Q&A with Yves Béhar

As a self-proclaimed contrarian, Yves Béhar enjoys being told what not to do.

Founder of the San Francisco-based design firm Fuseproject, Béhar has been redefining design for years with products like the leaf lamp and Sayl chair for Herman Miller, a $100 laptop, sustainable box-less sneaker packaging for Puma, and a variety of techy gadgets like wireless headsets, speakers, and a video game console. And he’s proven an entrepreneurial genius when it comes to betting on ideas that are forging our future world, even when people have said “it can’t be done.” He’s been more than happy to prove them wrong.

The following is the transcript of a Q&A conversation between Yves Béhar and Saundra Marcel, Director of Real Art’s New York location.


Saundra Marcel: Many companies have been coming to you for direction, saying, “We want to be the next Apple of our industry.” And you’ve responded by asking: “Do you have guts?” What does guts have to do with design?

Yves Béhar: Design is a blood sport. It’s hard to do and it dies on the vine every day. I mean, design is like—I don’t know if this is a good comparison—but design is like a baby chick with an 80% chance of dying within its first day. It takes courage internally for a company to put themselves at risk, because change is always a risk. Even though for me, not changing is a bigger risk. The other thing is, when people say they want to be ‘the Apple of their industry,’ do they realize what it takes? Do they realize that when Apple launched the iPhone, they hired 600 engineers on a project that made no money for the first three or four years? It takes this kind of vision and commitment. There’s a word Herman Miller uses: it’s “abandonment.” This is a business that says “we abandon ourselves to our designers” in a way that is almost religious—they’ve been working with external designers for 60 or 70 years. It takes an incredible amount of courage to suspend disbelief, to build and rebuild business plans so they fit a vision. You have to abandon yourself to a direction and you have to be willing to fail throughout the process in order to succeed at the other end. And so, yes, it takes guts, because it’s a bloody exercise.

SM: Your practice of being both an entrepreneur and a designer is unique. You take equity partners and ownership in companies and products that you believe in, rather than participating in the more traditional work-for-hire approach. How did this come about?

YB: For me, good design can only happen in long-term relationships. A three-month or six-month project doesn’t make a difference at the end. You may affect one product line or one product within a product line, but that exercise is too small to be long lasting. For me, the only reason to do design is if it’s going to live on for many years, and if it’s going to create a rallying vision for a business to build itself. About ten years ago, I started to look for long-term agreements. But start-ups and smaller companies can’t afford a top-ranked professional firm working with them on an ongoing basis. So, how do we create emotional and business symbiosis between ourselves and a nascent business? We’ve found that every arrangement has to be completely different. Every company is at a different stage. You have startups that are at the angel round. You have some that already have financing. You have mature companies that are public, like Herman Miller, who we’ve been partnering with for 11 years. We took on being creative with business, and then crafted unique agreements with every single one of our partners. Now, we have over 20 of them.

SM: How do you know which products to believe in? Are there certain qualities that you look for in the idea, or the people—how do you know their vision is going to mesh with yours?

YB: We evaluate along a few criteria. One of them is: how much value can we bring to the business, and how much of a difference can we make? The bigger the difference, the more interesting it is, because then the more impact we can have, and the bigger the partnership. Second, we do an evaluation of the potential of the market, just like any business. Third, there’s an emotional element, because I’m very steeped in the innovation culture of Silicon Valley, and sometimes there’s very little data to look at. But if the idea and the founders are fascinating, and go along the lines of societal change that I’m excited about, then I’m interested. And number four, a very important criteria: you need to be able to have more than one lunch or one dinner with the people you’re going to be partners with, because you’re going to work with them for years. You need to like them and want to spend time with them, because you will. There will be some ups and some downs. There will be moments of disagreement, and there will be moments of elation. You’re going to need to get through all that. It’s all about being selective and betting on the future you believe in.

SM: Is this the future of design?

YB:  Long-term relationships are one future of design. You could say they’re also the past of design, it’s just been forgotten a little bit. There’s been a lot of short-term design fixing that’s happened in the last 15 years or so. But before that, look at Richard Sapper and IBM. Look at Charles Eames and George Nelson and Herman Miller. Look at Raymond Loewy and all his partnerships. Look at Philippe Starck and Alessi. They were all long-lasting.

SM: You don’t have a signature style. I mean, you’ve worked on everything from condoms and vibrators, to high-end Swarovski chandeliers, to big retail brands like Puma and Coca-Cola. Plus, your humanitarian interests. Is there a connector between all the varied things you work on?

YB: Well, I think using style as a starting point is boring because it’s repetitive. As a designer, you have all the forms, all the shapes, all the colors, all the ideas in the world that you can integrate into your work, so why be limited? Also, it’s lazy. The commonality across our work is that we create by looking at where society is going, how people are thinking, and what the new emerging ideas are that will be important to how we’re going to live. My best definition today of design is that design accelerates the adoption of new ideas.

SM: So few CEOs are design-driven. Most come from backgrounds where decisions are reached based on cost-cutting and consensus. Yet there’s a movement towards a newfound respect for design, and now business leaders are actually going out and seeking it in a way they hadn’t been for a long time.

