this ability to persuade and in the question as to whether or not the exercise of power is necessarily bad.

A great many designers, it would seem, enjoy relinquishing the responsibility for such things in favor of client interests. This often carries over into the notion that such sacrifices are a constituent element of graphic design as a commercial practice. A certain shamelessness is attributed to graphic designers who fail to respect this rule.

But, on the other hand, everyone does it. Designers sell style, energy and imagination. They bank on their ability to harness such things. More importantly, the imaginative space opened by a designer's style is the essence of persuasion in visual form. (Persuasion, of course, has other forms: verbal, personal, social, etc. All of which are integral to design practice and the designer - client relationship.)

It seems disingenuous, to me, to fault a designer for such activities. It is interesting however to observe, as Rick does, that our appreciation of Mau's design practice, career trajectory, and social and intellectual agenda should intersect with this problem as neatly as it does. But here again the conversation slips beyond the limited confines of graphic design into a wider social and intellectual arena.

On a slightly different tack, the fact that Mau participates in an agenda historically linked to modernism cannot, I don't believe, be disputed. Whether or not Mau's design style, practice and larger agenda exceeds the limitations of this origin (it does), is perhaps a topic best left to another forum and time.

The question as to whether or not a modernist affiliation is necessarily and obviously a bad thing remains an open question. Such agendas should not be understood, labeled and dismissed too quickly.

Modernism, on this point, hardly equals idealism. Rather modernism represents a search for an immanent response to the promises and problems of idealism. And it still has a lot to teach us. Too often I think, we pass over modern design as a relic without asking how much of its stylistic and experimental exuberance might be possible today (not much in fact).

Conversely, our healthy skepticism shouldn't prevent us from perceiving changes in thought as concrete social changes. Ideas can change lives. That we are attempting to have this conversation is proof of our shared faith in this fact.

Kenneth is right that many social problems and solutions are known, at least in particular often specialized circles. The challenge consists in convincing society at large that these problems are indeed problems and that the available solutions are workable. Here again the power to persuade is crucial. The scale and scope of this persuasion too is crucial.

Activism - political, economic, even scientific - is not reserved for those who labor in obscurity. And the efforts of those who do labor in obscurity should undoubtedly be more widely recognized and this means made known, publicized. Such figures too are great.
Stuart Kendall

Absolute truth today is often false tomorrow.
Dictionaries are golden.
1. A conception of something in its absolute perfection.

A fixed canon does not solve problems, nor provide a healthy route for progress.
We cannot proceed in design with ideals as such. I will never condemn aspiration.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

I attended Bruce Mau's "Institute Without Boundaries" lecture in October 2002 in Toronto at the Royal Ontario Museum. During Q&A period someone asked a simple question - Bruce's response with sweeping gesture, "I'm moving on a vector." Later a long drawn out question was responded to with a long pause-followed by, "I don't know." Slowly spoken. Timing is an effective theatrical device. Impressions however theatrical can be more powerful than words or actions. In Lifestyle Bruce ends a story with a quote from Rem Koolhaas, "to the Dutch enthusiasm is a sign of weakness."

Prior to this I examined the Institute's proposition. After acceptance into the program you must; buy your own computer, pay roughly $20,000, sign away all your moral rights to everything you create over the 12 month course. Those terms in exchange for a new "post-grad" BA and a piece of the Mau mystique seemed an unfair trade to me. Though I suppose at least 8-12 people thought it a worthwhile transaction. This is a testament to Bruce's deliberate building of himself into a desirable brand. To many he has become a "clear signal in the noise."

Years ago "Greater Good" was the name of Bruce's studio. Today it is called "Bruce Mau Design Inc." Perhaps reason for that shift can be seen here, "... I need to drive the studio to profitability because that's the only way we can prove that our approach works." (Mau, 1) Desire for profit and desire for power are intertwined. Koolhaas collaborates with an ethically questionable Chinese state commenting, "On our own we can at most have good intentions, but we cannot represent the public good without the larger entity such as the State." (Koolhaas, 2)

Survival is a game we all play.
(1) Bruce Mau, W.W. Magazine, IDN, Hong Kong, 2001.
(2) Koolhaas, March 6, 2004 Financial Times Magazine, p36
(3) Bruce Mau Audio Interview:

Ben Weeks

When I look at Bruce Mau's design projects especially his books I always have to ask myself if I would still like them if designed by someone other than Bruce Mau.

All this heat over Mau, it's surely a case of big dreams, small abilities.

Rick has it right, when he pinpoints Mau's skills as essentially a bent for "making potentially dry and daunting academic subject matter look interesting". Mau is good at a few modest things; picking nice typefaces, judging a nice line length, selecting lovely colours, a handy way with found images. Outside of these skills, what do we see exactly?

