Harvard Graduate School of Design, Class Day Speech, 2012
Bruce Mau, May 23, 2012
I am thrilled to be here.
I am here to talk to you about the power you now have — the power of design:
The power to analyze and create;
The power to visualize the future;
The power to shape the world;
The power to provide leadership;
The power to design.
I want to explore what that power can mean and what you can accomplish with your power.
I will address the responsibility that comes with that power, and the urgent need I have for your help. The urgent need that the world has for your talent and energy and power to design.
Everyone making a class day speech starts with “I’m honored to be here.” I’m also honored to be here. Deeply honored. I want to thank the students for inviting me here. And congratulate all of you and your parents on this extraordinary accomplishment.
But I’m thrilled to be here.
That’s different. You can’t possibly know how thrilled I am. Partly because I’m Canadian and this is what a Canadian looks like when they are super excited, and partly because my story of getting here is almost unbelievable, and for the most part unknown. For most of my life I was embarrassed by my story. Only recently I have realized how important it can be to others.
I grew up outside a mining town, six hours north of Toronto. That far north, the temperature was minus 40 for weeks on end. In the dead of winter the men went a mile down into the earth in the darkness, and at the end of their shift came out again in the darkness. They wouldn’t see sunlight for days and weeks at a time. There was some pretty strange behavior.
Alcoholism was rampant. Violence was off the charts. Divorce was epidemic. All the furniture in the local “hotel,” as the bar was called, was bolted down. Otherwise the men would bust it up, and bust up each other. There were three local past-times besides hunting: hockey, drinking, and fighting — preferably all at once.
In fact, my father was a violent alcoholic who physically abused his wife and family for almost twenty years.
One night everything changed for me.
My father came home after the bars had closed with a man named Pepper Martin. Pepper looked like he sounded; wiley, wirey and tough. The two men proceeded to drink bottles of whiskey and play cards to the blasting refrain of Hank Snow and Patsy Cline on the hifi till the early hours of the morning — oblivious to the fact that the whole house was awakened by this.
Now Pepper Martin lived only a few houses away in our subdivision, in a classic suburban bungalow just like ours. Nonetheless, my father was surprised when Pepper announced that he was going to bed, and it was time for my father to go home. My father explained that Pepper was his guest, and that it was Pepper who would have to leave. Pepper looked around in his drunken haze and saw a house that looked pretty much like his own, and reasserted that, NO, there was no way that HE, Pepper Martin, was going to be thrown out of his own house. It was my father who would have to go.
The sprawling, sloppy, ugly brawl that ensued as my father tried to force Pepper Martin out of our house, and into his car in the drive way, was a low point of a life at the bottom. I watched as the two men crashed through the glass of our screen door and both were bloodied and wounded.
That night, without knowing how, or even how to think about how, I determined that I would live differently. I had no idea how to do it. We had no books in our house. My parents did not own books. Imagine a life without books. I had never heard the word design. That night I decided that I would dedicate myself to creating a different way of life. A life in a different place. A different way of being in the world. A life against violence. A life of beauty and ideas and books and art. I was twelve.
Fortunately for me, the sixties happened, the civil rights movement and women’s liberation happened, and way up there in Northern Canada, my mother finally found the liberty and strength to gather her five children and leave her husband.
We moved to a farm in the wilderness, the last farm on a five-mile dirt road into the Canadian Shield. The forest beyond our house opened onto thousands of miles of crown land. You could see Russia from my porch. Next stop Moscow, Soviet Union.
Our farmhouse was built on a rock outcrop and in the coldest winter months there was no way to get running water into the house. The house was heated with a wood stove. In the winter I would wake to tiny snowdrifts on the floor of my attic room. My job as a young man was to provide the house with water from the well in the valley. Every day I drove a snowmobile down the valley and back up with drums of fresh water. (This is an experience that I share with 12% of the world. 12% do not have access to clean water.)
I loved it. Things were looking up.
