He admits he never fit in his home country. He may have arrived on the shores of America with a design attitude akin to a Swiss army knife, but it was the innovative influence of Silicon Valley that opened up new horizons, and formed his now celebrated approach.
A craftsman that places social purpose at the heart of his work, Yves Béhar has touched millions of lives with the infinite products he has designed, from his change-the-world project One Laptop per Child to the first Bluetooth speaker the world has ever seen, the Jambox to his latest project, The Frame, the world’s first smart television designed to “disappear in the décor”.
He sees the continuing impact of design on the way we live, eat, work and sleep, as of great significance.
What makes Yves a rare commodity in design is his ability to approach each product like a startup, investing in and incubating the product from start to finish. From the hundreds of designs that he has nurtured, he’s never been afraid to fail. Maybe it’s his mindful approach, extended to a later life love of surfing, that has allowed him to stay upright through it all.
Images from top to bottom: Snoo robotic baby crib 2016, Leaf Lamp from Herman Miller 2007, One Laptop Per Child 2006, Samsung The Frame, 2017
So let’s start with a snapshot of your career. I’d say that you are somewhat of a polymath designer. Would you agree with that?
From day one when I started fuseproject in 1999, I said that we are specialised in being diverse in our work. So very early on I would work in multiple different areas, from technology to beauty to transportation or furniture. With this range of diversity, I started to combine some of the different learnings from all these types of projects: technology integrating into beauty and fashion, fashion and beauty integrating into technology. Early on this was something that neither of these industries were comfortable with. There was a big reluctance for technology to be integrated into our lifestyles by design.
So that diversity of projects, industries, types of manufacturing and expertise really has allowed me to grow this incredible multidisciplinary set of experiences and this multidisciplinary studio. I always believed in the tradition of a studio like George Nelson or Ray and Charles Eames’ studios, where you have a wide array of skills and backgrounds but all working in the full length of a project rather than one part of it or one speciality. I think I built this kind of studio but in the 21st century, with user experience expertise and technology expertise, connectivity and industrial design. It’s been a long road, about 18 years since I started this project, but I think the vision was there from the beginning.
What does user-centred design mean today?
User experience has become how a product or service accompanies you 24/7 and often for years. We have become incredibly attached to these products because they are the confirmations that the world around us is responding to our needs, and when those things change it is as dramatic as seeing a change on an Eames Rocker or Aluminum Group; you will notice and try to understand the reasoning behind that change. We have seen some of these products change for functional reasons or environmental change, and those changes have to be explained.
The user experience is very similar to first helping us transform into the new habit that this product is delivering and then it is a habit that is now familiar and a part of our lives.
For me, it is 360-degree design. You are trying not to let down the user at any point, the person that experiences your product. I think this is the deepest definition of what design is, to accompany the user throughout an experience that can last a lifetime.
"Just think how many of the products that you saw in magazines 4 or 5 years ago – whether it was at the Milan furniture fair or products that were shown in Wired – how many of those products or even the companies are still around now?"
From the One Laptop per Child to the Snoo baby crib, a lot of your designs involve a real social purpose. Do you think that designers should be more morally obligated to work perhaps in line with the way you do?
I do believe that designers should play a bigger role in society, simply because we tend to be creative problem solvers. There are so many problems, from government services to healthcare, all the things that happen to you as a human being that you don’t seem to have any control over – getting sick, getting arrested or the voting process. These are all citizenry experiences that designers can think about from the point of view of the human experience.
Rather than the ‘speed and feed’ technology, what we care about is the human experience. Clearly, people respond to that, they respond to being treated intelligently and emotionally and being treated better environmentally. I do think this is the humanistic layer that design can bring, and in that sense, the empathy element and creativity in how to solve very complex problems in a humanistic way is what design can do for society, and that’s exactly what designers do when an opportunity is given to them.
I have a sense that designers are starting to become more integrated into efforts that I have described, like health and government, but I think there is still a long way to go for that to become a default. There should be a designer on any human experience problem-solving endeavour.
Sayl Chair from Herman Miller 2010
You have experienced backlash to some of your projects, proving society also has a way of reacting to design. How do you respond to negative feedback, when you have spent a couple of years working on a product and it flops when you put it on the market?
First of all, I think user feedback is extremely important in design. I truly believe to the core that design is never done. We work on projects and sometimes they are successful, sometimes they need improvements, even the successful ones. Charles Eames said what I opened with, that design is never done. We are currently working on some Sayl Chair updates – one of the most successful and innovative task chairs in the world – so there are always things you can do better.
I certainly take feedback both personally and professionally, which means let’s keep working at it. We have launched certain products that are the first on the market, for example, the Jambox was the first Bluetooth speaker on the market, and over the years we have continually improved it. It’s the same thing with the August Smart Lock.
The companies that I believe eventually succeed are the ones that have a philosophy of continually improving on their products, as per the feedback of their customers and as per new technological advances. The ones that sometimes fail are those that don’t have this focus on improvement and constant refinement. That’s the answer to how we react when there is either positive or negative feedback to a product.
The second thing I would say is that, as you know, a lot of what we do is in first and in the venture. Like any venture capitalists or angel investors, whatever you want to call them, the ratio of company success vs. failure is 1 in 10. Just think how many of the products that you saw in magazines 4 or 5 years ago – whether it was at the Milan furniture fair or products that were shown in Wired – how many of those products or even the companies are still around now?
