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Man. That was a hell of a day on social media,” tweeted Hunter Tura, president and CEO of Bruce Mau Design. It was the evening of January 23, 2015, and the Internet had been reverberating with the discovery of a delightful secret about the Toronto-based design firm’s visual identity for Sonos, the home audio company best known for its wireless speakers. As seen on the startup screen of the Sonos app, radiating lines emanate from behind the crisp white wordmark in dizzying one-point perspective. The amber strands pulse and tremble like sound waves springing from a subwoofer. The logo isn’t animated—the vibrating corona is an optical illusion rendered as you scroll, by screen pixels struggling to paint the logo’s finest lines.

(Clockwise from top left): Chief executive officer Hunter Tura, creative director Laura Stein, BMD Los Angeles director Andrew Clark and senior director Tom Keogh.

The meme started with an article on The Verge that has been shared almost 50,000 times. It’s easy to see how the moiré pattern went viral. When you see music pulsating in a static image for the first time, you’ve got to pass it along. “It’s rare that a visual identity project has that degree of a positive response,” Tura said. “And what excited me most were the messages saying this is a twenty-first-century way to think about brands. That’s such a high compliment because we’ve tried to build a twenty-first-century organization.”

AIGA Medalist Bruce Mau founded Bruce Mau Design in Toronto in 1985. At the time, Mau was completing the design of his first book, Zone 1|2: The Contemporary City, a 480-page tome of illustrations and essays by the likes of Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas. Mau and editors Michel Feher and Sanford Kwinter conceived a new model of visual expression in book form: what writer Thomas de Monchaux calls “densely saturated landscapes of color and textured images, landmarked by bold figure-ground moments of typographic punch and void.” The book launched a series of prodigious and prolific relationships with architects, planners and those involved in placemaking and the urban fabric. Subsequent monographs—most famously 1995’s S,M,L,XL (with co-author Koolhaas and weighing in at more than five pounds)—cemented Mau’s role as an innovative communication designer and a provocative urban strategist. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Mau’s influence could be seen across the design landscape: from creative direction of I.D. magazine to identity and environmental graphics programs for Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Museum of Modern Art and the Seattle Public Library.

Mau left the firm in 2010, in conjunction with its sale to MDC Partners, a publicly traded holding company based in New York. He moved to Chicago and published Massive Change, a manifesto in book form proposing bold and visionary ideas for cities and their citizens. Today, Mau and his wife, Aiyemobisi Williams, lead the Massive Change Network, a consultancy exploring themes of innovation and sustain­ability on a global scale.

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Meanwhile, Bruce Mau Design (BMD) is well into its own next chapter with Tura leading a multidisciplinary studio of 50 people in Toronto and 10 people in the year-old Los Angeles office. Tura came aboard in 2010, which he confesses was a traumatic year for the firm, and began “a course adjustment” to simplify the organization and its client engagements. Tura explains, “Bruce is such an expansive thinker, he could make a project out of anything and get people excited about it. Our mission now is to help clients through the two specialized channels where we do our best work: brand identities and environments.”

As founder and chief creative visionary of his firm, Mau’s departure left a void, one that required Tura and his team to reinvent themselves and their practice. Tura crafted a new organizational model—team-based and highly collaborative, with more responsibilities handed over to the creative directors and team leaders. He began referring to this organizational change as the shift from Superman to the Avengers, a league of superheroes from the Marvel Comics universe, and the labels stuck. Today, the studio is composed of five creative teams, each with a multidisciplinary mix of designers attuned to brand development. Two of the five have deeper expertise in a single area: environments and packaging. And, just like the Avengers, each team has its own talents, tools and methods. Tura acts as impresario, matching clients and projects to teams. In the Toronto office alone, the 50 staff members come from eighteen countries, lending a diverse and global perspective that informs the studio’s work.

As one of the Avengers, Laura Stein, whose decade-long tenure as a creative director at BMD spans chapters one and two, believes the transition has been a positive one: “There’s a nice continuity of spirit in the studio—although things are always changing. It’s not a static place.” And as Stein’s team demonstrated with the Sonos identity, not even the logos they design stand still.

It is our responsibility as designers in the twenty-first century to think like editors. We need to create work that is more efficient, of higher quality and, ultimately, more sustainable.”—Hunter Tura

BMD is the brand agency of record for Sonos, and since 2011, Stein has led the design for the company’s visual identity, along with contributions to package and product design—and a wrapped subway car in New York and a pop-up event space in Paris. Stein explains that there isn’t one design process that drives all projects: “We borrow tools from different disciplines—making paper sculptures to explore a two-dimensional logo, for example, or wire-framing a book.” This expansive and cross-pollinating approach often results in unexpected design solutions, like the moiré wordmark for Sonos. Stein recalls, “As we were working on it, we saw it come to life and thought it was really cool.” Andrew Clark, director of the Los Angeles studio and Stein’s partner on the Sonos engagement, adds, “Sometimes we think of an identity in motion first. We started with motion studies for Sonos, and the original spirit of that work remains in the final design.”