That’s right. After knowing only random explosive violence — freedom and a good night’s sleep were a treasure.
I went out into the forest, and I learned how to hunt, we grew crops for food and we raised animals. I had a trap line that I checked every morning before going to school. I learned how to butcher. I’m one of the few designers that can put a pig or a moose into the freezer if you need to. Our farming community was an unregulated place where people did what they needed to do. If you needed a building — you built it. We built houses and barns and outbuildings. There were no designers or architects. No one ever got a permit — for anything. We had total freedom to solve problems. We did the best we could.
That process of relying on your wits and constantly solving problems is central to my way of thinking and working and designing.
I realize now that the experience of life in the wilderness, life on the farm, was critical to my creative development and my success as an entrepreneurial designer. I learned about the cycles of life. I learned what it takes to provide food for your family. I learned hard work. I learned free thinking. I learned to rely on myself and others.
I went to high school.
Probably like most of you, I was a strange kid.
As I got older I didn’t like hunting and hockey.
In Canada, that would be like a Swiss boy not liking chocolate and coo-coo clocks, or an American boy not liking guns and football.
Instead I loved drawing and photography.
And television. We had a tiny black and white TV and on that screen I discovered the world that I had imagined might exist. We had two channels. French and English. Both CBC.
I saw a man walk on the moon. I saw Bugs Bunny and at the opening of the Show I would get behind the TV and march in with all the other characters. I saw the Wonderful World of Disney and his vision for a creative enterprise. But the most important thing I discovered on that flickering screen was the city. I saw Toronto! And other Amazing Cities! Cities that I wanted to live in and experience.
To get to high school every day, I had to travel thirty miles by bus through a dead zone. For thirty miles around the toxic mining and smelting facilities, the sulphuric pollution had turned everything black. Not a blade of grass grew. For thirty miles in every direction the landscape was rock and dust, black and gray. You could see it from space. When Nasa wanted to teach astronauts how to drive their car on the moon, they brought them to my hometown because it was the closest thing on the planet to the desolate lifeless surface of the moon.
The most amazing thing about the dead zone was that nobody mentioned it. Not once. Not once did someone say “Holy cow! Thirty miles of death! What the hell happened here?” No, we just sat on the bus and read or chatted as if it was perfectly normal to drive to school through thirty miles of chemical desert. I learned the power of the norm and how capable we are of adapting to even the most extreme conditions.
As I approached the end of high school, my love of drawing and photography eventually overwhelmed all my other interests. I stopped hockey and shooting animals and started drawing and photographing them. I decided at the last moment to apply to art school even though I hadn’t ever met an artist or anyone who had gone to art school — and no one in my family had ever gone to college.
I went to the guidance office and declared my true love. During my high school years I had studied science and math to the exclusion of almost everything else — I had a job in the school as the lab technician (see also nerd) — but now I wanted to go to art school.
“It’s too late.” was the response.
“I’m sixteen years old, it can’t be too late. Other people must have the problem that I do.” That was my first big design idea. If you have a problem, think about whom else has the same problem and look at what they did to solve it.
I was sent eventually to a man named Jack Smith. He ran a program at another school called Special Art, for people just like me, people who wanted to go to art school but couldn’t get in. I would have to spend an extra year in high school — if he would accept me.
I spent that year with Jack Smith and it was the most amazing year of my life. He taught me photography and full color offset printing. He taught me ceramics and printmaking and typography. I was experiencing a taste of the life I had imagined at twelve — and I fell in love. I did nothing else. I worked constantly. I took the bus to school at 7:00 am and hitch hiked home the 30 miles after the school closed at 10:00 at night.
He gave me what I needed to get into art school — in the city. I will never forget my first visit. I took the night bus and arrived for the first time early Sunday morning in the center of Toronto wearing a plaid lumberjack shirt and work boots. I was accepted to the Ontario College of Art — the only school I applied to.
