Recent projects include: a design and branding strategy with Canadian retail giant Roots; Tree City, a project to transform Downsview Park in Toronto; STRESS, a multimedia installation about the limits of the human body; and Puente de Vida, the development of a museum of biodiversity in Panama City. 

Curve Editor Belinda Stening caught up with Bruce Mau when he recently visited Australia to run a workshop hosted by the Serco Group in Sydney. He spoke about his studio’s client relationships and multidisciplinary team approach to projects.

For the uninitiated the Bruce Mau Design studio based in Toronto, Canada, has a unique multidisciplinary approach to design projects. While designers are at the core of every project, they rarely work alone.

Collaboration is the key focus for BMD and the notion of teamwork extends from the many and varied professionals employed at the studio to the range of clients drawn to Mau’s philosophy.

Mau sees his clients as collaborative partners and commits, from the very beginning of a project, to understanding the major issues and underlying problems they may have.

He admits the information is not always easy to assess but clients are encouraged to talk about ‘who they are’, ‘what it is’ or ‘what it should be’ before a brief can be set. By promoting discussion about the client’s identity, present and past concerns, the future directions can be established.

Mau recognises that not all clients will be comfortable or supportive of the collaborative process but when it works well it means all of the big questions are answered before a project hits the studio.

“We travel ‘alongside’ the client and develop a process and methodology with the client,” he said. Mau explains that it doesn’t help to just spend more on design at the end of a project. A project has to be perfectly articulated to the project team so that they can understand the exact focus.

Multidisciplinary teams

There are now thirty-five to forty core members of Mau’s studio. These people are structured into roughly four studio teams. Each team is responsible for a particular project and crosses over to other projects as work evolves.

Each of the four teams is cross-disciplinary and is capable of working on a wide variety of project work. Zoologists, architects, chemical physicists, designers, scientists all work together in an open intellectual mix.

The process of communicating ideas can be physical. Physical modelling of concepts and ideas is encouraged. Teams are encouraged to ‘make first then think about it’, ‘do the idea and don’t worry about it being right’.

There is not a specific ‘modelling area’; designers model at their desk so that everything is exposed to the studio and nothing is hidden. Mau says he can walk through the studio and see the ideas physically happening. 

The studio also works with outside experts depending on the specific needs of each project.

Mau compares the success of the team structure to an ecosystem, “which always finds equilibrium over time... naturally...”

Mau says this team structure helps to keep staff intellectually stimulated and to stay with the studio for long periods of time. He believes it is a great way to train young designers and to foster the growth of younger creative minds.

BMD studio is a vibrant workplace with Mau encouraging staff to always look for things that they can do better. While disappointment can come from lack of recognition, Mau advises staff not to get bitter if they don’t get the respect they think they deserve.

The Institute without Boundaries

Located in the Bruce Mau studio, the Institute without Boundaries will be the first Canadian post-graduate design program to offer a public-private model of education that addresses the global market need for multidisciplinary designers.

Students of the Institute will work alongside other project teams within the BMD studio, and will be guided by Institute Program Director Greg Van Alstyne, as well as by Bruce Mau and the studio’s international clients and collaborators.

Eight to twelve applicants from an international pool will be chosen to study at the institute for twelve months. Graduates will be chosen from a diverse range of backgrounds including designers, artists, writers, photographers, engineers, scientists, new media specialists and filmmakers

Through daily exposure to the methods and practices of the BMD studio and its international partners, students will engage in the fullest range of creative practices.

Massive Change, a manifesto on the future of design, will be the first project for the institute.

“Massive Change maps the new territories of design practice, from the built environment to radical experiments in transportation technology, revolutionary materials, energy economies, information economies, software and living organisms,” Mau explained. “It delineates the utopian and dystopian possibilities of a world where the dominion of design has extended to the realm of nature.”

The project will embody a travelling exhibition, a book, a thirteen part television series, web-based projects, public events and products.  

For more information about the Bruce Mau Design studio,
the institute or a look at Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto visit

Mau's Incomplete Manifesto

1. Allow events to change you. You have to be willing to grow. Growth is different from something that happens to you. You produce it. You live it. The prerequisites for growth: the openness to experience events and the willingness to be changed by them.

2. Forget about good. Good is a known quantity. Good is what we all agree on. Growth is not necessarily good. Growth is an exploration of unlit recesses that may or may not yield to our research. As long as you stick to good you’ll never have real growth.

3. Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we have already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we are going, but we will know we want to be there.

4. Love your experiments (as you would an ugly child). Joy is the engine of growth. Exploit the liberty in casting your work as beautiful experiments, iterations, attempts, trials, and errors. Take the long view and allow yourself the fun of failure every day.

5. Go deep. The deeper you go the more likely you will discover something of value.

6. Capture accidents. The wrong answer is the right answer in search of a different question. Collect wrong answers as part of the process. Ask different questions.

7. Study. A studio is a place of study. Use the necessity of production as an excuse to study. Everyone will benefit.

8. Drift. Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore adjacencies. Lack judgement. Postpone criticism.

9. Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.

