For a popular excerpt from GLIMMER, check out "Meet Bruce Mau. He wants to redesign the world," which ran in Wired UK magazine.
Below, is the introductory chapter to GLIMMER, which I call "The Briefing." It lays out the main premises and themes of the book, giving you an overview of all the good stuff to come.
T H E B R I E F I N G
- You have a friend who uses a wheelchair. One day he tells you the three things about that wheelchair he hates: “I can’t go over curbs, can’t get up stairs, and can’t look people in the eye when I’m talking to them.” What would you do to improve your friend’s wheelchair?
- Your grandmother keeps taking your grandfather’s prescription pills (and vice versa). You tell them to check the labels on the bottles more carefully. They admit to you that they can barely even read the labels. How can you help them?
- You’re designing a laptop computer for kids in the developing world. It cannot cost more than $150. But the parts alone cost more than that. What do you do?
- You’d like to get your teenage nephew to stop smoking. While you’re at it, you’d like to get a million other teenagers to stop smoking, too. Telling them that smoking could kill them just makes it more cool and rebellious. So how do you make non-smoking cool and rebellious, overnight?
- You’re introducing a new automobile in the United States. Unfortunately, nobody’s ever heard of this car. And it’s precisely the opposite of what’s been popular in cars lately. And it looks kind of funny. And there’s no budget for television commercials. How do you make this car a bestseller?
- You find yourself in a village that desperately needs drinking water. There’s a lake just a bike ride away, but the water’s foul. How do you bring clean, drinkable water back to the village—using only your bike?
- You always wanted to do something creative and inspirational for a living. But somehow, you ended up operating a dog-food company. How do you transform this into a higher calling?
- Your country has endured decades of misery brought on by two civil wars and an economy that keeps crashing. You need to turn all that around by creating a new spirit of optimism. What’s your first step?
On the surface, these eight challenges might seem to be unrelated. They range from marketing issues to medical ones, from engineering to advertising, and from ambitious to seemingly impossible. But in each of these instances, the problem at hand was engaged by someone who looked at it in a fresh way and saw a possibility—just a glimmer, at first—of how things might be done differently. And in each case, that person went through a series of actions, guided by a common set of principles, which were all part of a larger established process. There is a word for that process: The word is design.
When a New Hampshire man envisioned and then created a wheelchair that could stand and walk, he was designing. So, too, was the concerned granddaughter in New York who radically changed the look and shape of confusing medicine bottles, benefiting not just her grandparents but countless others. Principles of design led to the creation of a highly innovative (and irresistibly cute) laptop that rewrote the rules of low-cost computing, and those same principles helped turn the underdog Mini Cooper car into an automotive marketing phenomenon. Quite unexpectedly, design reversed a surge in teen smoking in Florida; in California it yielded a bike that could purify water as it was pedaled. Design enabled a dog-food company to find new meaning and success by recreating itself as an enterprise of, and for, dog-lovers. And it was the secret weapon of a Toronto designer who organized a national movement that helped raise morale and productivity in the country of Guatemala.
When we think of design, we don’t usually associate it with solving problems such as these. More often, it is equated with “style”: fashionable clothing or handbags, distinctive typefaces, elegant Philippe Starck furniture or Michael Graves teakettles.
But design is really a way of looking at the world with an eye toward changing it. To do that, a designer must be able to see not just what is, but what might be. And seeing is only the beginning: Designers are also makers. They sketch and build, giving form to ideas. They take that faint glimmer of possibility and make it visible and real to others.
The process designers follow—which blends art and science, and is fueled by human empathy—is arduous and at times heartbreaking. It is invariably filled with missteps, though each one tends to bring the designer a step closer to getting it right. And when that happens, the result can transform some aspect of the way we live. Suddenly, the act of listening to music, or peeling a potato, or accessing potable water, is different, improved. In this way, progress happens by design.
