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Designing a better future for the planet: MAU film comes to UW–Madison

Upper left half of Bruce Mau’s face. To the right are: a white background with the words “MAU” and “Design the time of your life.” and awards from 3 film festivals.

Legendary designers Bruce Mau and Bisi Williams of Massive Change Network return to campus for documentary screening and Q&A

Written by Nicole Etter

It started as sparks flew around a campfire one evening last autumn. Trudy Watt, academic director of the interdisciplinary Master of Science in Design + Innovation (MD+I) program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, struck up a conversation with a stranger. Soon the conversation turned to life-centered design: how designers could help address the world’s most pressing problems by designing for all life — not just humans.

The new acquaintance offered to introduce Watt to Bruce Mau and Aiyemobisi “Bisi” Williams, the visionaries behind Massive Change Network. The Chicago-based design consultancy takes on bold projects that have spanned everything from designing Coca-Cola’s sustainability platform to rethinking how the faithful move through Islam’s holiest city during the Hajj. Now the organization is leading Massive Action, which aims to empower 100 million designers with the tools of life-centered design.

It’s a vision that aligns beautifully with the MD+I program, which is a collaboration between the School of Human Ecology, College of Engineering, Wisconsin School of Business, iSchool and Art Department.

“Massive Change Network is constantly pushing that forefront of how design directly impacts us in our everyday lives — that our entire world is designed,” Watt says. “That’s tied to the Wisconsin Idea, which is that what we do here at the university is rooted in the public good, fueled by innovation to help people and communities locally and globally live a better life.”

A growing collaboration

Over a series of Zoom conversations, a new collaboration kindled between Massive Change Network and the School of Human Ecology, which houses the department of Design Studies.

“We have a lot of shared motivations for wanting to accelerate the capacity to train designers who can work in all realms, in roles big and small, to accelerate the practices of life-centered design,” Watt says. “We share a real commitment to having an impact in this time of crisis, and we all think that design is the best way to do that.”

A white woman with short, blond, curly hair and blue eyes, wearing a blue jacket with a light blue shirt.
Trudy Watt

Last December, Mau and Williams visited the School of Human Ecology, where they got a closer glimpse at the school’s design thinking across disciplines. During one particularly memorable meeting in Dean Soyeon Shim’s office, the power went out briefly.

“The conversation was so intense that there was literally a blackout in the middle of the conversation, and no one stopped talking to acknowledge the fact that the lights had gone off,” Watt recalls.

During that visit, Mau and Williams also gave an intimate talk to MD+I students and faculty, and some students were moved to tears by the experience. Then in April, around 35 Human Ecology faculty and staff gathered for a manifesto writing workshop with Gretchen Gscheidle, Massive Change Network’s managing director.

“That was a really cool session where we started that work of collaborative dreaming,” Watt explains.

Inviting the public into the conversation

On Sept. 27, Mau and Williams will return to campus again for a screening of MAU, which premiered in 2021 at the SXSW Film & TV Festival. The documentary focuses on Mau and his unlikely path from a hardscrabble childhood in a remote Canadian mining town to his work as a world-renowned designer.

Williams, who is also featured in the documentary, is remarkable in her own right, Watt notes.

“She’s an incredible, complex, non-linear thinker, so she’s a shining example of how to operate as a creative person in the world and be a champion for that kind of thinking,” Watt says.

The film screening will be followed by a Q&A with Mau and Williams.

“Our collaboration is already alive. We’re figuring out how to do things together,” Watt says. “But this public event throws the doors open to so many more people joining the conversation.”

Watt, who believes every human is a designer, hopes that the event will resonate with a wide audience across disciplines.

“We’re all designing our lives every single day, whether you call it that or not,” she says. “And I think learning that, recognizing that and reframing what we do, is kind of turning the lights on.”

Two smiling people in dark clothing pose next to one another. The taller person, who appears to be standing, has short, white hair and white facial hair. The shorter person, who appears to be seated, has long, dark hair and is wearing red lipstick.
Bruce Mau (right, standing) and Aiyemobisi “Bisi” Williams

Solving big problems

Watt and her colleagues plan to continue to grow the concept of life-centered design at the School of Human Ecology. The school, with its focus on interconnections and systems thinking, is fertile territory for those explorations because life-centered design considers the full context of interconnected ecosystems.

“If you think about human-centered design, the kind of goal of that is a happy human. The goal of life-centered design is a happy life,” Mau explained in a recent interview with the Society of Experimental Graphic Design. “So start with humans, but don’t stop there. Take it out to their family, their community, and ultimately to their ecology. And start to think in context, because I think that’s the most problematic dimension of the work that we do. When we solve problems out of context, we can do terrible damage.”

Innovative design solutions are especially needed for children, families and communities to thrive amid the complex and urgent challenges of a changing climate, Watt notes. But the School of Human Ecology is up for the task.

“We’re training students to be changemakers,” Watt says, “so that the generations that come after us are able to see the fruits of that change that we initiate today.”

Join the conversation on Sept. 27

In celebration of UW–Madison Innovate Week, MD+I and the Design Studies department will jointly host a screening of MAU followed by a live Q&A with Massive Change Network co-founders Bruce Mau and Bisi Williams, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 27 at the Deluca Forum, Discovery Building, 330 N. Orchard St. Space is limited; please register in advance at mdi.wisc.edu/event/mau-a-documentary-screening-and-live-qa.