10. Everyone is a leader. Growth happens. Whenever it does, allow it to emerge. Learn to follow when it makes sense. Let anyone lead.

11. Harvest ideas. Edit applications. Ideas need a dynamic, fluid, generous environment to sustain life. Applications, on the other hand, benefit from critical rigor. Produce a high ratio of ideas to applications.

12. Keep moving. The market and its operations have a tendency to reinforce success. Resist it. Allow failure and migration to be a part of your practice.

13. Slow down. Desynchronize from standard time frames and surprising opportunities may present themselves.

14. Don’t be cool. Cool is conservative fear dressed in black. Free yourself from limits of this sort.

15. Ask stupid questions. Growth is fueled by desire and innocence. Assess the answer, not the question. Imagine learning throughout your life at the rate of an infant.

16. Collaborate. The space between people  working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife, exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.

17. _____________________. Intentionally left blank. Allow space for the ideas you haven’t had yet, and for the ideas of others.

18. Stay up late. Strange things happen when you’ve gone too far, been up too long, worked too hard, and you’re separated from the rest of the world.

19. Work the metaphor. Every object has the capacity to stand for something other than what is apparent. Work on what it stands for.

20. Be careful to take risks. Time is genetic. Today is the child of yesterday and the parent of tomorrow. The work you produce today will create your future.

21. Repeat yourself. If you like it, do it again. If you don’t like it, do it again.

22. Make your own tools. Hybridise your tools in order to build unique things. Even simple tools that are your own can yield entirely new avenues of exploration. Remember tools amplify your capacities, so even a small tool can make a big difference.

23. Stand on someone’s shoulders. You can travel farther carried on the accomplishments of those who came before you. And the view is so much better.

24. Avoid software. The problem with software is that everyone has it.

25. Don’t clean your desk. You might find something in the morning that you can’t see tonight.

26. Don’t enter awards competitions. Just don’t it’s not good for you.

27. Read only left-hand pages. Marshall McLuhan did this. By decreasing the amount
of information, we leave room for what we call our “noodle.”

28. Make new words. Expand the lexicon. The new conditions demand a new way of thinking. The thinking demands new forms of expression. The expression generates new conditions.

29. Think with your mind. Forget technology. Creativity is not device-dependent.

30. Organization = Liberty. Real innovation in design, or any field, happens in context. That context is usually some form of cooperatively managed enterprise. Frank Gehry for instance, is only able to realize Bilbao because his studio can deliver it on budget. The myth of a split between “creatives” and “suits” is what Leonard Cohen calls a ‘charming artifact of the past’.

31. Don’t borrow money. Once again, Frank Gehry’s advice. By maintaining financial control, we maintain creative control. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s surprising how hard it is to maintain this discipline, and how many have failed.

32. Listen carefully. Every collaborator who enters our orbit brings with him or her a world more strange and complex than any we could ever hope to imagine. By listening to the details and the subtlety of their needs, desires, or ambitions, we fold their world onto our own. Neither party will ever be the same.

33. Take field trips. The bandwidth of the world is greater than that of your TV set, or the Internet, or even a totally immersive, interactive, dynamically rendered, object-oriented, real-time, computer graphic-simulated environment.

34. Make mistakes faster. This isn’t my idea – I borrowed it. I think it belongs to Andy Grove.

35. Imitate. Don’t be shy about it. Try to get as close as you can. You’ll never get all the way, and the separation might be truly remarkable. We have only to look to Richard Hamilton and his version of Marcel Duchamp’s large glass to see how rich, discredited, and underused imitation is as a technique.

36. Scat. When you forge the words, do what Ella did: make up something else... but not words.

37. Break it, stretch it, bend it, crush it, crack it, fold it.

38. Explore the other edge. Great liberty exists when we avoid trying to run with the technological pack. We can’t find the leading edge because it’s trampled underfoot. Try using old-tech equipment made obsolete by an economic cycle but still rich with potential.

39. Coffee breaks, cab rides, green rooms. Real growth often happens outside of where we intend it to, in the interstitial spaces –
what Dr. Seuss calls “the waiting place.” Hans Ulrich Obrist once organized a science and art conference with all of the infrastructure of a conference – the parties, chats, lunches, airport arrivals – but with no actual conference. Apparently it was hugely successful and spawned many ongoing collaborations.

40. Avoid fields. Jump fences. Disciplinary boundaries and regulatory regimes are attempts to control the wilding of creative life. They are often understandable efforts to order what are manifold, complex, evolutionary processes. Our job is to jump the fences and cross the fields.

41. Laugh. People visiting the studio comment on how much we laugh. Since I’ve become aware of this, I use it as a barometer of how comfortably we are expressing ourselves.

42. Remember. Growth is only possible as a product of history. Without memory, innovation is merely novelty. History gives growth a direction. But a memory is never perfect. Every memory is a degraded or composite image of a previous moment or event. That’s what makes us aware of its quality as a past and not a present. It means that every memory is new, a partial construct different from its source, and, as such, a potential for growth itself.

43. Power to the people. Play can only happen when people feel they have control over their lives. We can’t be free agents if we’re not free.

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