Innovation Gurus: Bruce Mau and John Kao

The big idea to move your company to the next level can happen, if you put in the work -- and play while you're at it.

The Labor of Creativity
A renowned designer of everything from carpets to soft drink packaging to planned communities says that creativity comes from going the extra miles

Method, not myth: Bruce Mau's Legacy.
Method, not myth: Bruce Mau's Legacy.
Photo© Dave Gillespie

"Creativity has been made into a mythology. Certain people have it and certain people don't. The reality is it's hard work." That's the creative wisdom of Bruce Mau, one of the world's most sought-after designers.

Mau--whose company, Bruce Mau Design, has offices in Toronto and Chicago--has made a career of challenging the sacred priesthood of creativity. He demonstrates how to meld big ideas with practical realities and consumer psychology. He is at the vanguard of a movement to transform design from an insular world of magical seers to a practice that can solve problems from sustainability to poverty.

Mau's reputation as a savvy creative tactician has led to a very unorthodox client list, from Guatemalan leaders looking to create a brighter future for their people to Arizona State University, whose president is working with him to redesign higher education. Mau's firm has designed everything from the look of Canada's largest bookstore, Indigo, to the décor of New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey, future home of the New York Jets and Giants.

Belief in the myths, instead of the reality of creating, keeps companies from reaching the pinnacle of inventiveness necessary to stand out in a crowd and grow, Mau says. Chief among the folk tales is the belief that great ideas or product designs spring fully formed from the minds of innovative people. We see the finished result, not the hundreds or thousands of hours that went into spawning, developing, refining, honing, testing, retesting and rethinking. Mau thinks entrepreneurs are too impulsive and don't spend nearly enough time on the crafting, thinking and vetting.

"They look only at the idea, and the real challenge is looking at the idea in context," he says. "You have to look at the market as well as the product. You have to get into the heads of customers. The ability to see the context as well as the object--that's
a design method."

When Mau was hired by architect Frank Gehry to design the signage for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, he tested 5,000 typographic variants. Running the fonts through animation, he and his team invented a new font from imagery that appeared as one font blended into another.

The creative process is far from inscrutable, Mau says. There's an actual methodology that can be taught to others. He's just launched a new business with partner Bisi Williams, the Massive Change Network, to spread design techniques via the web to help solve issues from overpopulation to climate change. He spelled out his keys to the creative process in "The Incomplete Manifesto for Growth," a 43-point menu of strategies and attitudes (see it at brucemaudesign.com).

The gist? Throw out everything you thought you knew about creativity. A few examples:

Keep moving. Allow failure and migration to be part of your practice.

Ask stupid questions. Assess the answer, not the question.

Capture accidents. The wrong answer sometimes is the right one in search of a different question.

With the complex issues facing entrepreneurs, Mau is adamant about the necessity of teams. And, he contends, the difference between great design and design that misses the mark is empathy--the ability to make the human connection.

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Joe Robinson is a productivity and work-life trainer at worktolive.info and author of Work to Live and the Email Overload Survival Kit.

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This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The New Creative Class.

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