"It’s funny because I only look forward. I think many of the highlights of my career are ahead of me, not just behind me."
Jambox Speaker 2010
Not only do you take a design role and intellectual property role, you also invest in these endeavours. So you must take failure quite personally?
Yes, I invest my heart, my passion and time into making companies work, not just delivering a design and letting them figure it out, but also working out the wheres and hows of their market, which technologies they should acquire, who to hire for the success of the product, the manufacturing logistics etc.
I am an advisor and have been to dozens and dozens of companies, so at any time I am advising a few companies simultaneously. I see designing the enterprise and business as an extension of designing the product that we are working on.
So yes, it is very personal. I can see the problems and sometimes I can help avert them, and sometimes I can’t. I think my being entrepreneurial and taking these kinds of risks, just being there 100 per cent and supporting entrepreneurs, being a partner with them, has honestly been life-changing.
From a human perspective, I have made so many friends and I have so many lifelong connections through my work. Professionally, I have had the chance to work in so many different industries, in so many different ways learning how to build and construct a business. I feel fully rounded in my skills and how far I believe I can take design, essentially.
You strike me as someone who doesn’t look back often, but if someone was to ask you what the highlight of your 18-year career has been, what would you say it was and why?
It’s funny because I only look forward. I think many of the highlights of my career are ahead of me, not just behind me. But there have certainly been some moments that I think have helped me to cement our ideas of design and our innovation approach. I think 2007 was a marker year for me with the launch of the One Laptop per Child and the Leaf Light by Herman Miller.
Then I think in 2010 or 2011 when we launched the Sayl Chair and the Jambox, these are key products that really went global and still influence how people live.
People have proposed on a beach with a Bluetooth speaker, or given birth in some clinical hospital room with their favourite jams blasting out of the Jambox, people have died using a Bluetooth speaker to play their favourite songs as they pass. I know some of these people or I’ve heard of them and I’ve had long conversations about how at times our work has contributed to changing people’s lives a little bit. That is the memory that I carry with me of these products.
Hive Active Heating 2 2015
Talk to me about the influence of money in design. Do you think that it has a corrupting influence?
No, why would it have a corrupting influence? I think the only problem I see is that money is a solution but also a problem, and what is the right amount of money for a product to launch in the right way? In order for something to be affordable, typically the upfront investment has to be higher because you need to industrialise the product.
So there are certain products that need to be industrialised in order to be affordable, and that industrialisation process is expensive. Too much money can be a problem both in industrial-based products and craft-based products, because too much money in a start-up business does create unrealistic expectations of returns, so I am always careful to say, “Let’s raise enough, or the right amount, but not beyond those means.” Anything beyond those means carries a high amount of risk, with large investors that will end up making the decisions rather than entrepreneurs making the decisions. Too much money in a craft-based product, in an arts/design product means that we are going to put more into it and it will end up being much more expensive.
This is why we have seen the advent of highly decorative and overly done products that end up costing an extreme amount of money to whoever wants it.
So the right amount of money is key, because design is about investment, and it doesn’t just happen out of nothing. But I don’t see it being corrupting unless it is a distraction. Any business needs the right type of financing to grow, innovate and survive.
"People have proposed on a beach with a Bluetooth speaker, or given birth in some clinical hospital room with their favourite jams blasting out of the Jambox, people have died using a Bluetooth speaker to play their favourite songs as they pass."
Yves Béhar on the continuing influence of his designs
As technology and the Internet of things become largely more interconnected in our lives, how important is it that designers start absorbing technology into their products? Should the technology remain invisible within the design?
I’m actually developing an approach to design and technology that tends to make technology invisible, pushing it into the background. Just like everyone else, I am disturbed by how much technology is interrupting all aspects of our lives and changing our physical interactions.
It is affecting the way we relate to one another, so I don’t believe in a world where technology will diminish, in fact, I believe that technology will continue to become more central to how we work and live. But I also believe that it is absolutely crucial for technology to disappear, so that it is not interruptive, it is discrete and responds to our needs without affecting our social interactions, keeping us in the moment.
So when we were talking about user experience earlier, I mentioned August and other examples we work on, to me it is key that technology becomes more intelligent in a sense, and that it be designed to integrate rather than disrupt.
I know that you like surfing a lot and you focus a lot on the zen moments of design. How do you restore your inspiration for design? Does the serenity of surfing help you in life?
For me, surfing has become something of a mid-life pursuit (I won’t call it a crisis) but there is something inherently similar in surfing and design. Surfing requires the utmost focus, and there is no creative innovation that will come in a moment of distraction; it has to be in a moment of intense concentration and pursuit. When you are in the water, if you start to think about other things like the distractions of life, you will not catch a wave. It is a sport of observation, concentration and focus.
"Surfing requires the utmost focus, and there is no creative innovation that will come in a moment of distraction."
For me, surfing is about having a different perspective on life. We tend to look at the ocean from the shore, but to look at the shore from the water is a different perspective, and in some ways, design is about looking at the physical world from a new vantage point. It’s an incredibly different perspective, very zen in many ways because of the focus, and it’s sort of my counter point to the busy entrepreneurial and cultural life that I have.