A Look at Mau's Massive Change

The renowned Toronto designer's show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago challenges design to solve the world's problems

What do a featherless chicken, Wal-Mart's (WMT) logistics system, and an economic theory on homeownership have in common? To Bruce Mau, they all demonstrate the power of design-oriented thinking in the innovation process.

These examples and far more are packed into Massive Change, the multimedia exhibit that made its U.S. debut Sept. 16 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The exhibit is the brainchild of Mau, a Toronto designer internationally renowned for his graphics work. But of all the points the show makes, and it makes many, the most obvious is how far design reaches in our lives, beyond visual expression and product development.

The show presents design as a method of creative problem-solving that can be applied to large social problems such as hunger, housing shortages, or energy for the Third World. "We have to liberate design from fixating on the visual," says Mau. "Instead we wanted to think about design as the capacity to effect change."


  To go beyond the visual in a venue that is primarily visual—an art museum—is no easy task. Mau does this with text. The exhibition's white walls are covered with striking black print, often floor to ceiling, to introduce Mau's concepts. "Now that we can do anything, what will we do?" the text above the show's entrance says.

For the show's organizing principle, Mau uses a word that has more currency with businessmen than traditional designers: economies. Sections of the show are dedicated to the movement economy, the urban economy, the market economy, the energy economy, and the living economy. Displays of real items in each section bring the show to life, such as the $100 laptop computer with a wind-up crank to generate power that appears in the manufacturing economy.

Like low-cost computing for the developing world, each section contains solutions to problems that vex society, solutions from scientists, businesspeople, economists, and inventors. The living economy section, for example, deals with science's growing capacity to genetically alter animals, crops, and ultimately humans. One display shows a featherless chicken, bred to prosper in hot climates. Text gives the positive and negative impacts of such a bird and asks viewers to vote on whether it should exist.


  Included in the market economy is Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's invention of the world's most efficient retail system. While noting that the system is often "disruptive," the show stresses the benefits of low prices to consumers. On display in that section, too, is Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto's theory on property-law change and how it can benefit the poor.

Mau developed Massive Change when given an free hand earlier this decade to create a design exhibit for the Vancouver Art Gallery. What irritated him at that time and "still irritates me," he says, is society's pessimism. He felt most people were missing the fact that "we had developed a capacity to solve problems that had vexed us for decades, a thousand years," Mau says.

As he dug into creating the exhibit, which opened in Vancouver in late 2004, Mau's guiding words became those of the late English historian Arnold Toynbee. The historian said the 20th century won't be remembered for conflicts or inventions, "but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective."


  Mau is not alone in viewing design as more than creating nice-looking things. Some design schools, such as the Institute of Design in Chicago, are teaching design as a methodology for solving complex problems. At the heart of this method is the designer's ability to synthesize information in new ways, says Larry Keeley, a professor and board member at the institute.

This is not lost on businesses, which are increasingly hiring designers outside their traditional roles to bring a new way of thinking to their operations. The University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management has added design to its curriculum, while Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design has created collaborative programs with the university's other professional schools. "[Massive Change] is part of a larger zeitgeist," says Elizabeth Smith, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art.


  Indeed, what's striking about Massive Change is how Mau crossed so many disciplines in pulling together the different strands of the exhibit. "We actually use design more intelligently in our colloquial language than we do in our professional language," says Mau. "In our professional language we keep those boundaries as strictly as possible."

"We will create urban shelter for the entire world population," says text in the urban economies section, which focuses on housing needs. "Two billion people live in the dark," says a wall in energy economy, which offers energy solutions. Some have criticized Massive Change as being too utopian and too ambitious in its belief in the changes design can make. It definitely poses big goals. But most people leaving the exhibit won't blame Mau for trying.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.