Yves Behar, Product Designer
Telegraph, Sept 2014
With visionary projects ranging from computers for children to motorbikes and wearable tech, Yves Béhar has become Silicon Valley’s oracle of stylish product design
Photo by Amanda Marsalis
Also at The Telegraph
The kind of reverence with which Silicon Valley regards its leading lights – as seers or visionaries – used to be reserved for engineers and coders, the men who did the maths. Not any more. Now that tech has become the substrate of our lives, in which everyday objects are increasingly web-connected (the so-called Internet of Things), and now that Steve Jobs’s legacy is properly understood, a new category of oracle has emerged: the product designer.
‘We’re still in the early stages of understanding how to integrate our technology into our lives,’ Yves Béhar, 47, the founder of the celebrated San Francisco design agency fuseproject, says. ‘I believe that wearable tech is truly the next frontier. I believe it will liberate us from the screen. And technology, in the health care space especially, is going to make dramatic and significant improvements to our lives.’
Over the past decade or so Béhar has become one of the tech industry’s go-to designers. On the face of it he is a curly-haired surfer, originally from Switzerland, with some of his accent intact. But behind his laidback appearance is a steely CEO who has built a multi-award-winning design agency that on the one hand will do the mundane work of redesigning packaging and logos for the likes of PayPal, Nivea and SodaStream while also designing top-flight office chairs and desk lamps for Herman Miller. But it is his tech devices that have turned the most heads, for being at once stylish, technological and, occasionally, to use his favourite word, ‘magical’. His greatest hits include the UP fitness band by Jawbone, the $100 laptop, an open-source gaming platform called Ouya and a keyless lock called August that goes on sale this month.
There is not a shred of design in his background. His mother, who is German, worked as a translator, and his Turkish father was a philatelist. But growing up by Lake Geneva, in Lausanne, Switzerland, after his parents’ emigration (his parents chose the country his father had studied in because ‘it probably seemed like a new and safe place to start a family’), Béhar decided on a design career at an early age, studying for two years at the Art College Centre of Design in Lausanne before transferring to its esteemed Pasadena, California, campus to complete his degree. He moved to San Francisco for its thriving entrepreneurial environment, and while it wasn’t easy landing his first job – ‘It wasn’t common to hire European designers, and get them visas to work in the US’ – he found his feet at Lunar Design in Palo Alto. He founded Fuse Project in 1999.
The fuseproject offices are in the Potrero Hill district, once a wasteland of disused warehouses but now home to Airbnb, Zynga and Jawbone, all within a few blocks of each other. There is no sign outside, only a wall of graffiti art. ‘That’s the street artist Jesso,’ Béhar says as he shows me around. ‘He painted it for the launch of Spotify, which we had here, and we loved it.’ There is a gallery space in the foyer, ‘to create a dialogue between art and design’. And inside is 22,000 square feet of cavernous, open-plan office, ‘because all design must be done in the open’, complete with a materials lab and laser cutter where prototypes are built, a stadium-seating area for in-house TED-style talks, and a floor full of red and white workstations for his 75-strong team.
They are a youngish bunch, in their 20s and 30s, and largely female. Dress code is casual. In a city that has made a fetish out of the workplace, the office is refreshingly ordinary. There is free breakfast every day, but no in-house chef. But for the people playing ping-pong in the corner, and a couple of women fussing over their dogs – it is a pet-friendly office – everyone is at their screens in relative silence, or in murmuring groups at the huge walls of whiteboard, scribbling sketches, charts and buzzwords. It is an office that works.
‘This whole office is a prototype we’re testing for Herman Miller,’ Béhar explains. ‘Seventy per cent of meetings happen at the desk but no one has built a furniture system where the desk is a place to collaborate. We wanted to create an invitation to meet, so we designed this.’ He points to what he calls the Social Chair. It allows the sitter to face ahead or 90 degrees to the side – it is comfortable, informal, and permits interaction in two directions. ‘It’s ergonomic, performance collaborative seating,’ he says.
