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Designer Bruce Mau, who has offices in Toronto and Chicago.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Most people think of design visually - pretty objects, for instance. But Bruce Mau, chief creative officer for Bruce Mau Designs, sees design in an unconventional way.

The internationally recognized innovator takes the design process used to produce those pretty things and applies it to business, institutions, events and experiences - just about anything that might benefit from his creative approach - to solve problems and bring about positive change.

"Business is fundamentally about design," says Mr. Mau, 50, who runs business and cultural design studios in Toronto and Chicago with a client roster of "mavericks and innovators" that include Frank Gehry, MTV, Coca-Cola, Indigo and the Museum of Modern Art. He notes that while people in business speak about "designing" programs, schedules and solutions, they generally don't have designers involved.

"Design is the method by which we change things," he says. "So if you're thinking about changing things, you're going to use a design method or it's going to be accidental. Accidental may or may not be helpful, but design certainly will be. Design is about making things exactly as you want them."

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Born and raised in the "big nickel" mining city of Sudbury, Mr. Mau left after high school to attend the then-named Ontario College of Art in Toronto. He dropped out to work briefly for Fifty Fingers, a Toronto design group, before founding his own studio in 1985 to develop the Zone Book series, remaining Zone's artistic director until 2004. His award-winning compendium, S,M,L,XL , a collaboration with Rem Koolhaas, Dutch architect and principal of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, showcasing 20 years of OMA's projects, was published in 1997.

Inspired by the creative wave that was happening at his studio, Mr. Mau produced the Incomplete Manifesto for Growth in 1998. The unorthodox book - made up of 43 statements that articulate his creative method - went viral around the world. Points range from the serious, "Allow events to change you," to the whimsical, "Don't clean your desk. You might find something in the morning that you can't see tonight."

Mr. Mau explains that events can happen to you and you can be impermeable to change, or you can allow events to transform you.

The process of launching the Institute Without Boundaries, a Toronto-based postgraduate program founded with George Brown College in 2003 to teach collaborative design strategy, and creating Massive Change, a touring exhibition, book and educational series about the power of design, were life-changing experiences for him.

"In the process [of creating Massive Change]we met a couple of hundred of the world's greatest innovators, people like Dean Kamen, who created a robotic arm so sensitive it can pick up a grape without breaking the skin, because he saw people coming back from Iraq without limbs," Mr. Mau says. "It's a way of thinking. Dean said, 'If this isn't going to change the world, let's move on.' That's how to live. Let's live like that."

Since his art-school days, Mr. Mau's interests have gone beyond design into architecture and cinema, both practices that take many inputs and make them into one experience. That, he says, shaped the way he thinks and works. In 2009, he received the prestigious Louise Blouin Foundation Award at the Global Creative Leadership Summit for his exceptional creative achievement.

"I basically don't do anything by myself," Mr. Mau says. "Everything I do is collaborative. It's about complex groups of people synthesizing one powerful outcome. We recently had a wonderful conversation with the senior people at Cisco's offices in Chicago, who've spent 10 years designing a collaborative culture. That means they redesigned the way that people connect to one another, the protocol for reporting, how meetings work, how people have resources and how long they have them. They redesigned everything.

"They talk about it as a design project, even though if you asked, 'Are you a designer?' they'd say, 'No, I'm the CEO or the director of corporate positioning.' But they talk design."

Mr. Mau views leadership within this collaborative culture as paradoxical because one must lead to provide clarity and inspiration. "The key role that I have to play is to always imagine a higher purpose and an objective that is inspirational, and also to allow for leadership within the group to emerge," he says. "Never lead by authority, but by contribution."

He believes the classical structure that still dominates business is very much about fear and control; that the old style of leadership based on status, authority and power is ultimately limited in what it can achieve. When one can inspire a big group of people and allow for leadership to be everywhere in the group, the power is so much greater, he says.

That's exactly the lesson of his Cisco experience, Mr. Mau says. Cisco described a radical increase in business, how the firm is now undertaking 35 market initiatives, and how it has compressed to one year the amount of time needed to go from idea to market. That sort of speed in taking an idea to market happens only when power and the network of leadership is distributed.

"We're living through a revolution in the distribution of power," he says. "I have on my desktop the capacity to change the world. So if you don't allow me to, you're simply not allowing the best potential in the business."

His advice to small business is to put out a clear, consistent signal of purpose, so that other people who want to do that can find your business.

"If you are only working locally or with things that you know, the right people might not be in that small group," he says. "The right person who wants to hire or commission you may be in Paris. Somehow, they have to know that you're over here."

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