The day before the viral explosion of the Sonos logo, the Los Angeles studio was abuzz with the public launch of Proper Hotels, a new hotel brand by the founder of Viceroy and Avalon hotels. Andrew Clark and Los Angeles–based associate creative director Ryan Adair are leading the effort to envision and roll out the new brand of luxury hotels, which will launch in San Francisco at the end of the year and in Austin in mid-2017.

Adair explains that the Proper identity is “rooted in the grand hotels of the past that were emblems of the cities they were in.” Yet the logo is a modern, playful interpretation of these landmarks, with an awning shading its uppercase letters—“the classic, ever-present welcoming entrance,” says Adair. Forged in bronze like an art deco door handle, the logo is often animated, its awning flapping gently, as on the Proper website. BMD’s brand work for Proper will extend to packaging and on-site amenities like bars and restaurants, along with matchbooks and postcards as a nod to hotels of the past.

Branded environments make up a large part of BMD’s portfolio, and much of that work is guided by senior director Tom Keogh. The environments range from the size of a trade­show booth to the expanse of an emerging Saudi city, but within each project they undertake is a desire, as Keogh explains, “to create a real experience that speaks to all of the senses and connects with real people in the real world.”

We borrow tools from different disciplines—making paper sculptures to explore a two-dimensional logo, for example, or wire-framing a book.”—Laura Stein

A key project that tested the breadth of BMD’s talents was MetLife Stadium, the East Rutherford, New Jersey, sports complex that NFL rivals Giants and Jets both call home. For the opening of the stadium in 2010, BMD collaborated with the two football teams and designers from Rockwell Group, the stadium’s architects. “Our role was to design the fan experience. You don’t look that up in the Yellow Pages,” Keogh says with a laugh. “We looked at all the touch points—from street to seat—to choreograph the experience beyond the action in the bowl at game time.” The result is an integrated system of signage, sponsorship strategies, digital elements and branded environments, all flexible enough to cheer on the New York Jets one day and the New York Giants the next.

Keogh and his team have built upon the experiential quality of the design work for MetLife Stadium in some large residential and retail developments in the United States and Canada. When Journal Squared opens in Jersey City in mid-2016, it will feature among its buildings the tallest residential tower in New Jersey, rising to 70 stories. BMD crafted a visual identity, brand guidelines and environ­mental graphics for the development. With the name, BMD gives a nod to neighboring Journal Square and the towers’ geometric facades. And in Toronto, just around the corner from BMD’s studio, is THE WELL, another mixed-use develop­ment branded by the firm.

Tura, who trained as an architect at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and worked in Koolhaas’s research studio AMO, believes urban design has shifted from an architect’s singular expression to the collabo­rative output of designers like those in his studio. He explains, “Municipalities now think like brands, and branding has displaced the public’s appetite for planning in the traditional sense.” If there is a sense of coherence about a place, it is achieved through many means: from branding and signage to digital media and placemaking.

As Bruce Mau Design makes the transition from Superman to the Avengers, Tura sees an analogous shift in the role of the designer from author to editor. “It is our responsibility as designers in the twenty-first century to think like editors. We need to create work that is more efficient, of higher quality and, ultimately, more sustainable.” The mantra of the late twentieth century—“less is more”—was a choice toward minimalism and simplicity. Tura explains, “In my view, we don’t have that choice any more. We have to think editorially,” embracing constraints and cutting the nonessential.

As an example of an editorially driven design solution, Tura points to BMD’s Know Canada campaign of 2012, which answered a challenge by the WNYC radio show Studio 360 to “redesign Canada” with the hope of educating its neighbors to the south beyond the tired clichés. Designers at BMD began with the most emblematic image of Canada: its flag. Tura adds, “We took the maple leaf out and filled it with all the vitality and innovation of the country.” The campaign features the iconic red stripes of the flag, but instead of flanking the centered maple leaf, they now frame the many faces of contemporary Canada, from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to actress Evangeline Lilly. The campaign culminated with the release of a smartphone app that encouraged users to post their own images of Canada adorned with the flag’s red bars.

On my February visit to the Toronto studio, the squeaks of slushy snow boots on the hundred-year-old wooden floor interrupted the sounds of muffled typing by staff members at long worktables. This main workspace of high ceilings, exposed ductwork and mottled brick walls has been home to BMD for the last five years. An entire public library’s worth of books designed by the firm over the past 30 years has been put away temporarily in preparation for the studio’s own redesign. The goal of the renovation is to re-engineer the space to fit the collabora­tive work styles of the teams: more pinup space, more room to build and assess full-scale prototypes, and more meeting rooms for client workshops and ideation sessions. As Tura says, “We think we have a compelling story to tell the world, and our space is our last frontier to express who we are and where we’re going.” ca

Leslie Wolke (lesliewolke.com) is a writer and founder of MapWell Studio, a wayfinding practice based in Austin, Texas. Wolke serves on the SXSW Advisory Board and founded the annual design and technology event SEGD’s Xlab. Her passion is the interplay between the converging worlds of design, technology and the urban environment.


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