Recently, University of Washington professor of industrial design, Magnus Feil, sat down with industrial designer Yves Béhar to discuss their profession.

Photo: Courtesy of fuseproject

Photo: Courtesy of fuseproject.

Your work is high-tech (the Jawbone), sexy (Jimmyjane vibrators) and humanitarian (XO Laptop). How do you operate in these three disparate modes of thinking?

I don’t think they are disparate modes for me. For me projects are born not out of style, not out of a formula, but out of an important context quickly followed by a core idea. I combine tools – such as technology, sustainability, storytelling – to move design, to move companies, to create something that is hopefully truly unique in the market, something that expresses a level of quality, responsibility, a level of excitement and sexiness that makes people want to participate in the design and the company. This holds true for the eyeglasses that we created for Mexico’s See Better to Learn Better program; a six-year-old kid can become excited because they are participating in the design of their own eyeglasses, and with the platform we created, they discover that they can go beyond the stigma of wearing glasses. It is also true for people looking for the right ergonomics, the right price-point with the right contemporary expression, which is something we did with the Herman Miller SAYL chair.

In a previous interview you talked about the lack of risk-taking in corporate boardrooms. Do you see a change in corporate culture these days?

I do see a very big change in corporate culture, moving away from a purely building perspective through marketing and advertising towards building experiences and content through design. With that said, corporations are hard and slow to change. While I have seen a dramatic change in the last ten years, I still think the majority of companies still work in silos. Their thinking is still led by marketing, while I think design should lead their thinking.

How do you overcome this corporate thinking?

I have always believed in doing and creating things by example rather than on a theoretical basis. I believe in finding those visionary CEOs with whom I can do longtime work. I’m not casting a wide net with some sort of management consulting practice. I’m much more focused on long-term relationships with a few clients with whom I can demonstrate a different way of thinking and doing.

Issues of sustainability are now very much central to design. Can you share a bit of how this transition has happened in terms of your own experience in the industry?

I don’t think this transition has truly happened yet. I do think what’s creating the need for a very strong sustainability approach in design is really the consumer because that’s what they want. This provides a gigantic opportunity for designers, as consumers aren’t willing to settle for just an eco-label. That means as designers we have to go a lot deeper than just labeling things or thinking about switching from one type of manufacturing or material to another. What we really have to think about is reinventing from the ground up, adding more to make products compelling while using these new tools of sustainability.

We are in a period of transition, and the companies that are doing well with this approach are basically going to push the slow moving ones to change. It is like a snowball in motion, and I would like to be a part of it when it’s small rather than later. I have no doubt that sustainability will change the way the industry does pretty much everything. I believe it will change design as well.

How should design education prepare students in the best possible way for the shifting challenges of the job market?

There are two conflicting and almost contradicting needs in design education that are challenging. One is to constantly add new subjects and know that young designers will be aware of ever-higher levels of complexity. I’m always hearing that students should know about marketing, writing, technology, or strategy. That is true, they should know about all these things, but what primarily gets students through the first three to five years of their careers is being simply excellent and doing one thing—which is basically designing. That’s really what allows them to learn as they are starting out, and eventually they become multi-faceted, talented people. I think the danger is to take away too much time from the tremendous work and dedication it takes to become a designer who follows his or her own instincts. That is such a tremendous endeavor as a young creative, but I think we should focus our time, at least at the undergraduate level, to make absolutely excellent creatives out of design students.