Bruce Mau Design and Vision

‘Who is Bruce Mau?’ is the opening line of brothers Benji and Jono Bergmann’s documentary “Mau,” which premiered at SXSW Film Festival on March 18. The prompt is immediately met with responses ranging from “designer” to “alien.” The film’s 76-minute runtime holistically answers the question. 

“Mau” offers an in-depth look at Bruce Mau design, life and career. It hones in on his optimism, perseverance, and vision that makes him a renowned designer.

Mau’s Life and Wife

Throughout “Mau,” snippets of friends, colleagues, and experts — including several clips of his wife Bisi Williams — reveal that Mau is anything but a conventional designer. The doc shows Bruce Mau design achievements, which are vast—from Sudbury to MoMA, Coca-Cola, Mecca, and Guatemala.

In 1995, Mau partnered with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to write “S, M, L, XL,” which went on to become a design bible of sorts. He was invited to redesign the visual identity of MoMA and to help Coca-Cola rebrand itself through the eco-friendly “Live Positively” campaign. To boot, Mau took on global projects with the invitation to redesign Mecca and the entire nation of Guatemala

The filmmakers, the Bergmann brothers, contrast these bright, bold, and colorful achievements with a retrospective. The doc looks at Mau’s early life in the dreary “chemical desert” of Sudbury, Ontario. Amongst the nickel-mining and coal-like landscape, it is revealed that Mau’s father was an abusive alcoholic and that his parents were hardly supportive of his ambitions. 

He spent cold winter mornings fetching water — bucket by bucket — for his household and navigated the wilderness surrounding his home. For years, Mau’s primary escape from Sudbury was a black and white television. The TV offered him a glimpse into the world of innovation and design. 

Bruce Mau Principles for Change

Much like that TV, Bruce Mau design mimics his approach to life. Life and design are black and white. His view is recognize a problem, then create and follow a system to solve that problem. His 2020 book “MC24” details the designer’s 24 principles for massive change, which are meant to be applied both inside and outside of the professional design world. 

The principles are concise pearls of wisdom, each condensed into short phrases, meant to “overhaul the way you think about your life and work.” These principles encourage people to do things like “work on what you love” and “rise above the noise” in their day-to-day lives. 

Life Is Black and White

Bruce Mau design choices and and how he lives progresses in accordance with his principles. While they may seem empty on the surface, the film grounds these matter-of-fact principles in Mau’s own life. This culminates near the end of the film, after the audience is immersed in the impressive fast lane of Mau’s mind and impacts.

The designer visits his childhood home for the first time in 25 years. Abandoned, woodsy, and covered in snow, Mau remarks on unhappy memories that drove him to persevere. He did this by carving out a new and fulfilling life for himself.

Unhappy Childhood Memories

Mau said, “If you’re growing up in that environment, you develop a vigilance of seeing. You develop a very fine-tune way of looking to see what’s going on…that vigilance of seeing is also a big part of my work. I look at things in a way that a lot of people don’t.” This sequence finishes with  Mau’s “think like you are lost in the forest.” Speaking from his own experience, Mau encourages people to design, think, and “do” as if their lives depended on it. 

Bruce Mau Design Exhibits

“Massive Change” and “Massive Action”

It is evident that Mau’s career and impacts are ones of great scale. The film captures his ability to problem solve through design. And this doc highlights his recent stints in encouraging fellow creators to do the same. Bruce Mau design exhibitions “Massive Change” and “Massive Action” have galvanized young thinkers to design the world positively and sustainably.

He states, “It’s not about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world and our capacity to shape the world.” After viewing the film, viewers are able to answer the question “Who is Bruce Mau?” From secluded Sudbury to the rest of the world, Bruce Mau is a big thinker and a positive influence in global design and everyday life—a visionary.