Design Thinking on Exhibit

Celebrated designer Bruce Mau has been named chief design officer for Freeman. It's the gig of a lifetime.

tumblr_nx9dosHX5K1qb1i2wo1_1280-1“It’s almost like when the cool kid at school likes you — and you can’t quite believe it.”

That’s how Carrie Freeman Parsons, vice chair of Freeman, described the appointment of Bruce Mau, one of the world’s most influential designers, as Freeman’s chief design officer. Mau, who is a leading proponent of design thinking, has worked on projects alongside architects Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas and with clients as diverse as The Walt Disney Company and Guatemala’s minister of culture.

Bruce Mau

And Mau, for his part, is brimming with enthusiasm over working with Freeman, which produces approximately half of the trade shows, live events, and major festivals in the United States every year, and is expanding globally. “The opportunity for design innovation couldn’t be much bigger,” Mau said. That’s partly because the events industry has, for the most part, done the same things in more or less the same way for the last 30 years, he said. “Events should be such awesome experiences that people come running to them,” he said. To change that, “we need to design a new medium.”

I spoke with Mau at the opening of the exhibit “Work on What You Love: Bruce Mau Rethinking Design” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibit uses nine projects to illustrate Mau’s design principles, and underlines the scope of Mau’s work, from an immersive Gehry-designed museum about biodiversity in Panama to online education programs at Arizona State University. Mau’s ongoing work with Freeman is included in the exhibit, and although there’s a model of a trade-show floor, the program’s true subject is a way of thinking and working.


“The real design project is not the object you are producing,” Mau explains in an exhibit panel. “You are not going to get it right the first time, and there is always room for improvement. The real design project is a platform that encourages the continuous development of ideas. This is design for constant change.”

Unlike projects that result in one-off events or installations, Freeman’s longstanding relationships with clients present the opportunity to learn from every iteration of an event, Mau said. “One of the things about Freeman that’s really amazing is that they have such a wonderful commitment to their clients,” Mau said. “They have very long-term relationships, so they produce shows 30 to 40 years in a row.” The question then becomes: “How do we do events in such a way that we learn in our system, and build a platform that captures the innovations? That’s the real methodology.”

Bruce Mau with visitors to the exhibit.
Bruce Mau with visitors to the exhibit.

The events industry has always been one of forward motion. “We’re awesome at getting stuff done,” Parsons said, “but I am not sure we are learning as much as we can.” For Freeman, Mau has created a four-step “learning cycle” — also part of the museum exhibit — that emphasizes taking time both on the front end to ask the right questions, and then again at the end of an event to recap and capture lessons learned. “We know the bad habits we have to break,” Parsons said, such as thinking,“I am too busy to get the right people involved, I am too busy to recap” after an event.

“Work on what you love,” one of Mau’s design principles, could also be “Work with the people you love,” Mau has said. His taking on the role of chief design officer at Freeman reflects the fit between his designer’s values and the company, Mau told Convene. Freeman represents “empathy, integrity, enthusiasm, innovation, operational excellence, and collaboration,” the designer says in an exhibit panel. “These values are essential to any design-driven enterprise and my own life as a designer.” Mau is co-founder of the Massive Change Network,  a movement that trains people to apply design thinking to the world’s entrenched problems. A series of community workshops led by Mau will accompany the exhibition in Philadelphia. 

That resonates for Parsons within the context of the events industry. “How do you get great minds together,” she said, “and find solutions to the world’s most complicated problems?”

“Work on What You Love: Bruce Mau Rethinking Design” will be open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until April 3.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.