The premise of this book is that design is applicable to just about any challenge—and its principles are accessible to anyone. If we can gain a better understanding of the ways designers think and work, it may enable us to do what designers tend to do so well: To recognize that glimmer of potential around us and within us, and to build on those nascent possibilities as we set out to design a better business or a better life.
Design is, according to Bruce Mau, “the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes.” Mau, a renowned designer who agreed to open up his studio and its inner workings for this book, is at the forefront of a loose-knit movement embracing a new way of thinking about design. It includes individual designers and larger design companies like the leading-edge firm IDEO, as well as several prominent design schools, where new theories are being developed about “design thinking”: what it is, how it works, what it can accomplish. But this “glimmer movement” also includes many from outside the design profession—including basement tinkerers, technologists, do-it-yourselfers, “crafties,” social activists, environmentalists, videogamers, and business entrepreneurs. What links them is their belief that everything today is ripe for re-invention and “smart recombination.” What makes them all designers is that they don’t just think this, they act on it.
They are much better-armed to do so than in the past. Aided by improved technology and connectivity, grassroots innovators can download instructions off the web on how to make anything; they can share ideas and join forces with online collaborators halfway around the world; and when they’ve got a working prototype, they can stir interest by uploading it to YouTube. The democratization of design that began a quarter-century ago with the introduction of Apple’s Macintosh computer has moved to a whole new level in the era of interactive, social-network media. It’s true that much of the time these new “citizen designers” may simply be styling their own customized Nike shoes or Facebook pages. But as Bruce Mau discovered firsthand in his own research into the new design revolution, a growing number of people have set their sights higher. They’re trying to design fresh solutions to old problems as they seek to improve the world around them.
Mau says the rise of people-powered design took him by surprise as he was doing research for his groundbreaking design exhibition called “Massive Change.” “I stumbled upon this movement that seemed to be bubbling up all around the world,” he says. Everyday people were using design approaches and techniques to tackle thorny problems involving commerce, transportation, education, and housing (several of the examples cited at the start of this book were featured in Mau’s original Massive Change exhibit). All of this suggested to Mau that design itself was undergoing a change—that it was moving beyond aesthetic concerns and the rarefied domain of design professionals, and wading into the messy mainstream of everyday life.
For today’s fix-the-world designers, there has been no shortage of challenges to tackle—indeed, the sense of urgency with regard to mounting environmental and economic concerns is a big part of what’s fueling the movement. The problems themselves are testament to the importance of design—from levees not built to withstand the storm, to financial systems that couldn’t recover from a few critical shocks. As Mau points out, design is all around us, “but often it only becomes visible when it fails.” And those now-obvious failures of earlier designs are prompting many to ask, How can we reboot and rebuild—and do it better, more thoughtfully?
The notion that design can solve the world’s problems is actually an old idea that has become new again. Going back over the past two centuries, a number of design movements—the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century, the Modernism and Futurism waves of the early and mid-20th—have been fueled by an ambition to improve life for the larger population. The roots of design are entwined with Utopianism and with dynamic figures such as the British designer William Morris, an early Socialist and a leader of the craft movement, or America’s Buckminster Fuller, the dome-building dreamer who also was an environmentalist about 80 years before Green became the new Black.
By the 1980s, design had strayed pretty far from those Utopian roots—unless, that is, one’s idea of Utopia is a world filled with pricey espresso machines. The design writer Phil Patton pegs the ’80s as the time when designer-brand items, from jeans to high-end appliances, became the mark of good taste. Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif—a spidery, gorgeous, and expensive orange juicer that seemed to be designed more for dramatic effect than for actual effectiveness—has been cited by Patton and others as the epitome of the “design for design’s sake” mania that took hold. A decade later, Target stores upped the ante by “democratizing design”—which, in this particular use of the phrase, meant that more people could afford and have access to the designs of Starck, Graves, Karim Rashid, and other design luminaries, leading to what one observer called “the arms race of designer toilet brushes.”
