A Conversation With Yves Béhar | Part 1 - Design Bureau


Above: Yves Béhar. Below: Inside the fuseproject studio.

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A Conversation With Yves Béhar | Part 1

Friday, March 15th, 2013

By Saundra Marcel
Photography by Josh Band

Swiss-born industrial designer Yves Béhar kind of likes to be told what not to do. He’s a self-proclaimed contrarian, and he likes it that way.

Founder of San Francisco-based design firm Fuseproject, Béhar has been redefining design for years with products like the leaf lamp and Sayl chair for Herman Miller, a $100 laptop, sustainable box-less sneaker packaging for Puma, and a variety of techy gadgets like wireless headsets, speakers, and a video game console. And he’s proven to be an entrepreneurial genius when it comes to betting on ideas that are forging our future world. Even when people have said “it can’t be done,” Béhar has been more than happy to prove them wrong.

Saundra Marcel: Many companies have been coming to you for direction, saying, ‘We want to be the next Apple of our industry.’ And you’ve responded by asking: ‘Do you have guts?’ What does guts have to do with design?
Yves Béhar: Design is a blood sport. It’s hard to do and it dies on the vine every day. I mean, design is like—I don’t know if this is a good comparison—but design is like a baby chick with an 80 percent chance of dying within its first day. It takes courage internally for a company to put themselves at risk, because change is always a risk. Even though for me, not changing is a bigger risk. The other thing is, when people say they want to be ‘the Apple of their industry,’ do they realize what it takes? Do they realize that when Apple launched the iPhone, they hired 600 engineers on a project that made no money for the first three or four years? It takes this kind of vision and commitment. There’s a word Herman Miller uses: it’s ‘abandonment.’ This is a business that says ‘we abandon ourselves to our designers’ in a way that is almost religious—they’ve been working with external designers for 60 or 70 years. It takes an incredible amount of courage to suspend disbelief, to build and rebuild business plans so they fit a vision. You have to abandon yourself to a direction and you have to be willing to fail throughout the process in order to succeed at the other end. And so, yes, it takes guts, because it’s a bloody exercise.

SM: Your practice of being both an entrepreneur and a designer is unique. You take equity partners and ownership in companies and products that you believe in, rather than participating in the more traditional work-for-hire approach. How did this come about?
YB: For me, the only reason to do design is if it’s going to live on for many years, and if it’s going to create a rallying vision for a business to build itself. About 10 years ago, I started to look for long-term agreements. But startups and smaller companies can’t afford a top-ranked professional firm working with them on an ongoing basis. We’ve found that every arrangement has to be completely different. Every company is at a different stage. You have startups that are at the angel round. You have some that already have financing. You have mature companies that are public, like Herman Miller, who we’ve been partnering with for 11 years. We took on being creative with business, and then crafted unique agreements with every single one of our partners. Now, we have over 20 of them.

SM: You’ve worked on everything from condoms and vibrators, to high-end Swarovski chandeliers, to big retail brands like Puma and Coca-Cola, in addition to your humanitarian interests. Is there a connector between all the varied things you work on?
YB: The commonality across our work is that we create by looking at where society is going, how people are thinking, and what the new emerging ideas are that will be important to how we’re going to live. My best definition today of design is that design accelerates the adoption of new ideas.

SM: How do you know which products to believe in? Are there certain qualities that you look for in the idea or the people?
YB: We evaluate along a few criteria. One of them is: how much value can we bring to the business, and how much of a difference can we make? The bigger the difference, the more interesting it is, because then the more impact we can have, and the bigger the partnership. Second, we do an evaluation of the potential of the market, just like any business. Third, there’s an emotional element to that as well, because I’m very steeped in the innovation culture of Silicon Valley, and sometimes there’s very little data to look at. But if the idea and the founders are fascinating, and go along the lines of societal change that I’m excited about, then I’m interested. And number four, a very important criteria: you need to be able to have more than one lunch or one dinner with the people you’re going to be partners with, because you’re going to work with them for years. You need to like them and want to spend time with them, because you will. There will be some ups and some downs. There will be moments of disagreement, and there will be moments of elation. You’re going to need to get through all that. It’s all about being selective and betting on the future you believe in.

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