And where is Béhar’s office? ‘I sit out there with everyone else,’ he says. ‘I’ve never had a private office in my entire career. I hate that.’
Typical of the tech industry, Yves Béhar seldom wears suits, almost always favouring a casual look – the designers he namechecks are often local and up and coming, such as Nice Collective and Undefeated.
He has lived in San Francisco since 1993, and has adopted the city’s mores with a convert’s zeal. He disdains hierarchy and speaks in that Silicon Valley shorthand of ‘sustainability’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘disruption’. (He spoke at TED himself in 2008, on the topic Designing Objects That Tell Stories.)
He has cultivated a very Bay Area lifestyle that balances work and family, city and nature, global and local. ‘I enjoy a vibrant cultural life in the city during the week, and at the weekend I escape to nature,’ he says. By ‘I’, he really means himself and his wife, Sabrina Buell, a noted gallerist who has been featured in Vogue, and their three children, aged seven, four and three months.
The children are tech-obsessed, of course, and they are already showing design interest, taking things apart and trying to figure out how they work. And at weekends they all go to a charmingly rugged beach house in exclusive Bolinas, where Béhar surfs. It is no surprise to learn that he works with local craftsmen while he is there.
But most of all, he is conspicuous about his philanthropy – in the spirit of the city, Béhar wears his ethics on the outside. ‘To me, design has always been a giving profession,’ he says. ‘You work on making something others will experience every day, and I think there’s a certain generosity to that work.’
So throughout his studio are exhibits showcasing his non-profit work. Foremost is the groundbreaking One Laptop Per Child project, which created affordable computers and now tablets for the developing world – since its launch in 2006 the programme has distributed three million units to more than 45 countries. fuseproject has also designed free condom dispenser machines for the city of New York (in 2007), which increased condom distribution from nine million to 39 million in year one, and Béhar was the designer of record for the See Better To Learn Better projectthat provides 600,000 pairs of cheap glasses a year for Mexican children.
All these projects have continued to evolve since their launch, and Béhar’s passion for them is undimmed – ‘It’s hard for me to move on from things that I fall in love with.’ At the end of this year he will announce a new project to benefit girls in Africa.
‘I always say that good design accelerates the adoption of new ideas,’ he says, sitting at a long, arced table in what he describes as ‘the family space’ of the office (the lunch area). ‘And that’s what fuseproject does. We’re not designers of things and experiences. We’re designers of ideas.’
The idea everyone is talking about in Silicon Valley these days is that wearable technology is a revolution in waiting, an imminent explosion ofApple Watch-fuelled innovation that may surpass mobile phones. It is a development Béhar himself is keen to see, since he is as guilty as the next man of mobile addiction, and can talk at length about its malignant effect on our lives. But Béhar the Utopian is sceptical. ‘I’m not interested in a cell phone on the wrist,’ he says. ‘The size of display, the location, the level of interruption will be too much to bear for a lot of consumers.’
The principle issue that wearable tech faces is its social messaging – what has been referred to as ‘the Glasshole problem’ (referring to Google Glass). If fashion is about self-expression, then what does a Bluetooth earpiece express? Jawbone offers an elegant version with higher-quality materials, sleeker lines and no flashing light – but it is still a piece of plastic sticking out of your ear announcing that you are busy on a call. ‘Look, I’ve never said you should wear it all the time,’ Béhar says, pulling his own earpiece from his pocket and popping it in his ear. ‘But it’s actually incredibly useful when I’m on my laptop and I have to type at the same time. They were derided a few years ago, but now, with the movie Her, people have realised how important voice is.’
The Spike Jonze film he refers to is a story about loneliness in a distracted tech-swamped future. Béhar smiles. ‘And of course, that will happen too one day.’
Fitness bands, however, are an easier sell. They are not on your face, and they send the more positive message that you are sporty, health-conscious. Again, Béhar’s design for the UP is a triumph – like the earpiece, it alludes strongly to jewellery, stepping towards fashion just as its core competitor, the lighter, less obtrusive Fitbit, steps away. But here, too, the messaging is precarious. As with all Quantified Self devices, the monitoring of personal data 24/7 may suggest self-obsession. And £100 is a lot of money to be told you are not exercising enough.
