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Laura Stein

Bruce Mau Design

Creative Director
Laura is the Creative Director at one of Toronto’s top design firms - Bruce Mau Design. The studio works in many fields and disciplines from architecture to web design. Recently BMD’s work for Sonos received widespread critical acclaim as has their branding and identity work for OCAD. Lucky for us, we managed to snag Laura and talked to her about how she got to BMD, the role she plays at the company, and dealing with different client types.
HT

How did you arrive at Bruce Mau? What steps in your career lead you there and what was the main driving factor for you to join the studio?

LS

I’ve had a fairly circuitous route to design and to BMD in particular. I did a Fine Art BFA and was mostly interested in conceptual work. At the same time, I started playing in a band and found that making all the things you need to make: posters, packaging, videos, etc was surprisingly gratifying. We made a few records, toured for a few years, and I got to keep making ‘stuff’. When our band broke up, I moved to New York and decided that design was what I wanted to do. I hunkered down, worked night and day, and learned everything about the theory and craft of design that I could through classes, books, and eventually a typesetting job at an ad agency. I began freelancing and my jobs became more design-focused, until I was overseeing designers at a publishing firm.

After 6 years in NYC, I moved to Toronto to join my family and was looking for work. I had an ‘informational’ interview with Kelsey Blackwell, creative lead at BMD at the time. Everything about that interview was like a revelation: Kelsey was (and still is) incredibly intelligent and forthright, the collaborative process felt inline with what I loved about being in a band, the physical studio itself, beautiful in a very utilitarian way, seemed tailored-made for me. Of course, the work that was happening there was also very exciting. A few days later, it turned out that one of their designers was leaving, and they asked me to fill in. Three months into my contract, the managing director gave me a ‘proper’ interview. I think she was unprepared my pure and unmitigated ‘I love it!!!!’ when she asked how it was going.

HT

The identity work you did for OCAD University was very well received. It incorporates a dynamic and modular logo that literally comes to life through the students work. The logo itself becomes a gallery. How much work was it to develop what could be a complex idea and present it to the client? What was the process there?

LS

In a way the idea is actually very simple – create a stable frame that showcases a rotation of student work. Because it’s not a single, fixed logo and because it really is the voice of students, it’s a different way to think about a university’s ‘corporate’ identity. Our client committee was of course pretty sophisticated in terms of the design and concept and got it right away. They were a forward-thinking group and excited to go beyond the traditional parameters of visual identity. One of the things that that was interesting to all of us was the idea of the identity evolving over time, with new logos being created every year, which eventually would provide a visual record of OCAD U’s work and history.

We never want a process to get fossilized. In terms of creative ideation, its more fluid, and we certainly let inspiration guide us.

HT

The recent work you did for Sonos contained a happy accident where the logo appeared to reverberate when you scroll the logo on screen. At Bruce Mau do you often embrace a fluid design process or do you have a rigid process in place?

LS

We have a set of tools that come into play depending on the client and the specifics of the project. Although our research and strategic thinking tools are probably most formalized, I think its important to tweak and adjust and invent new tools as we look at specific contexts. We never want a process to get fossilized. In terms of creative ideation, it’s more fluid, and we certainly let inspiration guide us. With our Sonos project, we worked in animation and processing at the beginning to stretch our thinking but it was also important that this identity had a relationship to music and crucial that it worked in motion and digitally. That’s not the case for every identity we design. The parameters of a design challenge can help set up different starting points.

HT

From it’s founding Bruce Mau Design has always had close ties to culture, philosophy, the environment, and art – merging these into the work of the studio. Does this still persist today and how do you incorporate it into the work you produce.

LS

From my perspective (I’ve been at BMD for a fraction of its life), it feels like there have been phases, from an interest in philosophy to art culture to Massive Change, and not that one supersedes the other, but that each phase built on the last. Bruce once drew a diagram that mapped where a design project lives within the spectrum of our experience. This was really inspiring to me. I believe in the idea that a designer’s job is synthetic, that we listen to our clients, design for their needs, but also rely on a diversity of thinking, images, experiences to get to different kinds of expressions.

HT

Bruce Mau Design has a reputation of letting it’s staff work in fields they normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to. For instance a graphic designer might partake in an architecture project. Is this true? And if so, what do you think this methodology brings to projects?

LS

The work gets interesting when we get animators to work on identity, UX designers contribute to print, etc. Different kinds of designers work in different frameworks and cross-pollinating can articulate something in a new way or jump start a process. We’ve delivered book ‘wireframes’ to clients to help them understand systems. We’ve used Processing in identity projects. At specific times in the studio, we have a specific complement of designers, and we play where we can. Everyone learns something in those situations. That said, we always have someone experienced in whatever ‘field’ we’re in to guide the project.

HT

Is it more difficult to work with governments and institutions versus regular business clients? What are the differences in how projects are handled and processed?

LS

Generally our clients in the civic, educational and cultural sector have a fairly democratic approach in terms of decision-making. There are often more people engaged at all stages of the work and there is the understanding that it’s important to get input from across the organization. That said, we find that some of our more global clients also need design to be championed and owned by their different regions, and work to bring them into the process from the beginning as well. Managing the amount of input and expectations becomes an important part of the project.

HT

BMD are one of the more internationally known design studios in Canada. Are there certain qualities that being a Canadian agency brings to your work – and do international clients seek it out?

LS

I actually think of us as more of a Toronto design studio. Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world and I think we reflect that in our studio. We have a lot of designers from all over the globe. Around 65% of our staff were born outside of Canada, coming from 18 different countries. The different viewpoints and cultural touchstones makes the work more interesting and provides us with a bigger perspective. It’s certainly helpful when we’re working in other cultural contexts.

HT

Bruce Mau seems to have resisted the tendency to develop a “house style” – why do you think this is, and do see any value in developing a style?

LS

I can’t imagine continually delivering a specific style across our many different kinds of clients. Not every client needs the same thing – we try to solve for our clients’ very specific challenges, thinking about their context and where they live. We do much better design work without the constraints of a house style. Also, we’re a fairly pluralistic studio – design solutions don’t come from one place, we all think about the challenges, and everyone has their own inflection.

HT

For you what are the qualities of good design?

LS

Good design is beautiful, conceptual, problem-solving. Great design can change the way we think about things.

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