Yves Behar on his design for good
On the occasion of his new monograph, Yves Behar: Designing Ideas, we talk to the Fuseproject founder on his career journey, technology and ‘the slow, winding journey of design’
Yves Behar founded Fuseproject in San Francisco 22 years ago. The Swiss designer has been closely associated with rapidly evolving tech products and services ever since. His journey from Swiss punk to design guru effectively mirrored Silicon Valley’s own evolution from a chaotic, DIY-infused alt-cultural ecosystem into the engine room of the world economy. On the way, Fuseproject has had triumphs and missteps, dead ends and diversions, but every project is infused with the utopian ethos that technology – done correctly – is a powerful force for good.
Yves Behar: Designing Ideas
A new design book, Yves Behar: Designing Ideas, charts the process behind his work, and is replete with images of prototypes and concept sketches. ‘Designing Ideas is not about a marketing solution – the final glossy picture – but showing the slow, winding road, the journey of design,’ says Behar. Rather than present Fuseproject’s output in chronological fashion, the book groups it into six sections: Reducing, Sensing, Transforming, Giving, Humanizing and Scaling. Each section captures Behar’s peerless ability to shape and direct how a product or service can best be streamlined for our new era of digitally driven, algorithmically guided consumption.
‘Designing Ideas is not about a marketing solution – the final glossy picture – but showing the slow, winding road, the journey of design’ – Yves Behar
‘The strength of Fuseproject comes out of the original concept: to fuse disciplines together in the service of an idea,’ Behar says. ‘Being multidisciplinary is what creates these fully fledged solutions. The other thing that has always defined the studio is how we marry this approach to the world of start-ups, where everything has to be created from scratch.’
Yves Behar and the transformative power of design
Although the turn of the century was a fertile time for start-up culture, vast numbers of ‘visionary’ ideas were never translated into physical form. ‘Design has had a tremendous evolution over the last 30 years,’ says Behar.
‘I came to Silicon Valley in the mid-1990s and design was not on the radar. Having studied in the European modern design tradition, I was interested in the opportunity to show how much value design could add to what were mostly engineered products. Design was seen as a decorative last-minute coat of paint.’
So what changed? The bursting of the first dotcom bubble was about the over-supply and over-valuation of services and platforms, rather than tangible, physical things. Ultimately, it would be studios like Behar’s that gave shape to the emerging genre of smart devices. ‘Design in the larger sense really became central to the success of a lot of companies,’ he says. ‘We experienced how it went from being an option to being an integral part of building a business.’
As the book’s sections imply, Behar believes strongly in design’s transformative power. ‘There are critical 21st-century ideas like sustainability, accessibility, and diversity, all of which can be accelerated by design,’ he says. As a designer, ‘you are in a position to influence new ideas and new behaviours. I believe design is about speeding up the adoption of new ideas.’ Some of Fuseproject’s highest profile works have addressed these issues. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which ran from 2005 to 2014, aimed to create hundreds of millions of learning machines for children in the developing world, at $100 per piece. It was fuelled by optimism: ‘That project showed design reaching out to people who weren’t being addressed by the industry,’ says Behar, calling the challenge ‘a true design adventure of the highest order’ in the book. Although the scheme didn’t have the global impact OLPC first predicted, 3.5 million devices were built. ‘I think it demonstrated that education and the digital divide is still a world-changing issue,’ Behar reflects. ‘The actual device was a cascade of decisions towards simplicity.’
Other projects have similar pioneering components. The ‘Sayl’ office chair for Herman Miller showed that low-carbon-footprint design can have a global audience, Behar notes, and the book’s ‘Reducing’ chapter chronicles many different approaches to packaging, production and presentation, and the ways in which design can help less be more. ‘Design is not a linear path. You have to let the ideas and insights and discoveries inform the original premise,’ says Behar.
Designing the tech experience
Over the decades, the designer has also turned entrepreneur, not just shaping products but creating whole companies, such as August, a maker of home security systems that he co-founded with Jason Johnson in 2012. Advances in manufacturing and distribution have helped form this new ecosystem of smaller makers. ‘As a designer, to have your concept globally accepted is an amazing thing,’ he acknowledges.
Fuseproject has flourished during an era when the dumb physical object has been transcended by app-driven ‘smart’ devices, a product universe of tangentially related ‘things’. Behar is unrepentant about the transition, while insisting this is in the service of user experience. ‘I’ve always believed that tech should simply disappear. The experience should be only what someone sees and not what’s behind it,’ he says.
Newer products, like the ‘Snoo’ responsive baby cot, embody this belief in technology as a facilitator. ‘It’s wonderful to see how design can intersect with key life moments,’ Behar enthuses. ‘The cot shows how technology can address the needs of parents and babies. Although Snoo wasn’t designed to be a robot that looks after your baby, I’d use this image as a provocative idea, because ultimately our design is the opposite – it just looks like a beautiful object. The tech isn’t obvious.’
From 2015 to 2019, Fuseproject was a partner on the Spring technology accelerator programme, which supported entrepreneurs across East Africa and South Asia seeking to improve the lives of adolescent girls, and was developed with the Nike Foundation and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Behar explains how the ethos of social enterprise is about reversing the traditional aid model in favour of funding and seeding local ideas. In Spring’s case, designing these support systems mattered far more than the physical appearance of objects.
That said, the object – however discreet, elegant, elaborate or connected – is here to stay. ‘The idea that software will kill the physicality of things has been around for quite a while. The truth is that it just hasn’t been the case,’ Behar says. ‘Software is in everything – even in [something as apparently simple as] our “Leaf” lamp for Herman Miller (2006). I see the technology and software as an ingredient, a tool, not the be-all and end-all. Sure, there are certain things that we are less and less inclined to physically own. But we will always be really excited about new form factors. I want to be a designer who puts the human connection at the very centre of people’s lives – that belief has always animated my work.’ §