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INTERVIEW: Yves Behar on Green Design, Data Overload, and His First Foray Into Architecture
If you’ve ever used a Jawbone, sat in a Sayl, or fired up a SodaStream, then you’re sure to be familiar with the work of industrial design superstar Yves Behar. He’s also the designer behind pioneering projects for social good like the One Laptop Per Child Project, the NYC Condom, and these free VerBien glasses for Mexican students. We recently had a chance to chat with Yves about his favorite projects, the future of green technology, and his first foray into architecture – check out our interview after the break!
INHABITAT: How did you get your start as a designer? Did you know when you were a child that you wanted to be a designer?
BEHAR: I feel very lucky that I found what I wanted to do very early on. I think I was 15 or 16 years old when I chose to be a designer, and it was purely on instinct. It was not so much on skill, because I really had to develop the skills to become a designer. I wasn’t a child prodigy draftsman; I had to learn all those things. But I chose to learn them, and I chose to pursue that. And it looks like I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life.
INHABITAT: You’ve said in the past that a designer has a role not only to create commercially viable products but also to further the social and civic good. Which of the designs that you have worked on do you think has made the greatest difference in people’s lives?
BEHAR: There are a number of them. I think the One Laptop Per Child project is one that comes to mind [because] it was dedicated to education and social good. But I think there are many of them – VerBien Glasses for Mexico; the New York City Condom. They all did, I think, two things. One, they provided a better service or a better experience and an opportunity for people to learn or get educated about the benefits of those products. The other thing that they did is show other organizations that design is a very important tool to further their social and environmental aims. And I think that there’s been a lot of emulation and a lot of neat projects that have been made because of these examples. I think design contributed a lot – specifically to those projects, but also, more generally, to the field of non-profits in general.
I would also say that I don’t think it’s entirely a non-profit effort that furthers social or environmental goals. I would also say that, in our commercial practice, I feel like we have created moments in peoples’ lives that have changed peoples’ lives a little bit and for the better. The goal of design, to me, is to accelerate the adoption of new ideas. And [with] ideas such as sustainability, for example – they’re very hard for people to grasp and to practice.
I think that, sometimes, it doesn’t need to be a social and/or environmentally focused endeavor to actually change people’s minds and bring along new ideas that actually have an impact on the world. The Sodastream, for example, is a project that I think very much convinced people that they can think differently about their consumption – and that is a transformative experience.
I would also add the Puma Clever Little Bag shoe box, because it is one of these other projects where … I didn’t think it would be a game changer, you know? It’s not one of these dream projects that crosses the threshold of your office and you go, “Wow! This is a game changer – because it is a project that will change the world!”
On the other hand, if you apply yourself and you try to follow a big idea, a humble project like this – making a new shoe box – can actually provide an important new view on the world; on a brand like Puma. I think, sometimes, an important or “dream” project, really can be one that you create yourself out of a brief that initially may not seem to have that potential. And I think part of being a designer is being resourceful in that way and to take a project and build it into an extraordinary, new interaction.
INHABITAT: Are there any products or things out there in the world that you would love to completely redesign?
BEHAR: Yes, there are things I would love to do – there are always things I would love to do! One is designing a car – working on transportation, for me, is very important. I will find a way to make some of these dreams happen.
INHABITAT: In the past few months you’ve unveiled a reusable cup that tracks the nutritional content of everything its user drinks and a smart garden system that monitors soil quality and water levels – and of course, you also designed the Jawbone Up. How can data-sourcing designs like these help improve lives?
BEHAR: Well, there’s a level of awareness that is very positive – awareness about how we live, how much we move, and how well we sleep. For example, the Jawbone UP can encourage people to make changes in their lives and in a lot of cases it can help them discover things about themselves which maybe they didn’t know; things that maybe they suspected but they didn’t entirely know. I have no interest in putting technology in stuff; I have an interest in creating technology that becomes a way for people to change the way they live. I actually see a pattern where the information [provided by these connected products] is extremely useful and can be actually transformational for certain people.
INHABITAT: It sometimes feels like plant gadgets that measure water and soil can distract people from just looking at their plant and touching the soil to see how it’s doing. It also seems that cell phones have hindered people’s ability to communicate face-to-face. Do you ever feel like there is such a thing as “too much data”?”
BEHAR: I fully believe and agree that there is too much distraction and that technology is problematic in this way. And actually, my entire practice in the space of technology is to change it. I am a big proponent of something that I call “the invisible interface.” I do think that collecting data for us to understand or digest is important – but I think that it needs to be done in a way that is discrete and in the flow of our lives rather than in ways that removes us from our lives and that removes us from interacting with others. We’ve lived the last seven years in the age of the smartphone, and we need to move beyond the screen in the way that we interact with our data and that we interact with technology. And I think a lot of what I’m working on is about creating invisible interfaces and the type of feedback that actually wouldn’t be distracting; it would just give you enough information about what’s going on to make you aware of what’s going on but without the constant distraction that we’re experiencing today.
INHABITAT: Technology has the potential to make our lives easier and more enjoyable, however it also presents environmental and social challenges. How do you address issues like e-waste, obsolescence, energy use and material use when designing gadgets to improve lives?