The growing appetite for stylishly-made objects turned the Starcks and Rashids into the new rock stars, whose work could command huge sums (in 2006, a chaise lounge made by designer-of-the-moment Marc Newson sold for more than $900,000). But more recently, the notion of design for design’s sake began to lose its luster—such that by 2008, Starck, in announcing his intention to shift focus to more useful things such as wind turbines, declared, “Everything that I’ve designed is absolutely unnecessary.”
It’s little wonder Starck would begin to feel that way: The design realm of superstars and million-dollar chairs felt profoundly out of sync with what was happening in the world by the mid-to-late 2000s. Rising environmental concerns had begun to stir the first rumblings of a backlash against all the non-essential “stuff” proliferated by designers, much of it disposable but not recyclable. As the economy contracted, those over-designed and overpriced goods came to be seen as not just inaccessible but inappropriate. The world seemed to be crying out for a different kind of design: no less creative but more responsible and resourceful, with a greater emphasis on solving problems, embracing constraints, and doing more with less.
To some extent, this harkens back to earlier Modernist design ideals, but with an important difference. While today’s glimmer designers may think in terms of reinventing and somehow improving the world around them, they’re more likely to approach the task humbly, and usually in an open, collaborative manner; there’s less of the kind of hubris that might attempt to impose a grand, solitary vision upon everybody else. The working model developed by the design thinkers at IDEO or at Stanford University’s influential “d.school” program calls for ongoing step-by-step evaluation and reconsideration throughout the design process, incorporating feedback from many people—including, perhaps most importantly, from those who will ultimately have to live with the results. Before they envision and sketch, and certainly as they proceed to build, today’s designers do a good deal of watching and listening.
It is that aspect of design—that endeavor to first understand what is actually needed out there in today’s world, before trying to satiate that need—that makes it relevant to business, particularly in the current difficult environment. Of course, design is nothing new to business, but the main application of it, until recently, has been as a means of trying to distinctively dress up product offerings that have exploded in number, with nearly 200,000 new ones introduced each year. In the quest to appeal to a more fickle and demanding public, companies have used design to tinker with the functionality and form of new products—a new color here, a new shape there, and a lot of new features everywhere (leading to the condition known as “featuritis”). But missing from the design of many of these products was a sense of purpose—which is not all that surprising, given that the companies behind the products were largely clueless about what the public actually needed.
There was a time when companies could survive and even prosper while making marginally useful, “me-too” products. The secret weapon was aggressive marketing and advertising. But with vocal consumers gaining more control of media and with a recession that has forced both companies and their customers to make every penny pay off, the air has leaked out of the hype balloon. At the same time, companies’ ongoing attempts to downsize and to “re-engineer” the old business processes in order to squeeze out more productivity have reached a point where there’s nothing left to squeeze.
To grow now, companies must innovate and perform on every level, and that’s where design comes into play. By employing design tools such as empathic research to uncover the quirks and foibles of how people go about their daily lives, design-driven companies are striving to close “the innovation gap”—the growing chasm faced by companies with the technical wherewithal to produce just about anything, but with no idea of what to make. Beyond rethinking product offerings, companies can apply design to the ways they serve customers long after the sale, as well as the overall manner in which they conduct business—right down to the way phones are answered and trucks are routed. The whole experience can and should be designed, holistically.
According to Roger Martin, dean of the Toronto-based Rotman School of Management, “Design is becoming an ever more important engine of corporate profit.” Indeed, design-driven companies have been shown to financially outperform others—in some cases, by as much as ten-to-one. Which is why Martin believes that in the increasingly tough business marketplace of today and tomorrow, “Businesspeople must begin to think like designers.”
