By Warren Berger
As one of the most sought-after designers in the business today, Yves Behar has worked with brands ranging from MINI to Coca-Cola to Johnson & Johnson to Google. Among the award-winning, hot–selling products to roll out of Behar's San Francisco-based fuseproject studio are the Leaf LED light from Herman Miller and the Jawbone bluetooth headset. But none of Behar's designs have turned more heads than his work on the little green XO Laptop, as part of the high-profile "One Laptop Per Child" project that set out to make low-cost computers available to poor children around the world. The XO has faced marketing/distribution hurdles, but there have been consistent raves for its playful, sexy, and easy-to-use design, all achieved on a shoestring budget. Behar sees the project as an example of his company's effort to combine good business with civic responsibility; along those lines, he has also designed state-of-the-art condom machines and bicycle helmets for the city of New York. His latest initiative: Helping startup companies get a foothold in the growing sustainable-design market. One.design
spoke to Behar recently about sustainability and storytelling design.
Is sustainable design a major focus for you now?
Well, we're working on a new category of projects bringing together startups with new green tech or new sustainable approaches—sort of doing good and doing business at the same time. But there's a lot of venture capital, some serious funding, behind these efforts.
Some of these companies are starting from scratch, and that can make it easier for them to design with new systems—there's not an existing industrial setup in place. When you start from scratch with a clean slate, you can actually set things up in new ways that take green into account. It's very different when you're working with established larger institutions because they're mostly utilizing their industrial facilities, and trying to bring modifications to that manufacturing process can be much harder.
I would say that at this point, sustainability is a tool that we use pretty much on every project. I don't see it as a specialty. It is one of the tools that we have as designers to create new concepts. And using sustainability doesn't make the process less creative—if anything, it makes it more creative. I think a lot of times people see the green aspect as a constraint. But it can actually help us as designers to push for some very differentiated and unique concepts.
You recently designed a Google gadget that allows people to keep track of environmental and global issues on their home page—how did that project come about?
Google approached us and asked us to create something, and we came up with the Fuseproject Global Clock. And the theme has to do with global consciousness: By allowing people to visualize the world, including statistics that are constantly changing and evolving, I think you get a real
picture of how the world is changing. For example, I have the global clock running on my computer for the last 113 days, with all these numbers going by. And I can see that the number of new species
discovered is 4,027—but the number of species gone extinct is 15,400. And apparently there have been 38,718 deaths from snakebites in the last hundred days! There are about 40 or so selection criteria, and you can have these numbers running on your iGoogle page. I think what's often lacking is our ability to visualize and understand what change means, but when it's constantly going on in front of you, as part of your Google page, you see these numbers every day and my hope is that it does create a level of awareness and helps you contrast and compare some of the numbers. So you can make connections. There's everything from deforestation, CO2 emissions, electricity from fossil fuels, average life expectancy, and
You've defined design as "the way a company treats its customers." That's an interesting definition, can you explain it?
Well, I was trying to find the simplest definition
of design possible, and essentially, for me,
designers are at that magical intersection
between business and the consumer. We have one foot in each world. I think it's really important for us to remember that and to be an advocate, in a sense. When companies do poor design, or design that is not ergonomic or is environmentally incorrect, they essentially send a message. It says they have not taken me, the customer, into account. This also speaks to the wider definition of design. You can just think about designing the product and making it work, or you can think in terms of design carrying the brand into all aspects of people's experience with the brand—which means we're responsible for the way the brand is perceived, the packaging, going way beyond the industrial design. When you think of design in this larger way, then it's even more true that the way you approach your interaction with customers—including every effort you put in as you try to resolve every little detail of that interaction—is very much about how you treat your customer.
How does an outside designer, who's not part of the corporate culture, manage to change the way a company does business? Do they listen to you more because you're an outsider?
I think a lot of our clients are interested in the fact that we have an approach that isn't too specific to their field, but rather one that is maybe about certain values. This is something I talk about a lot—it's obvious to most people now that design can create value from a business standpoint, but I also think we, as designers, can help bring values to these companies and their projects. It could be everything from creating brand stories to having a point of view on sustainability. And we can do this even if it's in an industry we're completely new to. In fact, I've had clients come to me and say, 'Hey, how much do you know about our field?' And I say nothing and they say, 'Good.' I mean it used to be as a consultant you had to make yourself knowledgeable about a specialty, but we're lucky because the way we work, people realize that what we bring is a new perspective to a field that perhaps needs to evolve now, because it hasn't done so in a while.
With some of your projects, such as the XO Laptop, you've had to overcome pretty significant constraints; in that case, it involved creating a computer for a fraction of the current price, and also getting it to work in the most challenging conditions. What kind of mindset and approach is required to be able to design something that was previously considered undoable?
I'm a bit of an idealist, I guess. But I am also someone who, over the years, just by combining different expertise or maybe taking a new point of view or direction, has been able to create projects that are quite surprising. It's a mixture of can-do resolution, and also the confidence that by working with great partners you can do new things. The fact is, a lot of times the constraints and the barriers that you're given can be overcome if you take more of an overall look at a problem—if you're confident enough that you can address the manufacturing process, or the user interface, or some of the technological aspects. And I think today, because consumers are really looking for integration of all of these aspects, we're able to intervene much deeper than the traditional skin-deep design approach. So in that sense, if you're given a license to go deeper, and to really challenge some manufacturing assumptions or price point assumptions or whatever, you're often able to find solutions where there seem to have been no new approach before.
With the laptop, the decision was made to not run heavy hungry software, for example, and there was an early decision that we're not going to have a fan to cool a processor. I would say the whole thing really emanated from a radical point of view that the project took from the start. One thing that was critical was that the design was put on an equal footing with technology and the educational aspect of the laptop. This was something Nicolas Negroponte promised when he convinced me to work on the project—because, to be honest, I had been a little bit disillusioned with the computer industry, where most of the design decisions were made along the lines of, 'Well, this is a new technology, so let's stick it in.' It makes it hard to truly innovate in the computer field. But with this project, there were no assumptions that we weren't allowed to challenge.
You've talked about design bringing to life the "story" of a product. Can you explain how you tried to do that in the case of MINI, for example?
With MINI, the challenge was, how do we tell a story that makes this brand feel relevant to my life? So we looked for a story that was about movement and motion, and every product we did had this notion of movement and motion attached to it. So this led us to create the first watch with a display that changes direction; the innovation tells the story and also is the story. Most car companies just put logos on wallets and that's it. But we wanted this to be a brand whose accessories are just as innovative as the core product.
It's all very much product-driven. I really believe the products are the center of consumer experiences, and so for that reason, I think it's important not only that we create those stories from the beginning but intervene in the way that story is told. We've done some of that work ourselves; we've done naming of products, such as Slingbox, or taking a much larger role in the branding of a product like Jawbone. So, for me, it's about the designer going a lot further than has traditionally been the case.
Today people are really overwhelmed by advertising and by promotions; and in the end, the building of the brand really happens through the product, and there is a huge responsibility to refocus back on the product. I really feel the last 25 years has really been an era of marketing and advertising being the leading driver behind brands and how they communicate and contribute to culture. I think it's fascinating that it's becoming less so—I see people becoming a lot less patient with these companies and their claims. And it's because of the Internet and because of immediate feedback and consumer participation. I find it interesting that now the products really have to deliver.