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Never let it be said that Yves Behar doesn’t sweat the details. In a meeting with Hosain Rahman, the head of Jawbone, the consumer electronics company where Behar serves as chief creative officer, the two spent half an hour discussing the “blackness of the black” of a new product. Jawbone, which sells Behar-designed speakers, fitness trackers and Bluetooth earpieces, is just one of several technology companies affiliated with Fuseproject, the agency Behar founded in San Francisco in 1999.
“The best design work is really done when you spend more time with people, when you have the opportunity to be of the same mindset and the same incentives as the founder of the business,” says Behar. “We have to be creative with the business model, not just the design side of things.”
That approach has made him the go-to designer for a new crop of hardware start-ups that has emerged in the last year, fuelled by the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and low-cost prototyping technology such as 3D printing – from a door lock that can be controlled from the iPhone to apps that improve your golf game. His latest crowdfunded hit is Ouya, a “hackable” games console that sells for $99 and runs a sleekly modified version of Google’s Android smartphone software. “We talk about Yves as our creative co-founder,” says Julie Uhrmann, Ouya’s chief executive. “Just saying we were partners wasn’t good enough.”
Working with start-ups requires what Behar describes as “a particular type of thinking that designers can be well suited for: being in the shoes of your customer”. With a Turkish father and a German mother, he likes to say that he is a blend of the two personalities, modernist yet emotional. “If you don’t love something, it’s not functional, in my opinion.” He trained as an industrial designer but Fuseproject now works on everything about a product, from apps to brands and managing manufacturing.
His designs often attempt to bring the future to the present, even when he isn’t working with tech companies; crafting LED lamps and office furniture for Herman Miller, he is following in the footsteps of his modernist heroes George Nelson and Charles Eames. Equally important to Behar is design’s impact on the world – whether increasing the positive or reducing the negative. The “clever little bag”, a canny combination of shoebox and carrier bag for Puma, reduced retail waste, while his bunny-eared XO laptop, for Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, is used by millions of schoolchildren in poorer parts of the world.
There is something very Californian about this combination of the ultra-modern and the environmentally aware. Despite being born in landlocked Switzerland, Behar, 46, has in recent years become a regular surfer, often on the wilder parts of the coastline north of San Francisco. He says that surfing is not too dissimilar from design, requiring improvisation, timing and a fresh response every time.
A decade ago, “all I heard from my clients was: we want to be like Apple,” he says. “Now, people really want to build their own identity – the personality of their product needs to be different from everyone else. This is a unique time in design for that very reason.”
In what area, or to which issue, has product design been most important, globally, over the past two decades?
Providing a computer in people’s backpocket. More specifically, Touch has been the killer app that really has transformed the notion that a computer is a large piece of hardware with a keyboard and become something you can wear anywhere. In the developing world, the very basic phone and the ability to get around the lack of infrastructure through cell network connections is by far the most impactful thing for rural and urban communities. The impact of the next 20 years will be to get us unglued from the screen. It turns out we are slaves to the screen. Invisible interfaces that deliver knowledge to us without screens will be the next things that need to be invented.
What is your favourite graphic created by someone other than yourself in any field of graphics?
Saul Bass poster for Anatomy of a Murder, and his Warner Brothers logo
If you had to represent what you do in only five examples of your work, which would you choose?
1. OLPC and new XO with app [One Laptop Per Child tablet]
2. SAYL [office chair, for Herman Miller]
3. August (product + app + brand) [smart lock]
4. Jambox and UP (product + brand) [speakers and body-monitor wristband]
5. Puma Clever Little Bag [box and bag in one]
Who would you predict is the person or organisation whose work will be most important in the future?
This is hard to predict but my sense is a combination of biology, technology software and hardware, and design, will be combined to bring solutions to healthcare that are both efficient and cost-reducing, while providing a more preventative, precise and human-centric service to individuals. Nasa, MIT, UCB, Cambridge seem to have the science and technology side, while the design side is still up for grabs.
Who were your biggest influences in your field?
Bruno Munari, Charles Eames, George Nelson