Martin is right about that, but it’s not just businesspeople that stand to benefit from adopting this way of thinking. At times, and perhaps especially in these times, we all need to re-examine assumptions about how and why we do things the way we do. Just as companies can rethink and transform their approaches to doing business, people in the social sector can and must find innovative ways to take on old challenges. Can we redesign the ways we provide a better life for the elderly, or encourage underprivileged children to learn, or shelter the homeless? The answer, as evidenced by the work of some of the designers featured in the book, is clear: Yes we can.
On a personal level, good design is just as relevant—and we’re not talking about coffee tables or handbags, but about the overall design of one’s life: The choices made along the way, and the constant adjustments and refinements that ensue. For most of us, that overarching life-design may be invisible, but it’s there nonetheless. The question is whether that design is thoughtful or haphazard; whether it’s expansive or restrictive; whether it’s sturdy and long lasting, or temporary and fragile.
It can be difficult to step back and look at one’s life with a fresh eye, but this is part of what design can teach us: How to view things sideways, how to re-frame, rearrange, experiment, refine, and—maybe most important of all—how to ask “the stupid questions” that challenge assumptions about the way things have been done in the past. The design process is geared to breaking out of old patterns of thinking and behavior. That is not easy to do because of what designers refer to as heuristic bias—our natural inclination to think and act in familiar, repetitive ways, simply because the mind wants to follow a path that has already been cleared. Design thinking can help lead you off that well-worn trail and guide you in new directions.
To learn to think like a designer, it makes sense to employ a tool that designers themselves use extensively: observational research. But trying to get an inside view of how design works can be challenging for a number of reasons. To begin with, the design world is splintered and fractious. The broad term “design” covers a myriad of disciplines, including graphic design, industrial design, architecture, fashion, environmental design, Web design, and more—and each of these disciplines has its own set of practices and principles.
At the same time, the practice of design has maintained a certain mystery about what it is and how it works. Even the corporate clients who hire designers often don’t know quite what they’re paying for (and, too, it has been said that designers’ mothers have no clue what their sons and daughters do for a living). The graphic designer Alexander Isley says he has always felt that being a designer was “almost like being part of a secret guild.” Another designer, Brian Collins, notes that his professional peers have a tendency to over-complicate the discussion of what they do. “The design world is plagued by pseudo-academic jargon,” Collins says, “with all these people talking about mutable hierarchies of multivalent meaning.”
Bruce Mau has been grappling with the challenge of demystifying design for some time. Born and raised in a hardscrabble Canadian mining town, Mau, now 49, burst onto the international graphic design scene in the 1980s, when his Toronto-based studio became known for its strikingly unorthodox use of type and images, featured primarily in the esoteric Zone books about culture and society. Over the years, Mau kept expanding his applications of design. He moved from the printed page to large public spaces—the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Seattle Public Library—where, working alongside the star architects Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, Mau became a design star in his own right.
Then, a few years ago, Mau opted to widen his scope even more, as he began to view “the world” as his design project. In his work, his writings, and his exhibitions, he proposed that design principles could be applied to the thorniest global issues. When Mau debuted the project known as “Massive Change” in 2004—it began as a museum exhibit in Canada and then moved to America—he seemed to become the embodiment (and, at times, the lightning rod) for the new “design-can-do-anything” philosophy.
In Massive Change, Mau showcased original designs from around the world that took on all manner of problems. There was the iBOT “walking wheelchair” designed by Mau’s friend Dean Kamen; the low-cost laptop created by a group that included the noted designer Yves Behar; various wondrous devices that purified water or replaced lost body parts; new types of shelter, new ways of constructing cities—all of this was part of the show’s purview. And the show’s message was, in essence: Yes, we’ve got large problems and challenges in the world, but there are answers, too. They’re all around us, if you just look.