‘There’s also sleep data,’ Béhar says. ‘When the earthquake hit Napa, we showed how far from the epicentre people were when it woke them up. The US Geological Survey was blown away that we had the exact data. It went viral on Twitter.
‘We’re still in the infancy of the Quantified Self. Most health treatments that are dispensed out there, there’s zero data to tell you if it is actually working or not. But once you can analyse your body and your fluids and get regular feedback, you can really monitor whether someone’s behaviour is reinforcing the effect of a drug in a positive or negative manner.’
By analysing fluids, do you mean measuring blood sugar and cholesterol and so on? ‘Yes, yes, all of it. In fact Google X is developing a contact lens that allows someone to know what their diabetes levels are without pricking themselves.’
Sensors are not the only concern for designers in the wearables space. There are the opposite imperatives of the fashion and tech worlds to bridge – namely the former’s emphasis on individuality and the latter’s inclination toward homogeneity. Armies of identical silver Macs is one thing, but identical watches is quite another. ‘I don’t see personal accessories being uniform,’ Béhar says. ‘And people will not want one general device to do everything any more. People are looking for many different things for devices to do. Some are interested in exercising, some are interested in meditating. A general-purpose device on a wrist won’t satisfy from either a functional or a personal style expression.’
There is also the broader issue of adapting technology to our lives, rather than vice versa. ‘When technology betrays basic human behaviour, it encounters social resistance and negative connotation,’ Béhar says. ‘Look at the Segway. It was a magical, incredible product, but it failed because the person on the Segway was one foot above everybody else. You cannot have a conversation with that person. So who uses it today? Cops. And cops used to be on horses.’
This principle also explains why Google Glass falls flat. ‘Human beings are very sensitive to pupil dilation,’ he says. ‘If you’re looking here’ – he points to a midpoint in the air between us – ‘the human eye will perceive that you’re not looking at me, by the dilation of your pupil. And that is a negative signal for me.’
It is insights like this that have elevated Béhar to his current status in Silicon Valley. But it wasn’t always this way. When he arrived there was no notion that a designer was critical to creating a successful product. It was the early 1990s, at the advent of the personal computer market, and Béhar was typically asked to provide skins, to pretty up the existing technology. ‘It was superficial,’ he says. ‘We didn’t address function at all.’
But this was San Francisco, and change was inevitable. Béhar once said about his life in Switzerland that ‘it’s hard to be a contrarian in a country that doesn’t change.’ And now he was in a city where change was a mantra. ‘People didn’t say no, they would suspend disbelief, and come along with you on your idea,’ he says. ‘They’d challenge it, but in a positive way. It’s almost a character difference.’
The internet was instrumental in turning things around. ‘Consumers were reviewing products and communicating directly with companies,’ Béhar says. ‘And these conversations were often design based. It was all about what they did or didn’t like about the product.’ By the early 2000s, design had become the primary way by which tech companies set themselves apart from others. And then Apple changed the paradigm for good. Béhar’s prominence in Silicon Valley is in no small part the legacy of Steve Jobs.
His latest obsession is the kind of thing of which Jobs might well have approved. Béhar describes it as ‘the invisible interface’. ‘It’s the idea that we can control the world around us without the interference of the phone,’ he says. ‘So when someone says, “Just open the app,” I say, what if you didn’t? How could you control this device without taking your phone out of your pocket, entering a password, finding the app, clicking on the app…? It’s a lot of steps. And my threshold for complexity is the light switch – if I push it it’s on, and if I push it it’s off. OK, you have to walk up to it, but problems should be solved with the simplicity of a light switch, but in a way that is modern.’