It would be a rough and short ride. I couldn’t understand the rules and the bureaucracy and the culture of control. I thought I was supposed to be in an ART school. Turned out I was in an art SCHOOL. After 18 difficult months I lost confidence in the school and was offered a job as a designer, which seemed pretty easy to me, even though I hadn’t studied design. I left the college.
I became a designer.
I discovered that the life of a designer is the life that I imagined. It is a life in a different place. A life against violence. A life of beauty and ideas and books and art. A way of being in the world.
I became a designer and I never wanted to go back to that place of violence. (I was afraid that if I went back there I might slide back into that valley of darkness.) I left my life in the wilderness and became an urban dweller. I lived in cities and worked in a world of cities. I couldn’t understand how my life on the farm in the forest could be relevant in any way to my city life.
I started work in communication design, graphic design, at a time when communication, business and life were being profoundly transformed. When I started work as a designer people were still using hot metal type. Gutenberg technology was still used for newspapers. The photocopier was a new technology. Fedex was new. Fax was new. The computer had not yet been introduced to the workplace. The internet was still a military operation. No cell phones. No Facebook. No google. No ipad. No apps. Imagine working without a computer and the internet.
These technologies along with many others created a revolution of possibility. They destabilized the world and made it possible to live in Toronto and work in the world. They would foster a new world of information transparency where there is no longer back of house, no longer a separation between what you say and what you do. They would create a new context where everything you do is visible and always telling your story — everything is communicating whether you like it or not.
In a context where everything communicates, everything must be designed. I set up a studio and for 25 years I worked with people and businesses and governments and institutions who asked me to design more and more of what they were doing. This expansion of my definition and practice of design happened organically. Clients and collaborators wanted to explore what would happen if I applied my way of design to the mandate of an institution, or the experience of a football stadium, or the strategy of a business school, or the vision for the future of a country. The definition of design and what it was capable of seemed to expand with every project.
Over those 25 years I was fortunate to work with absolutely extraordinary people. I had an idea early on that there was a very thin film or layer around the earth with very few particles very widely dispersed. Those particles were the people that I needed to work with. They were the people I was looking for — and they were looking for me. There was a man named Sanford Kwinter in New York. He was the first to insist that what I was doing was authorship. There was a philosopher in Paris. There was an architect in Rotterdam; an economist in Japan; an architect in Los Angeles.
For those people to find me, I needed to put out a clear and pure signal. If I muddied the message they would never find me. If there is one piece of advice in my talk today — this is it. Be true to your voice. Express your commitment. Be pure. Stay the course with clarity. Only by broadcasting your honest signal, telling the world who you are with truth and clarity will the people you need be able to find you.
Over time, I realized that in a world of constant change, I needed to know where the world was going in order to understand where the greatest opportunities would be, and where I could make the greatest contribution. I began to do my own research and work to map out the shifting context. I began producing what I came to think of as Context Projects. Projects to explore and map the changing world around me and to define design and the way that I would practice.
In that process I became an author.
When I made a project called Massive Change I discovered something that would once again transform my work and life. I was asked by the Vancouver Art Gallery to do a major exhibition on the future of design.
In my research I found an extraordinary quote by a British Historian named Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee had written a twenty-volume history of the world and declared that in the long sweep of history the twentieth century would not be known for either technology and innovation or violence and conflict. Instead it would be remembered as an “era in which we dared to imagine the welfare of the entire human race as a practical objective.”
When I read that I thought, “Wow! That is the biggest idea I have ever heard. That is the place of design I have been living. That is what every designer I know is committed to — even if they might not say it that way.”
I set up a design education prototype to produce the project. The institute without Boundaries was a purpose-driven, entrepreneurial, experience based design education experiment. We took a very tough challenge — an exhibition on the future of design — and did it in a very public context and in doing so accelerated entrepreneurial design learning.