Meanwhile, Mau also tried to take some of the fundamental design principles developed in his studio and go public with them. He took the first step when he wrote a document titled “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth,” which started as an article and then was given as a speech at an international design conference in the late 1990s. In the presentation, Mau laid out 43 “laws” for achieving good and meaningful design. While he’s a big believer in random experimentation and blue-sky creativity, Mau also believes that such creativity works best when guided by a proven design methodology. The manifesto quickly became a viral phenomenon on the Internet, and today, a decade later, its laws still are passed back and forth on the Web, mostly between young designers. Many of the ideas in the manifesto are counter-intuitive. Mau advised designers to “ask stupid questions,” to sometimes shamelessly imitate the work of others, and to always, at all times, “forget about good.”
In his own work, Mau applies these principles to projects that have become increasingly complex and somewhat amorphous: Helping the country of Guatemala figure out how to design a better future for itself; helping big American companies, such as Coca-Cola, design more sustainability into their products and processes; finding new ways for the television network MTV to remain relevant to the youth culture in the age of YouTube. Mau has been enlisted by the president of Arizona State University, who wants to reinvent college education and is intrigued by Mau’s radical ideas on the subject. He’s been asked to redesign a Central American country, a major city in the Middle East, and a small town in Canada—tackling problems ranging from traffic congestion to economic woes. (Perhaps the strangest proposal came not long ago from Colombia, whose government asked for Mau’s help in an effort to rehabilitate former drug-dealing cartel members and welcome them back into society as functioning citizens. The project has since been shelved, but Mau was tickled by the prospect of taking on such a challenge—and fully aware of the potential hazards. Attempting to socialize gang members and drug dealers: How would a designer even begin to approach something like that? Mau’s answer: “Very carefully.”)
All of these diverse projects—from Fortune 500 companies going green to drug dealers coming clean—somehow find their way to the Bruce Mau Design studio, a bright and airy fourth-floor loft that overlooks Toronto’s Chinatown district (Mau has also opened and is now based in a second studio, in a high-rise with panoramic views of Chicago). The workshop buzzes with activity as the staff designers—an ethnically-diverse mix of people with backgrounds in art, filmmaking, engineering, architecture, and new-media—work on a range of jobs at various stages of development, from scribbling on the walls to three-dimensional models and prototypes, with the heavy-set, bushy-bearded Mau presiding over it all as the in-house guru.
At the studio, Mau is constantly on the move. When he does stop to sit and study a design problem, becoming deeply absorbed in it, he tends to tap his foot or jiggle his leg. He’s all bustling energy that cannot be contained. Mau loves surprises and incongruities, and when he encounters them he lets out a startlingly playful laugh—high-pitched, almost like a child’s. He also loves to explain things and as he does, he often makes quick drawings on whatever scrap of paper is handy. Like a lot of designers, Mau is part artist and part engineer. The artist in him is always sketching little visions of how things might be, and the engineer then has to figure out how to make it actually work.
he working principles developed over the years in Mau’s studio serve as the starting point for Glimmer
. But Mau is one of a handful of designers that are profiled in-depth, with many others appearing in supporting roles—about 50 designers in all, a list I call the Glimmerati
. A couple of the featured designers were part of Mau’s original Massive Change exhibit: Dean Kamen and Yves Behar, each a renowned leader in the design field, though they come at it from different angles. Kamen, perhaps best known for having created the much-discussed Segway scooter, is a brilliant engineer and inventor who never thought of himself as a designer until Mau convinced him that he fit the definition. Mau believes that an engineer becomes a designer when he/she truly begins to empathize with human needs and desires, instead of just making things work mechanically. By this standard, a designer is an engineer with a soul. And Kamen, who has dedicated much of his work to helping people constrained by poverty or by their own physical limitations, clearly fits the bill.
Behar, meanwhile, was central to the successful U.S. launch of the Mini Cooper, which broke all the rules of automotive marketing by emphasizing design over expensive advertising (this and other examples in the book make the case that design is the new advertising—albeit more efficient and far more relevant to people’s lives). Behar also has served as the lead designer on the One Laptop Per Child program, which produced the dazzling little green computer that promised to change the world and did not—but may yet live up to that hope when Behar unveils the even more radical second iteration of the device in 2010.
