Community Minded

Designer Mark Busse wants Vancouver to grow up by harnessing its creativity and diversity

Mark Busse
Few business folk point out how their labour adds nothing directly to their company’s bottom line. But driven by a “boorish, unapologetic exploration and celebration of all things creative,” Mark Busse is unequivocal about the merits of his year-old position as director of creativity and engagement at HCMA Architecture + Design.

“I’m not a profitable endeavour for HCMA—I bring them into things that constantly bleed them money,” the 48-year-old designer says while gesturing to one of the Vancouver-based firm’s most adventurous projects: Alley-Oop, a pink-and-yellow laneway between Seymour and Granville streets complete with basketball hoops. (As much a tourist attraction as a playground for locals, the reimagining is backed by the City of Vancouver and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.) “But the work itself is deeply profitable in terms of reward and impact on the company through relationships, PR and creative leadership, as well as creating projects that are catalysts for good for the community.”

Tucking into chicken and black-bean tortilla soup at Masaladobo Cantina around the corner from his office, the former president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada’s B.C. chapter bounces around what he dubs the “creative rogue agents” that bring long-term social benefits,w including a “healthier, more engaged and productive” city. His latest projects range from working with Barrie Mowatt, former gallery owner and founder of the Vancouver Biennale, on a potential biennale dedicated to architecture next year, to Tilt Curiosity Labs at HCMA (“as in to tilt your head, shift your perspective and look at the world differently”), which brings resident creators such as textile artist Katherine Soucie and illustrator Ola Volo into the architecture community.

“Vancouver is an immature city—it hasn’t yet tapped the real power of diversity and engagement,” argues Busse, who grew up in Manitoba and Richmond. With 45 years of blueprints under its belt, 70-strong HCMA is well placed to cultivate this creative mindset, believes Busse, the longtime producer of CreativeMornings/Vancouver, a free monthly breakfast lecture series attended by some 200 people. “Vancouver desperately needs to be more than a pretty landscape masquerading as a real estate bank account.” 

Not that Busse has much truck with typical Vancouverite kvetching. “Whinging’s easy,” he chides, adding that he’d like more organizations to copy HCMA by exposing their teams to creative and community initiatives.

“Look around the world, and you know we live in a very lucky place,” Busse says. “There are tremendous opportunities for anyone interested in creative pursuits here, but some of us have to get in, start poking and prodding and being provocative in trying to find ways to host these opportunities for people.”

After earning a fine arts degree from UBC in 1991, Busse decided against following his own artistic muse. He went on to graduate from Trinity Western University’s School of Business and founded Vancouver graphic design and branding firm Industrial Brand Creative Inc. two decades ago. “I have the skills, but I didn’t have the internal creative machinations for art—to produce and be original,” he explains. “Going into business allowed me to find ways to play with a more predictable realm.”

Outside the office, Busse gets creative in the kitchen of the East Vancouver home he shares with his wife, Andrea, an assessment manager in UBC’s faculty of pharmaceutical sciences. The co-founder of the Foodists blog finds prepping the perfect way to de-stress and recharge his “extroverted introvert” character.

“I’m pretty lucky,” Busse says. “I’m a white, overeducated male oozing privilege, but I was smart enough to make decisions to have a life and career that coexisted with some purpose.”

THREE THINGS ABOUT... MARK BUSSE

1. A motorcycle aficionado, Busse has ridden since his teens, on “big honking cruisers as well as crotch-rocket sporty machines.” Suzuki SV650His most recent solo two-wheel adventure on his current chopper, a Suzuki SV650, was to a leadership retreat in Montana.

2. He’s been asked to consider going into municipal politics twice, by different parties. “The answer no is so easy for me because I’m actually having an impact now,” he says. “Besides, I’m just not wired for all that policy stuff.”

3. When travelling, Busse always takes cooking classes or finds people to teach him local dishes like pasteis de Nata (custard tarts) in Portugal, bánh xèo (savoury fried pancake) in Vietnam and green curry in Thailand. Green Curry“It’s a great trick, and how you get the real deal about the culture.”