Hunter Tura on the 21st Century Designer

Beck, editors, and '70s porn?

As he guides strategic direction, global recruiting, and business development for Bruce Mau Design, one of the world’s most iconic design firms, Hunter Tura thinks a lot about the 21st Century Designer and the new ways of working—and thinking—that the digital age demands. And he says if you want to be a designer in the 21st Century, you need to act like Beck, think like an editor, and learn something from 1970s pornography. He’ll share his perspective as a keynote speaker at the 2015 SEGD Conference: Experience ChicagoJune 4-6!

He took time to speak with SEGD this week.

You're at the helm of one of the world's most iconic design practices, travel the globe, and have your hands in a great mix of projects for high-profile clients. That all sounds pretty glamorous—but what gets you up in the morning and makes you excited about coming to work?

To be honest, the thing that gets me the most excited about work is The Work.  When I see our team developing really innovative work for our clients, it gets me really energized. It’s very gratifying to get positive feedback about our work in the press or on social media, but the most important thing for us is still to deliver work that helps organizations move forward in some way—whether that's increased sales, deeper brand loyalty, or greater public awareness.

There are two crucial elements in the development of great work: the right clients and the right team. This is why I spend a large amount of my time focusing on making sure we match the right design team with a particular opportunity.  I remain heavily involved in our new business efforts to make sure the project formulation is aligned with our work plan to ensure a successful outcome.

So recruiting talent and curating design teams is a big part of what you do?

I’m obsessive about our team composition and I personally review every incoming portfolio and resume (and there are a lot!), but it's essential for me to do that to make sure we're going to be able to deliver the quality of design work that our clients expect.

You do a lot of thinking and lecturing about the 21st Century Design Practice. Was there an "a-ha" moment for you, when you looked up and thought, "Our way of working (or thinking) needs to change"?

Well, the first part of understanding 21st Century design practice is to have a point of view on the 21st century in a larger context.  I think a lot about globalization, political and ideological movements, and technology and their associated reactions within culture and society. Ultimately, these factors influence our work as designers (either directly or indirectly) and I think that many designers—and people who teach design—are still operating within outmoded paradigms. The 20th Century was incredible for design in many ways, but one of its legacies is a set of dualities that still plague us. In architecture, for example, "Less is more" vs. "Less is a bore" is ultimately an argument about style, but it's a paralyzing one that doesn't allow us to really focus on what's important today and the potential of design to help create a more efficient and sustainable set of circumstances.

My "a-ha" moment came in 1997 when I saw the architectural theorist Jeffrey Kipnis speak at Harvard. He was asked who his favorite architect was and he replied, "Beck." For me that was a total awakening. At that moment I realized that although I was being trained to be Howard Roark, the world had changed in such ways that Beck was a far more appropriate model—someone who was taking a set of existing fragments and attempting to create new hybrids as a result. It also taught me that frequently the most relevant models are outside the traditional confines of our discipline—and to always keep an open mind.

How do these changes change the look and structure of design practices, and how are you responding as head of BMD?

I hope 21st Century design practices will become very different kinds of organizations than those that existed even 10 or 15 years ago. At BMD, we’ve done a couple of things we feel allow us to respond to changing conditions. The first thing we've done is to establish a kind of Politburo, or Leadership Council, that I work with to help guide the future direction of the practice. We've spent a lot of time attracting a world-class team to BMD in the name of driving great work for our clients, so it would be shortsighted of me to not leverage this incredible pool of intelligence to generate new ideas for running our own practice. 

Next, we've unabashedly embraced the notion that we are a design business. In 2013, we brought on a CFO, whom I work with very closely to make sure that BMD is a well-run and sustainable business. For me this was a breakthrough moment because when I talk about the quality of work we deliver and the world-class nature of our team, if the business is poorly run that promise is fundamentally compromised. Here again, the 20th Century formulation that a design practice can be only a boutique "studio" or a corporate "agency" is no longer useful or constructive. I believe that we're built to do design work of the highest quality and integrity and be humane, efficient, and profitable.

Since Bruce Mau left the design office, you've created a new practice, moving from the "Superman" model to the "Avengers" model—less about a single personality and more about a team of super-powered collaborators. Is this how you see design practices being run in the future?

In 2010, when our founder left the practice, we had no choice but to re-think our model.  I came out of architecture, where project teams are inherently multi-disciplinary and collaborative, so I was comfortable with that model. The key to building an "Avengers"-like situation, of course, is having the ability to attract super-heroes. This requires a commitment to innovative design work, a dynamic corporate culture, and the opportunity to work on projects of a scale and public nature they couldn't get elsewhere.

To run a practice on this model requires a lot of discipline and humility, which are qualities not always associated with the design community. I have no interest in ego or authorship in that sense, and ask the same of the people who work at BMD. It also means that we specifically look for leaders—people from a design perspective or as managers who can really move projects forward. So while I'm hopeful that the Avengers model will become more commonplace, it requires a certain worldview.

Back to changes in the general design world. What do these changes mean for individual designers? You've talked a lot about designers as editors, helping to curate the massive flow of information. Can you talk a bit more about that?

As I mentioned, I have no interest in "authorship" in design and believe that our responsibility as designers in the 21st century is to think about how things can be done more efficiently and sustainably. I've come to believe that an "editorial" worldview is one of the key qualities to responding to the changes we're seeing in design. Paradoxically, I think it has the potential to deliver a richer kind of work. In 2012, we developed a brand campaign called "Know Canada" and instead of trying to replace an existing national identity we created a very simple framework to showcase the potential of Canada in the 21st Century. Ultimately, it was an editorial exercise: we simply removed the Maple Leaf from the Canadian flag, which allowed the remaining two red bars to frame all of the amazing artists, writers, musicians, innovations, and landscapes that Canada has to offer.

Is it true that you're working on a book? Can you tell us about it?

It's about creative practice in the 21st Century. The first part is meant to be an easily digestible guidebook for how to think about innovation, entrepreneurship, and management in our contemporary situation. This more straightforward part is annotated by a series of insights, anecdotes, theorems, and personal recollections I've gathered over my career in design. For example, there's a section on pornography in the 1970s, which actually can tell us a lot about how to think as designers today.....but that's all I can say on that topic right now!

I understand you started out as a historian, so I'm guessing you like the long view. What is the next horizon you see for design and architecture?

I think "failed historian" would be more accurate, but I think there is incredible potential for both architecture and design if we modify our worldview. Design can have a deeply transformative effect on organizations and systems to improve conditions, create new value, and really make a positive impact in people's lives. That said, I don't think any of this is really possible if designers continue to think and act "heroically." 

Join Hunter at the 2015 SEGD Conference: Experience ChicagoJune 4-6!

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