Cameron Sinclair, another featured designer, is a Londoner who’s set up shop in America but can often be found drawing sketches in the dirt somewhere halfway around the world, usually in a place that has been ravaged by natural disaster. Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity group specializes in rebuilding these devastated areas with innovative low-cost design approaches—a testament to the ways in which designers can substitute imagination for resources, working with whatever is available. Sinclair’s designers once devised a way to make a temporary shelter in Africa from plants growing out of the ground; it was elegant, cheap, efficient, and best of all, when the shelter was no longer needed, it could be eaten!
The tales of how these designers achieve breakthroughs are not unlike mystery short stories: Something is amiss, no one can figure it out, and it’s up to our protagonist to solve the conundrum. Jane Fulton Suri, who pioneered design’s use of empathic research to try to understand why people behave the way they do, was a trained psychologist whose journey as a designer began when the British government enlisted her to try to figure out why so many people were suddenly cutting off their own toes with lawn mowers. Fulton Suri, as we’ll see in Chapter 4, got to the bottom of it all, then proceeded to spend the next two decades solving similar problems as the head of design research at IDEO. Another designer in the book, Alex Bogusky, had to unravel a different kind of mystery: Why don’t teenagers care that smoking could kill them? And if they don’t care about dying, what do they care about? Bogusky, like Fulton Suri, relied on empathic research and other design tools to arrive at his “glimmer moment”—the point when a life-changing idea crystallizes in the mind.
Though the designers in the book are shown tackling all different kinds of challenges, they tend to go through the same steps and adhere to similar principles along the way. This book is organized around a list of ten of those principles. Several of them derive from laws in Mau’s original manifesto, while others have been created fresh or adapted from the philosophies of other designers featured in the book.
The ten principles are divided into four separate categories: Universal, Business, Social, and Personal. The rationale is that while certain design principles apply to just about any creative problem-solving situation, others seem to pertain more directly to business, social, or personal concerns. But there is a lot of crossover between the categories; whether one is designing in business, in the social sector, or in life, the challenges can be surprisingly similar.
The Universal section of the book begins with a few basic design principles that might be used by anyone for any purpose—and that serve as the building blocks for all that follows. It all starts with Asking stupid questions, which is really about learning to step back, look at things differently, and question conventional wisdom and accepted realities. That leads to Jumping fences, or using abductive reasoning to envision fresh possibilities and forge new mental connections.
As those new possibilities begin to take shape in the mind, a designer will typically create a preliminary model—which can be as basic as a sketch on a napkin, or something far more elaborate and three-dimensional. It’s a critical step on the journey to finding solutions. By visually expressing and sharing new ideas in rough form, the designer strives to Make hope visible, in the elegant words of featured designer Brian Collins.
The second section of the book is devoted to Business, where, as previously noted, design already has begun to turn the old MBA models upside down. In the business context, all of those principles from the preceding “Universal” section are still relevant, but another layer is added on—how to deal with the pressing challenge of differentiating products from one another in an overcrowded marketplace, while also figuring out how to make brands and services come alive through meticulously choreographed consumer experiences.
If you’ve ever wondered how companies such as Apple or Target seem to have achieved such consistency in the way their brands look and perform, the answer is, in a word, design. They use it to seamlessly integrate every facet of their product development, marketing, store architecture, and customer relations. The principles Go deep, Work the metaphor, and Design what you do provide insights into how they do it—and these chapters also profile companies in the midst of transforming themselves, including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Pedigree dog food, and a small regional bank named Umpqua that has redesigned the process of banking so as to be unrecognizable. These companies understand that a recession is no time to retreat. It’s actually a time to, in the words of one designer, “steer into the skid,” by finding ways to efficiently innovate and refine a company’s products, services, and its overall operations.