No logos to speak of, no commissioned photography or illustration, no inventiveness with formats, no extensive identity or sign programmes, no striking posters. No sign of any work in charitable or environmental or social arenas (despite his pronouncements of its importance). His breakthrough piece, the book S,M,L,XL, draws its content out far too thin, and is a tedious and frustrating read.

Do his books, with their frequently centred type, really stand up alongside those of Eric Nitsche or Derek Birdsall? Are his exhibitions as clever as Chermayeff & Geismar's? Is his reputed command of language integral to his work like Bill Cahan's? And for all his heralded work combining pictures and text, has he done anything as substantial and compelling as Dan Friedman's Post Human catalogue?

(I have exaggerated to make a point. The "font called Frank" is subtle and perfect in Gehry's Disney building, the very memorable idea for a cigarette packet emblazoned with a picture of jaw cancer looks as though it might well become a reality. But whilst these are good, strong pieces, we are dealing with a designer we are asked to see as brilliant, significant.)

His towering fame is rooted in things other than his work: his reported intelligence (although I still await first-hand evidence, there is nothing revelatory in his book), his brooding "bear-like" presence, his ambition, his way with making lists (easy to read), his rolodex.

I think he is seen by intellectuals (in architecture and publishing, art-administration and museums) as a fellow intellectual. They respond to his constant mentioning of touchstone names for modern intellectuals; Cage, McLuhan, Deleuze. And they swoon at his "draining off" the energy of these greats into his work. The work he does for their publishing houses and museums.

Of course, mentioning these figures is one thing, actually demonstrating ways in which their abstruse thought has manifested itself in your (rather traditional) typography is quite another. Can anyone - in detailed terms, not just reciting ideas and terms - actually describe how Cage's thought shows up in Mau's work?

But I admire him. I am encouraged to do as his bids me, and take a cue from his 'Incomplete Manifesto for Growth' (number 41.), and 'Laugh'. Designing is essentially quite boring. Hours, days spent in fruitless meetings. Reading garbage, dealing with technological hiccups, the humiliation of pitching.

I know someone who spent three days with Mau in the course of a project, doing - for all three days - what Mau called "champagne and mussels". I envy and look up to any designer who can parlay his skills into time eating sea food and chatting with Richard Hamilton and Rem Koolhaus. Its a great Life Style, and I would love to do the same. Especially if it included the company of the blonde girl from page 220 of his book.

Mau, my hat is doffed.

Quentin Newark

After reading the article Bruce Mau: The Aura of Power" by Rick Poynor, I found that I agreed with aspects of both points of view. Although Rick was a troubled admirer of Mau, I would say Mau has good intentions. Maybe the aura of power behind one's work is important in order to be successful in influencing people with your work. But on the other hand, your work alone should be powerful enough to do its own work. I don't know the artist's name, but I just remember the story about an artist who became very successful, not because of his work, but because he made people believe he was a world class artist and that his work was important by putting his own tag on every art work that said "World Class artist." With time, people started believing he really was a world class artist and he became very famous. Now if a designer who was very talented and used his talent to communicate good messages to the public maybe the "aura of power" would be a great way to get his work out in the beginning. Why not? Besides, though Mau may not be doing all he preaches, change is always good. If he inspires some other designer to improve, change and be an influence for good, more power to him!
Ellen Mueller

What do we gain by claiming that graphic designers can save the world? I came out of this show feeling depressed. And much more cynical about our survival of the very real Massive Change of our world.

I just returned from the show in Toronto. 'Massive Change' is a graphic design gloss on a handful of global issues. It demonstrates the folly of claiming more than you can deliver.
When we read the body text after the headlines, we are given phrases like 'for better or worse, military technology has changed the world', and we are offered interactive exercises like voting 'yes' or 'no' as a response to the issue of using genetic modification. Bruce, really. Exactly what are you contributing to the potential for military technology in peaceful applications, or the rocky path of eugenics, or the inch-by-inch progress in finding how human bodies can be engineered while remaining healthy?

If you are a graphic designer, you need material to design. If you are an effective graphic designer your readers and viewers will get very involved in the work. What happens, then, if there isn't enough substance in that work to satisfy them? What happens if they discover that you have promised much more than you delivered?

A disaster happens, that's what. A marketing disaster, a critical disaster, a human disaster. Instead of creating involvement and possibility, you make people angry, and you create prejudice. That prejudice closes people's minds and prejudices them against the material you were responsible for in the first place.

I fundamentally believe in generalism. I believe in crossing boundaries and combining disciplines. But I believe this takes hard work, and great focus. You actually do have to become skilled in the different disciplines that you work with. If you don't take this essential step then you are a dilettante. Someone who knows a little bit about things, but claims a lot.

This show gives a picture of humanity. The humanity it pictures is naive, easily manipulated, and unable to concentrate. This humanity apparently wants to feel good about itself, and likes to tell itself it has a conscience. This version of humanity doesn't mind dilettantes at all.

Well, I resent being treated this way. Sorry.

Jobs | July 19