Summer 2005

What’s it all about, Bruce?

Massive Change: The Future of Global Design

By Bruce Mau and the Institute without Boundaries. Phaidon Press, £19.95

Incorporating a book, exhibition, website, and even a radio show, Massive Change is flamboyantly tagged as being ‘not about the world of design’ but ‘about the design of the world’. Central to Mau’s vision is the view that ‘design’ should no longer be seen as something located within the traditional areas of visual communication, architecture, or product design; rather, it is a practice central to all forms of human invention and endeavour. Mau himself has long since dropped the appellation ‘graphic’ to become simply a ‘designer’, and it is this desire to break down the traditional typologies and patterns of ordering our visual culture that informs much of Massive Change. The book is divided into eleven chapters, with each section taking as its focus a different ‘economy’. This concept allows Mau to draw connections between areas normally circumscribed by professional demarcations. Thus, instead of graphic design we have ‘information economies’, instead of architecture we have ‘urban economies’. These areas are joined by ‘movement economies’, ‘energy economies’ and so on. Each section contains a brief introduction to the subject, followed by an interview with a key pioneer in his or her field. Many of these particpants would never be considered as designers by themselves or others. Yet, as Mau himself notes ‘if you listen carefully, they (and others like them) use the word design to describe their work; they speak about designing systems, designing organisations, designing organisms, designing programs.’ While this is an appealing venture, this reader quickly became confused as to what Mau means by ‘designing’. When one word signifies a sizeable range of very different activities, it will sooner or later begin to lose any meaning. As such, Massive Change is often in danger of acting like a floating signifier, seeming to attach itself to a diverse and often contradictory range of projects and individuals, ultimately at the expense of any deep and lasting meaning. In search for solidity one is often left with Mau himself, advantageously positioned as the orchestrator of what ‘designing’ now means: the referent to the sign.

The interview format of Massive Change is a continuation of Mau’s other projects that have highlighted the heroic realisation of style. For example, while primarily charting the work of his studio, the opulent monograph Life Style also served as a compendium of Mau’s design heroes. It was a book that sought to endow ‘style’ with a weight and import normally ascribed to content; a ‘philosophical project’, as Mau termed it, that looked beyond our superficial reading and understanding of style in shaping life. Immense technological change informed many of the critical comments Mau made about design in Life Style. He outlined a conscious engagement of design’s ability to generate ‘improvements’ to modern life. In many ways, this focus served as the first step towards a science of style that finds its apotheosis in Massive Change. Central to this approach there appears to be an implicit assumption on Mau’s part that the only form of worthwhile knowledge is scientific knowledge.

As the two governing forces within contemporary society – science and capitalism – are now so entwined, any new discovery – be it at the molecular level, in the form of new technological innovations, or new modes of communication – is automatically assessed in the light of its profit-making potential. In an ideological slight of hand, Mau continually naturalises this decidedly historical situation through metaphors that point to an equivalence between the body or the natural environment and capitalism. For example: ‘Visa has elements of Jeffersonian democracy, it has elements of the free market, of government franchising – almost every kind of organization you can think about. But it’s none of them. Like the body, the brain, and the biosphere, it’s largely self-organizing.’

Unsurprisingly, such thinking leads Mau to a conception of ‘design’ that is primarily centred upon the areas of measurable quantity, or what he has termed an ‘aesthetics of capacity’. By this he has foregone the usual design obsessions around questions of form colour, shape and texture, in favour of a quantifiable assessment of design’s ability to facilitate volume, number, and usage. Yet, so enamoured is it by the scientific-capitalist dynamic, Mau’s approach negates alternative ways of understanding the material world, ways that offer an awareness and insight that operate alongside (and beyond) that of science. This desire to situate design within a scientific paradigm can lead to some absurd manoeuvring, such as the section on the image economy where the scientific straitjacket reduces any discussion of a wider image world to an analysis of astronomical and sub-atomic photography.

The question of a design economy fuelled by a historically specific political system appears not to worry Mau. It appears that he has fully bought into the late eighteenth-century myth of perpetual progress. Originally arising from the necessary desire to reveal the achievements of man as originator of his own being, this has been transmogrified through Mau’s hand into the designer as creator. In the guise of the expeller of superstition and liberator from the shackles of tradition, Mau’s scientific-creator becomes the idealised persona of the thinking designer. Admittedly, the scientific method is, in itself, not problematical. But the difficulty with Massive Change is not to be found in science per se. Rather, it lies in its Mau’s championing of a kind of quasi-scientific capitalism that appears to marginalise any other form of design practice.

For all Massive Change’s revelations of excellent developments in mobility for the disabled, or new programmes for women’s health, designing is more often than not presented as a question of quantitative output, with innovation framed as a way of advancing ‘the economy’. Ultimately, you are left with the question of what Massive Change is all about. The series of contradictory slogans that peppers the book leaves you doubting whether you have fully understood Mau’s agenda. In the end, however, this sensation of confusion appears to be an intended one. As with Life Style, the inconsistent reasoning is calculated to unbalance the reader, to make them think. Yet, disconcertingly for a book proffering supposedly ‘democratic’ applications of design, the outcome is that Bruce Mau himself remains the only constant.