The third section of the book, Social, pertains to the use of design to address social issues and challenges. Today, designers are in the thick of efforts to clean up the environment, improve cities’ infrastructures, respond to aging populations, smarten educational systems, and more. No one is suggesting that designers have all the answers to these complex and longstanding challenges—sometimes, in fact, designers can make things worse, particularly when they try to impose “solutions” without considering the consequences of those well-meaning actions. But when design is rooted in deep understanding of problems and local conditions, and when it carefully considers possible outcomes and takes care to Face consequences of its own making, it can offer real hope in difficult circumstances.
A hard reality of social design is that resources tend to be limited. We may want to fix the world’s problems, but we usually don’t want to spend much doing it. But the good news is that, interestingly, good design often doesn’t cost any more than bad design. As resourceful and imaginative designers Embrace constraints, they find fascinating new ways of doing more with less. It can be a struggle to do so: Watching Yves Behar defy the perceived limitations of what’s possible and fight to make his vision of that little green laptop into a reality, or seeing Cameron Sinclair toil to build something useful and even beautiful from the wreckage of disaster, should dispel any illusions that the act of designing social change is easy or bloodless. But it is possible.
The last section of the book, Personal, takes the discussion from the macro (the world at large) to the micro (your own life). With the mainstreaming of design, people are more inclined now to do their own interior decorating, create their own mix-and-match fashion sensibility, and even craft whole new identities for themselves in the virtual world. “I design, therefore I am” could be the new credo.
But the real personal design revolution is just getting started. Design used to be done for us—but increasingly it will be done with us or by us. People are already designing their independence from corporate life, their children’s developmental experiences, their own lifelong education and growth, and, finally, their “golden years.” The principles in this section, Design for emergence and Begin anywhere, focus on the ways that non-professional designers are using the process to solve mundane everyday problems such as How can I haul myself out of bed in the morning?, while also tackling much more profound questions: How do I express individuality? How do I balance living well and living responsibly? How do I design an environment that’s conducive to creativity? How how can I age comfortably? And lastly, is it possible to “design happiness”? (Short answer: Yes.)
Whether it’s applied to business, social, or personal challenges, design thinking opens up new avenues of progress, suggesting fresh answers to old and difficult questions. It is about infinite possibilities. And perhaps more than anything else, it’s about optimism. If there’s one quality designers all seem to have in common (aside from a tendency to doodle on napkins), it is their optimism. Where many of us see troubles, they see opportunity—because designers actually thrive on new problems, and the more difficult the better. This would seem to be a good attitude for our current times, with the continuous news cycle of gloom. It’s too easy to become disheartened and even to become part of the problem. On this subject Mau likes to cite his friend, the author Stewart Brand, who has observed that when people believe they’re in the midst of a crisis, they’re more apt to behave selfishly; they circle the wagons.
On the other hand, Mau notes, if people believe they’re living in a time of expanding possibilities, they’ll want to be part of that growth. It’s why Mau has a tendency to relentlessly point out that we’re actually living in a time of unprecedented opportunity and virtually unlimited human capabilities. If that makes Mau seem over-optimistic, he has no problem with that. “A designer does not have the luxury of cynicism,” he says. Mau believes designers must be willing to fall on their faces in pursuit of grand and ridiculous goals. “A cynical designer? That shouldn’t exist,” he says. “That’s a joke.”
More and more designers, along with a growing number of would-be designers, are starting to embrace the anything-is-possible message that Mau plastered on museum walls when he first launched his Massive Change initiative five years ago. Amid all the wondrous designs on display in that exhibit—startling yet modest human inventions that showed how people were using pure ingenuity and basic design skills to address daunting problems—Mau also hung a banner, which invoked the following challenge to all who entered: What if we looked at the world as a design project—how might we begin to make it better?
From GLIMMER by Warren Berger, copyright ©2009. Reprint by permission of The Penguin Press. All rights reserved.