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“You can’t make anything crappy today and think it’s going to be successful. Crappy’s out.”
SAYL CHAIR, 2010
Client: Herman Miller
Challenge: To craft a high-design office chair for half the price of the iconic Aeron chair.
UP BAND, 2011
Challenge: To create a fitness and sleep-tracking band cool (and comfortable) enough to be worn 24-7.
Challenge: To engineer an Android-powered open-source gaming console for under $100.
VER BIEN GLASSES, 2010
Client: Augen Optics
Challenge: To make customizable, indestructible eyeglasses for low-income schoolchildren in Mexico.
It’s Yves Béhar’s World. We Just Live (Better) in It.
The man behind the Jambox, the UP band, and, soon, the OUYA (say it “Ooh Yah!”) gaming console is changing the business of product design.
Lauren Murrow | Photo: Cody Pickens | March 22, 2013
Although designers were once viewed as dispensable window dressers, today they’re emerging as essential power players in a company’s success, the people most responsible for pulling all the elements of a product launch together. Designers are founders or cofounders of some of the Bay Area’s most successful startups, including YouTube, Pinterest, and Airbnb. Last year, Béhar became the creative founder of Ouya, an Android-operated open-source gaming console that will allow any user to create a video game. In July, the product raised the most money in a single day in Kickstarter’s history (nearly $2.6 million) and went on to amass nearly $8.6 million from more than 63,000 backers in just 30 days. “The era of the designer as a signature man is over,” says Béhar.
Not surprisingly, he looks for a similarly transformative ethos when selecting commissions. Though Fuseproject’s clients have paid Béhar and company to create everything from Jambox speakers to cargo bikes, Béhar says that he is drawn mainly to jobs that challenge him to “make a contrarian idea successful.” Dismissing, for example, “the notion that sustainability is expensive or ugly,” his firm designed Puma’s Clever Little Bag, a lightweight, recyclable pouch that uses 65 percent less cardboard than a standard shoe box. With equal contempt for “the notion that technology has to be difficult and humorless and uninspiring,” the firm came up with the neon-accented XO Laptop, a $200 computer made specifically for kids. Béhar’s next, still-under-wraps, project broaches the emerging field of in-home sensors.
Of course, it may be easier to get people to buy into your iconoclastic approach when you have a knack for waxing philosophic about sustainability and civic duty; a beautiful, well-connected partner (art adviser Sabrina Buell, daughter of developer Mark Buell); and a vague resemblance to Michelangelo’s David. (On the flight home from a trip to Costa Rica recently, the flight attendant mistook Béhar for an X Games surfer half his age.) “Anyone who meets Yves will tell you he’s very charismatic, fun to be around,” says Fisher. “I think that’s one of the secrets to his success.” For the record, Béhar scoffs at what he calls celebrity-directed design. “Relative to the world of true celebrity, designers are still very, very undercover,” he says. “It’s not some signature designer or face that makes the whole thing work.” His own success, rather, lies in what happens in Fuseproject’s creative pit.
At the office, the process starts with a brainstorm among a crew of industrial, graphic, and digital designers. Private offices are nonexistent at the new headquarters. Instead, there are some 30 workstations where groups can congregate and disperse quickly. (“We don’t spend time in meeting rooms,” Béhar says dismissively.) The team works to hit upon a single, compelling idea, then builds the “brand ecosystem” around it. With the Ouya gaming console, for example, it all started with the name. “I was really excited about the notion of this open universe of games, so I started with the letters O and U,” says Béhar. “Then I wanted a sort of release sound—you know, like when something fun happens and you go, ‘Ooooo-yeeeeaahh!’” Amid cheers and fist pumping, Ouya was born.
Then the pencils come out. At Fuseproject, a single project generates thousands of sketches. Béhar himself can produce hundreds of thumbnail drawings in a day. It’s an impulse embedded in adolescence: At the age of 19, rather than attending university like his friends, the Swiss-born Béhar enrolled in a drawing school in the town of Lausanne where teenage dropouts and retirees sat side by side shading landscapes. (The experience eventually led him to study at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.) He still trumpets the sketch as the most effective form of communication. “I’m always telling my team, ‘If you never draw a bad idea, it will remain in your head. The best way to purge it is to draw it.’”
The prototyping phase comes next. In creating the Herman Miller Sayl chair, the Fuseproject team produced 70 models in the span of eight months, “each uglier than the last.” Another of Béhar’s tenets: “There’s virtue in failing quickly.” It’s a major reason that he prefers San Francisco to other design capitals. “In New York, it takes six months to schedule a meeting,” he says. “In San Francisco, we meet and two weeks later we work.”