This idea of design as the method we would use to address the “welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective” was profoundly optimistic. But the mood of the day was quite gloomy. It still is. Almost everyone I knew told me I was nuts, especially older people. They said, “We should have done that but we didn’t. Don’t go there. The world is going to hell in a handcart and design is driving it there.”
My own experience told me otherwise. I saw a movement all over the world of people committed to solving the problems we were facing. I saw people collaborating across boundaries of language and religion and nationality and discipline to design and develop solutions to problems that have vexed us in some cases since the beginning of time. Even though we have a grindingly negative media structurally focused on violence and conflict, the dominant story of our time is Massive Change — collaboration, optimism, and design.
I once told my wife that if we published a newspaper called Reality, it would be a mile thick. The first quarter inch is the New York Times, and it scares the hell out of you. The rest of the mile is Massive Change. Somehow the biggest movement in human history is not a story. It is as if the image of our goodness is so beautiful that we can’t bear to look at it directly.
We produced Massive Change and in the process met a few hundred of the world’s great innovators and designers solving the greatest challenges of our time.
Massive Change opened in Vancouver to great success and I thought we had nailed it. But I visited a high school in Vancouver and a group of students told me they liked the idea but I wasn’t thinking big enough. I said, “It’s the welfare of all mankind as a practical objective — what could be bigger than that?” They said, “Take out “all mankind” and replace it with “all of life” — that is our project: the welfare of all of life as a practical objective.”
When Massive Change went to Chicago, my wife and I moved our family with it. I was given an honorary doctorate at the School of the Art Institute, and became the Bill and Stephanie Sick Distinguished Professor and a Distinguished Fellow at the Segal Design Institute at the School of Engineering, Northwestern University. We began a process of setting up something like an Institute without Boundaries in Chicago in the great tradition of Moholy Nagy’s New Bauhaus, and Stanley Tigerman’s Archeworks.
In the process of that work I discovered something that is profoundly disorienting. That while we think most people go to college, even in America 70% do not access that important experience, and that number drops to 1% when we include the rest of the world. We realized that we were going about this all wrong. We were facing the wrong direction. We had to turn around and think about how to bring the power and promise of design to the 99%.
So almost two years ago I fired myself. I quit working with the Toronto studio I had created and focused on designing Design Education.
We set up the Massive Change Network, committed to taking the power of design to as many people as possible. We could see a vision for the future of design that was about leadership. We defined design as leadership and that is the power that you now hold.
Having graduated from Harvard, you have the power to shape the world. You also have the responsibility. You have the power to envision a better future, visualize that destination and inspire people to work with you to go there, and systematically work to realize that vision. That is the definition of leadership and you have the most advanced methodology of leadership possible — design leadership.
I hope that you will not confine your design leadership to the classical field of design because the world needs you now in every field.
The world needs your design leadership in business. Design will be the method by which we take business to sustainable practice.
The world needs your design leadership in government. We must transform our systems and methods of governance and design is the key to accomplish this.
The world needs your design leadership in education. We are still using methods of education from the 19th century.
I have dedicated myself to design education, and overcoming the limitations of our current systems of higher education. I have dedicated myself to massive change. We are committed to designing low cost access to the tools that you now have, and providing access to the greatest number of people possible.
And here is the absolutely audacious part. I know that to reach the 99% who have not had access to the extraordinary tools and methods, concepts and knowledge that you now have, we will need your expertise, your energy, your talent, your commitment. I ask you to join me in this ambition. And together we will change the world.
Together we will allow people around the world to live a life in a different place. A different way of being in the world. A life against violence. A life of beauty and ideas and books and art.
I will end with one post script: I have gone back to my home town to work with the University there, Laurentian University. And I was thrilled to discover that the dead zone has been redesigned. It is now a recovering ecology, greener and healthier with every passing year.
So here I am today, addressing the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University with only a high school education, or, “some college” as online surveys describe it. That is why I am thrilled to be here. Oh yes, I am honored. But more importantly — I am thrilled!
Congratulations to the Harvard University Graduate School of Design
Class of 2012