Philly Art Museum recognizes Bruce Mau, visionary designer — of ideas

 Bruce Mau's retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art explores the design of design. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Bruce Mau's retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art explores the design of design. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Every year, the Philadelphia Museum of Art gives its Design Excellence Award to a visionary architect or designer of things. This year the award is given to Bruce Mau, a designer of ideas.


Mau dropped out of art school in Toronto in 1980 and started working as a graphic designer. He made his name designing art books. He collaborated on hundreds of titles, 200 of which are on display in the Art Museum’s Perelman Building.

He said the medium of the book will not die as long as it is designed to accentuate its unique attribute: aura.

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“Aura is something you can’t decide on. It gets carried in the culture,” said Mau. “The book has the aura of importance.”

Mau has made a successful career not so much designing objects (which he can do, if asked) but crafting social reaction. He is a champion of geodesign, an emerging field wherein designers take on social, political, and urban issues by applying design principles.

Mau has been hired to improve corporate branding, workplace culture, even whole countries. In 2004, the government of Guatemala hired him to design cultural optimism, a system by which Guatemalans are able to feel better about their own future.

“People just asked me to design more and more stuff,” said Mau. “‘Could you apply that way of thinking to this social problem, or to our institution, to our government, or to the systematic delivery of our product?'”

Mau has even attempted to design design. He created the Massive Change Project, a set of 24 principles that can be taught to clients, who will learn to design their own solutions. Nine of those principles are explained in the exhibition, including “First Inspire: Design is Leadership, Lead by Design;” “Begin With Fact Based Optimism;” “Design the Platform for Constant Change.”

Mau has just accepted the title of chief design officer with Freeman, a company that makes exposition displays and immersive environments. He will serve on an executive level in addition to his independent consulting work. Freeman has been a client of Mau’s: he designed the product workflow and company culture among Freeman’s own employees.

One of his upcoming collaborative products is the Personal Black Box, a software application that retains data of your online activity — data often clandestinely bought and sold on the digital black market. The application allows the user to retain that information in a locked digital trust, such that even the administrators of Personal Black Box have no access to it.

Mau designed the trust’s legal structure. 

“You need different inputs and different expertise, but the same methodology is there,” said Mau. “Apply it in your business, government, educational institution, your culture. It’s a methodology that is product agnostic, meaning whatever problem you put in, it will solve that problem.”

This Massive Change system will be demonstrated during the run of the exhibition with three Philadelphia institutions who will work through their problems under the guidance of Bruce Mau. The results of the workshops with Fleischer Art Memorial, the Penn School of Design, and Taller Puertorriqueño will be incorporated into the exhibition.

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