Béhar has achieved this with the August lock, which does away with keys altogether. The problem was obvious. ‘People are constantly losing their keys and looking for them, and usually when they’re in a hurry,’ he says. ‘Keys are one of those idiosyncrasies in our modern lives. I’m not one to change everything just because technology can. But people hate their keys!’
The impetus came from Jason Johnson, an entrepreneur friend he had met at his TED talk of 2008. Johnson took him to lunch and proposed reinventing the lock. ‘We talked about all the promises by technology companies over the years to make the home interactive,’ Johnson says. ‘You know, the home of the future? And I told Yves about Near Field Communications – which is where you put your phone up to a payment terminal, say, and it charges your credit card. The vision I had was for people to hold their phone up to the lock to unlock it. But Yves said, “If I have to pull my phone out of my pocket, I may as well pull my keys out of my pocket. That’s not very magical!” ’
That kicked off nearly two years of work for 20 people, but the result is a lock that can be set to open as you, or selected individuals, approach it. You still need a phone, but it can stay in your pocket. There is no need for keys, no hiding them under the doormat. ‘That’s how Yves works,’ Johnson says. ‘He keeps challenging you. How can we make it smaller, smoother, faster, more magical? And whatever your obstacle, he asks why, what are your limitations?’
Perhaps Béhar can do a similar thing with wearable technology. Certainly, the possibilities have been percolating for more than a decade. In 1999 he was invited to exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in a show about the future of the shoe, and he developed a concept called the Learning Shoe. Through a series of sensors it recorded how one walked, how much, one’s weight, changes in surface pressure, and so on. At the end, the consumer could take the data back to the brand, which would in turn be able to provide a better fit. ‘You wouldn’t just get the next season’s shoe, you’d get a personalised, improved shoe that would be informed by the sensors in the first product,’ he says. ‘I wanted to change the relationship between brand and customer to something more long-term and built on value.’ He laughs. ‘That was before wireless internet, before Bluetooth. You literally had to remove the chip and send it in. But I always thought that this would be the future of wearable products. They’d become intelligent. It has taken a few years longer to get there than I thought.’
‘I made this': Yves Béhar picks his most significant projects
‘It was the first thing I ever made. I was 14 years old. I wanted to go windsurfing on Lake Geneva when it was frozen, so I made this hybrid object – two skis that were connected by a skateboard-like plank, which had straps for my feet to go in. And I mounted a windsurfing mast on the top. It worked!’
‘My first foray into all-electric vehicles, and it allowed me to rethink the idea of the muscular motorcycle to make something more advanced and streamlined. The triangulated openings on the side are ventilation for the batteries, but also serve to signal the unique technology powering the motorcycle. The top of the bike, with integrated headlights, tail-lights and seats, is continuous, expressing the fluid feeling of riding a motorcycle with the main noise now being the wind and the road. The acceleration and natural-feeling deceleration through engine braking makes for a very fluid riding style.’
Ouya gaming console
‘A different kind of project for me. I hadn’t done much gaming work before, but I liked the idea of disrupting the gaming industry, which is run in the way film studios used to be organised – just two or three companies that make it challenging for anyone to make a new game. Ouya is low-cost, and open, so anyone can put their game on the platform.’
One Laptop Per Child
‘This was a radical idea that needed a radical design. And the key was that kids should love it. Computers have never been designed for children in the way that’s both relatable for them and also of high quality. There were other considerations – what kind of power consumption would be appropriate and so on. But we always asked ourselves – will children love this feature, this colour, this texture? That informed everything.’
‘The core criterion was 24-hour wearability. People needed to be comfortable wearing the product during the day and also in their sleep, and that dictated the materials, the technical configuration, the sensors. That’s why the overall feel of the current product is very malleable and flexible. It fits to your wrist by adapting to the shape of your body.’
See Better To Learn Better
‘We found that when kids are given state-issued black eyeglasses, they don’t wear them, because kids have as strong an image of themselves as we adults. So we allowed kids to pick their own shapes and their own colours. And we made the design very durable, by using a material called Grilimide. These glasses can be pulled out and made flat, and still won’t break.’