YB: Everyone. Everyone is talking about it. I mean, it’s incredible. This year, I’ve been invited to speak at five business conferences—five business conferences! Of which the subject in every single title is “design.” I’m talking about places like BusinessWeek and Fortune magazine. These are all places where the conversation is usually about business trends or technology trends. Three years ago it was social, last year it was data, and this year it’s design, which is fun to see. And we should enjoy it. But it also means that we have to function as educators. We need to help CEOs. We need to help company executives understand that design isn’t a quick fix. Design is about the culture and the soul of a company, how it sees itself, and how it behaves. Once you have this vision, it clarifies a lot of how you do things, how you build things, and how you communicate with your consumer. I mean, it’s a whole, right?

SM: Right. But it’s got to be hard for them to think about something that’s not going to immediately make them money, when that’s what they’re used to looking at. It’s not surprising to me that you’re speaking at all these conferences. Because business leaders are seeing what you’re doing and saying, “we want that magic.” Is there creative wisdom you could impart to someone who asks: “Can I please have a piece of your magic?”

YB: Design is an exercise that’s so incredibly enriching to everybody who’s involved. To people in the boardroom at the top, all the way down to ground level. Once they can understand why you have this product, or this set of features, or this vision, and they understand and believe in the design—even for those people folding cardboard boxes in a factory—it completely changes the spirit of everyone in the company. Good design has an incredible effect internally. And externally, it has a similar effect. People like change these days. We can be scared that something too new won’t be accepted. But at the same time, we live in a time and place where people are expecting you to take them on a journey and give them a new experience. It’s also a route to profits, to differentiation, to being unique, to being a leader in your field. That’s why design is so much fun, because there’s so much at stake every single time.

SM: You’ve been working on a number of futuristic tech and electronics projects, like the Jambox wireless speakers, the UP app-monitored wristband, and now OUYA, a new kind of video game console. Are these examples of your interests shifting now more towards technological innovation?

YB:  Change is always the core, whether about technological change or societal change. I’m always attracted to contrarian-like ideas: ideas that can push this world into its next, changing perceptions and accelerating the adoption of new ones. When we worked on the condom project with the New York City Department of Health, it was extremely exciting to say, “Hey, we’re going to remove a stigma.” With technology, it’s often the same. For OUYA, it’s helping to usher in an era of independent video game creation like that of indie filmmaking—independent creators, that’s a contrarian idea I’m excited about.

SM: So, when someone tells you “it can’t be done,” this is the point at which you get even more excited?

YB: We definitely get excited by that. The CEO of OUYA, Julie Uhrman, has boundless energy and she’s unafraid of making trouble. That’s the kind of personality I like. Just like the founder of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), Nicholas Negroponte, who has battled this idea of the $100 laptop on so many fronts. Not only did everybody in the computer industry say “it can’t be done,” but they also said it’s stupid, and it’s not what those kids want. They said we were wrong on all fronts. Initially, that was shocking to me. At the same time, I’ve actually come to relish those moments. I enjoy being this voice in the room who is contrarian to the status quo. In many ways, I think that’s the role of design.

SM: The One Laptop Per Child project you did with Negroponte was also met with criticism. It was a good-looking product, but there were cultural reasons why giving laptops to children in developing countries, who had never seen them before, didn’t produce the results you were hoping for. Yet you’re still working on the project, producing more iterations of the $100 laptop, and now a tablet. So, when will it be finished? When will you get it right?

YB: Never. Design is never finished. Talk to Herman Miller and ask them when their work with Yves will be finished, and they’ll say, “We’re going to work with him until he’s dead, and probably after that.” And to the criticism—you know, the world isn’t going to arrive to a final, sustainable solution any time soon. We’re going to need to iterate. Like when people ask, “Why design another chair?” I think that’s a great question, because you really don’t need a new chair. But that said, if you’re going to make millions of chairs for offices from a past generation of design, which are not sustainably made, or using rare sources, or made with outgassing materials that are bad for your health, then that’s a reason for a new chair. Just like there’s always a reason for a new book or new idea in the world. We’re never done iterating.

SM: You often talk about making things that are better for our world, better for our lives, and about being sustainable. What’s your vision for the future in this regard, and what should designers be doing to be a part of it?

YB: Well, this is something I’m convinced about. For sustainability, it’s not whether new forms of manufacturing and production are going to happen or not. It’s whether they’re going to happen in the next ten years or the next eight years. It’s already happening right now for sure. We need to participate and push these efforts. In many ways, it’s the designers that can show how exciting that vision can be, because the designer can create a number of different visions that can inspire industry, individuals, and potential customers to desire this future. Until it’s desired, it’s hard to build. Without desire, it’s hard to transform habits.

SM: There are a lot of young people coming into design now who only want to work for nonprofits. But what we’re often getting from them is well-intentioned poster designs and logos that don’t reach anyone or do anything. They’re trying to figure it out…

YB: Yeah. We get a lot of those students applying to Fuseproject. It’s very important to see that we can make social change in any project; it doesn’t have to be for nonprofit. Because we’re going to consume lots of for-profit things in our lives, and we need to make them all better. It’s rare to see design tackling big issues of transportation, and logistics, and how many bottles you can put on a palette while also trying to create something more attractive and more commercially successful. At the end of the day, we want people to buy the bottle that has less plastic. So we equate success with moving the needle. That’s something that I have to explain to students who only want to work on projects that are labeled “social.”

SM: Do you have advice for a young person to help them think about design in a deeper way?

YB: Look at the entire practice and not just the one thing you’re being asked to design. Whether it’s a one-off or not, there’s a chance to make it better, and to create something that will mean something.

This Q&A originally appeared in Design Bureau Issue 17. Subscribe to Design Bureau here and read about more innovative voices shaping global design.

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