A Conversation With Yves Béhar | Part 2 - Design Bureau

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A Conversation With Yves Béhar | Part 2

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

By Saundra Marcel
Photography by Josh Band

Read Part 1 of our conversation with Yves Béhar here.

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 toward 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.
Yves Béhar: Everyone is talking about it. 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: 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 incredibly enriching to everybody who’s involved, from the people in the boardroom at the top, all the way down to ground level. People like change these days. We can be scared that something too new won’t be accepted. 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 and now OUYA, a new kind of video game console. Are these examples of your interests shifting more towards technological innovation?
YB: 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.

SM: When someone tells you, ‘It can’t be done,’ is that 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 Nicholas Negroponte, who has battled for the 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. 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 made 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 10 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: 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 pallet 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 on how to help young people 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.

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