The Influence

For curator Ewan McEoin, Bruce Mau’s book Massive Change opened a new perspective on the very definition of design. By Neha Kale.

Ewan McEoin

Canadian designer Bruce Mau, and Ewan McEoin (below).
Canadian designer Bruce Mau, and Ewan McEoin (below).
Credit: Bruce Mau Studio (above), Mackenzie Sweetnam / Getty Images (below)

Ewan McEoin is the senior curator of contemporary art, design and architecture at the National Gallery of Victoria. Growing up with an architect father and a mother who ran a fashion label, he had an acute sense of the way design could shape and reshape the world. For McEoin, who studied environmental science and went on to edit magazines, it’s a philosophy that’s best articulated by the renowned Canadian designer Bruce Mau.

McEoin is currently preparing for the ninth edition of the Rigg Design Prize, a triennial award for contemporary design that this year will focus for the first time on advertising and visual communication. Here he speaks about his admiration for Mau’s Massive Change, a 2004 book and accompanying exhibition that heralded the idea of design as a set of interrelated systems with powerful implications for how we live today.

You’ve long been drawn to Massive Change, a seminal 2004 book by Bruce Mau and the Institute Without Boundaries. When did you first come across Bruce’s work?

I had worked for several years editing what was then Australia’s leading interior design journal, (inside) – Australian Design Review [now inside magazine]. As someone who was interested in environmental issues, I became disillusioned because it was all chairs and lights and taps. It was very commercial and too narrow for my way of thinking. In 2002, I went to Western Australia for Designing Futures, a conference curated by [non-profit organisation] Form, where Bruce Mau was the keynote speaker.
I was responsible for looking after Bruce and his wife. When he presented Massive Change, it crystallised a lot of the things I’d been thinking about. His argument is that we’ve redesigned everything: the food system, cities, transport, networks, military infrastructure. The central proposition of Massive Change is that now that we have designed everything, what do we want to design? I confided in Bruce that I was thinking about quitting my job. And he said, why don’t you just change the magazine? So then inside became a magazine for creative thinkers. It set me on a course where I think about design on a much more meta level.

There are many misconceptions about design just being aesthetic. I have read that Bruce had an adverse upbringing – he talks about his father being an alcoholic and the sense of being able to design your life.

There’s a quote in the book that is kind of interesting – it says that design is invisible until it fails. This idea that the secret ambition of design is to be taken up into the culture, absorbed into the background – the highest order of design is to achieve ubiquity. Embedded in the Rigg Design Prize is that we can’t see design as something by a designer that’s graduated from a design school. It is a force that is shaping the future of our country.

Massive Change’s subtitle is A Manifesto for the Future of Global Design. The book covered everything from urbanism and architecture to wealth and the military. Now, the notion that design can change the world is everywhere, but in 2004 it was revelatory. What makes the book such a powerful cultural document?

Maybe it wasn’t the first book to do this, but it just expanded the subject by a multiple of 10. My experience of design publishing is that there might have been critical thinking around the aesthetics of design but we didn’t see [its connection to] labour and resources, extractive systems and economies. He understood and articulates through the book how these things are all interconnected systems.

It raised a lot of important moral questions. I remember Bruce talking about the moral conundrums of genetically modified food. In 2002, there was a famine in sub-Saharan Africa and Bruce used the example of golden rice. If we have the capability to genetically modify food that will prevent people from dying of malnutrition, the opposition to genetic modification should be placed alongside the actual benefit. If we think about the debate that is going on about artificial intelligence and military technologies, we fear AI when it gets attached to machineguns. To me, Bruce introduced a new moral framework. Even someone designing single-use plastic packaging is a creative person, using creative intelligence to design potentially problematic outcomes.

There’s this sense of design being part of larger power structures. One of the most striking elements of Massive Change is a series of aphorisms that address – and provide solutions for – everything from war to waste to poverty and shelter.

At the end of the ’90s, design was all about the superstar designers. Design was still locked in a 20th-century mindset. I’ve always said I need to look forwards, not backwards. We want to shape change, not report on it. Frankly, if I have time and energy I want to create change. I respect curators who record, but that is not my role in this world. What Massive Change balanced well is [it understood] you have to be optimistic, you have to have a positive headspace – but to do that, you have to be real about what the problems are.

Massive Change practised what Bruce calls “radical optimism” and he has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands – but some critics argue that it’s impossible to separate brands from the capitalist systems they are part of. What are the limits of Massive Change?

I subscribe to the idea of responsibility and transparency being placed on the origin of the problem. I’m not interested in responsibilities being transferred to consumers. That is a sophisticated system that has developed for a century or more. I have no problem with a designer working with a mega brand. It’s about what they do when they are there. If you are a designer, you are part of an ecosystem that includes where that material was extracted from, the consequences of its afterlife. It is about teaching people to understand that interconnected view. Where do materials come from? In what conditions [are things made]? Too much is happening in a hidden world.

There is so much seamlessness – to borrow Uber’s phrase – and there’s not an understanding of how that chain works.

Uber is a great example – design is now immaterial. Increasingly, we live in a system of services. With any of these service economies, what the consumer needs to be aware of is sometimes there is an ecological consequence. Especially with labour and labour markets. Fundamentally, it is about what we value as good design. If you imagine everything you touch as being designed by someone, if that is done well it can have a very positive effect on society.

How did Bruce’s idea that design can change the world inform your vision for the Rigg Design Prize?

The Rigg Design Prize focuses on a different type of design every three years. A couple of years ago we said we would focus on advertising and visual communications. Advertising as a sector sits outside a traditional view of design – but it is highly creative people creating tools and systems that help shape our behaviour in positive and negative [ways]. The show forced advertising agencies to come to terms with their own output. Are we contributing to the future of our country or regressing? Massive Change is one of the best examples I can find of a creative communications tool that clarified and articulated the possibility of design in an expanded field – and how it crosses so many sectors. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Ewan McEoin".

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