BEHAR: That’s a very hard question as well. One of the things that is quite exciting, at least for me, is the fact that the products we work on don’t become obsolete just because the hardware gets older or … ages and breaks down. We’ve actually done a lot of projects – and I’m thinking, for example, of the Jambox – where people have had the speaker for six to eight years plus now. And they actually have the ability to improve the performance of the product both in the sound and the battery life through firmware updates.
And these are objects that, in the past, without the technology inside for firmware or for an improvement on the technology, would be obsolete. You would upgrade fairly rapidly. But what I have actually seen is an extension of the life of some of these products. I think about a year ago, we sent an update on the big Jambox and people saw a 20 percent battery life increase and a sound improvement in a product that they had bought a year or two prior. And that’s so surprising to people, when they see that something that they’ve been using for a while and that they’ve taken for granted suddenly gets to be improved. And, again, this isn’t something that, traditionally, happens with these types of consumer products. But today this is something that we can do more and more. And so, for example, I have a car and I get a software update every week or two. And I get more information and better performance out of my car. That really makes me think differently about consumption and how products become obsolete.
INHABITAT: That’s fantastic – actually reversing the trend of obsolescence and making things better instead.
BEHAR: Exactly. I think that is where things should be going. I’m not gonna say that it’s perfect, in the current model, but i see a clear direction – a “new direction” in that sense.
INHABITAT: How do you navigate the impact that technology can have on people’s social lives? For example, the tendency for many gadgets to make people distracted, antisocial and disconnected from the people they are physically with at any given time.
BEHAR: So, I do think this is a huge issue – and one that everyone has to grapple with. I feel like shows a lot of the immaturity of the technology of today. You know, I do think that we have, as tech and design people, a responsibility to create products that aren’t just there to distract you from the world around you – but, rather, support that interaction with the world around you.
Designing with a human interaction model that will not distract you from the rest of the world is absolutely critical. And, when that is not done well, you end up with products and experiences that essentially, fail. So, for example, if you think about the Segway; the Segway put people on the sidewalk and on the street. But they put people on the sidewalk about 12 feet taller than everybody else. And that is the fatal flaw of that particular product, because if I’m looking at you at the correct height, you and I can have a comfortable conversation together. If I’m looking at you and talking to you and I’m standing one foot higher, then it’s not a natural, human interaction.
And that’s why the product ended up being perfect for police yet not great for everyday life. So designing with natural human interaction in mind is absolutely critical. And, in may ways, technology companies and designers all have to consider that, very closely, when creating products. Because I don’t think products that distract you from real life have the longevity and the potential of products that integrate in everyday life . . . at the end of the day, those technologies are going to last a lot longer and be a lot more successful.
INHABITAT: You recently unveiled plans for Centro in Miami, which is your first foray into architecture. How did you get involved with this project? How is this building different from other Condo designs?
BEHAR: So, it’s my first large commercial interiors project. What makes it so different and what really attracted me to it is the fact that it’s a building that’s right downtown at the very center of Miami cultural life – theaters and restaurants and galleries – it’s right at the center of it all. It’s a condo building, but it doesn’t have a garage – that means we can have electric cars and bicycles up front. It’s also a project that is very close to good public transportation. That gives it a completely different meaning than a condo project. And it’s not a luxury type of investment. All of the materials used are authentic – we use raw concrete throughout the building. So, it has a lot of the, I would say, “integrity” of what I would consider to be a good project in the middle of a cultural center.
I really think it has the bones to be strong community center, which, I got very excited about. They actually have a restaurant on the street which is part of the development; a restaurant that is open ’til nine and is affordable, and they have a couple other ones in Miami. It’s just a great, young crowd that frequents it. So it felt like the right project for something that is going to grow in the middle of a cultural center like Miami.
INHABITAT: How is designing a building similar to designing products – how is it different?
BEHAR: It’s very different from a scale and materials standpoint, and a process standpoint as well. But, for me, the reason why I get of bed every morning is because of the ideas that we can put in motion through our work. So, if there is a big idea in the project, then I want to personally approve every detail, every aspect of it. And, in this case, the authenticity of the building, the fact that there is no parking for cars – that was a big idea that I felt I could contribute to. So, I think the work that I do is very much based on the passion for the bigger idea and that the physical form and the scale of the project becomes just part of the execution. Even though it’s my first and it’s a very different type of project, I don’t see it as something that different from the rest of our practice.
INHABITAT: What’s next in the future? Do you have a dream project or client you’d like to work with?
BEHAR: I often get that question about, “What are your dream projects?” “What is it that you would like to work on?” “Who is it that you would like to work with?” And I have to say, I could never have predicted the types of projects I have worked on and the people we have worked with. I think they all came because they liked the ideas, they liked the commitment. They thought we could be great partners and change the world a little bit together. And those are the kind of people for whom I want to spend the years that it takes to build big things together. I’m inclined to say [that] I’m looking for those types of people who love to partner on big ideas rather than specific types of projects or companies. But I do know these people exist out there – and I want to meet more of them. Because for me, it’s the greatest learning experience; the greatest design adventure – to build friendships and partnerships with people who think of the world differently.
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