When Canadian designer Bruce Mau was invited to Guatemala to help reimagine the country’s future, they introduced him as Bruce, who was “going to redesign Guatemala”. Although this was a bit of a stretch, the scale at which he helped change the nation’s outlook was similarly huge. Guatemala was originally called Guate by the Indigenous people, but the Spanish later added mala, meaning bad. Mau’s first move was to add an “a”, creating “Guate! Amala!,” or “The love of Guate.” The slogan was part of a larger campaign to shine a positive light on the country, showcase the people working to improve their country, and recruit a thousand volunteers to help spread these messages. They received 20,000 sign ups in the first weekend.
This large-scale, systemic thinking and the man behind it is the focus of Mau, a feature-length documentary directed by Austrian documentarians Benji and Jono Bergmann that traces Mau’s life and career, drawing connections between his unique ability to speculate on possible futures and his own upbringing in the rural Canadian mining town of Sudbury. “My first design project was designing my own life,” Mau earnestly explains in the film. “Understanding that I would not accept what it was and I would have to create a new one.” Before leaving for Toronto for college, Mau had never left Sudbury, a nickel mining town whose landscape was so violently altered by the industry that Nasa used the black, chemical-poisoned terrain to train astronauts for moon missions. Mau’s upbringing was nothing short of abject: his father was a miner and a violent, alcoholic “maniac”.
Mau’s personal journey – the unlikely transcendence of this childhood to become the world’s leading graphic designer – provides a strong, relatable storyline that anchors the film. Inspired by Montreal’s Expo 67, Mau embarked on a long design career. His list of accomplishments is singularly impressive, from the seminal book S,M,L,XL that Mau designed in close collaboration with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to the iconic graphic identity for Zone Books. Eventually expanding his scope to all types of design, he was enlisted by brands like MTV and Disney. For Coca-Cola, Mau helped reimagine what corporate responsibility might mean for a corporation viewed by many as part of the problem. He is credited by their leadership as helping spark a new way of thinking with their organization. When Mau was asked to reimagine the Muslim holy city of Mecca, he responded to the project brief with his own: Let’s not design for the next ten years, let’s design for the next 1,000 years. Not everyone could think through these huge design problems.
The film is fun and easy to watch with an upbeat tone and pacing that matches Mau’s likable energy and what he calls “fact-based optimism”. He urges viewers to ignore the media’s negativity, instead focusing on the myriad ways in which people are collaborating across borders, religions and languages. “When things are bad and getting worse, people do what makes sense. They behave selfishly. They close the border, they lock the doors. When people see that we are investing in the future, they behave in the opposite way, they come out, they contribute, they want to be in.”
The message of being positive and optimistic is extremely refreshing and important today, especially in the face of algorithmic filter bubbles of outrage and doomscrolling that have turned many to pessimism, including large swaths of the creative class. “If you are a designer, your responsibility is to inspire people. We can’t make people go, we can only inspire them,” Mau says in the film. “You cannot make them do new things. The way we will change the world is by leadership, by design, by inspiration.”
The film plays another vital role: laying bare and revealing the paradoxes of the way design is sold to the public. In the film, a who’s who of design’s leading public speakers give effusive praise for Mau, bordering on advertisement – often without specificity. In a culture of WeWork-style salesmanship and a design media that repeats even the most absurd claims about design’s effects, the messaging around design’s possibilities often veers into out-of-touch paternalism from a small group of elites. The film at times falls into this trap, which distracts from Mau’s real talents and tangible, remarkable successes. It also raises real questions about how the public can buy into big ideas about how to improve society through design.
Nonetheless, the positivity and optimism Mau espouses is much needed today, and the film captures this spirit. The message is simple: you have to design the world the way you want it, whether rethinking an entire country, or simply designing the life you want. While not everyone has the luxury to “only work on what you love”, we all have – to some degree – the ability to choose our own path. Whether for changing our own lives or the collective buy-in to solve the world’s biggest problems, design can be applied to everything. Mau connects the dots in an entertaining portrait of a generational talent who has perfected the craft of design.