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Design is about the human intent

Yves Béhar, the Swiss-born, San Francisco-based designer behind Jawbone’s Up fitness tracker and One Laptop Per Child, is the winner of Design Miami’s 2015 Visionary Award

The designer Yves Béhar, 48, is the winner of Design Miami’s 2015 Design Visionary Award. The Swiss-born, San Francisco-based founder of the industrial design and branding firm Fuseproject is known for his holistic design vision, creating work across fields including furniture, technology, fashion and pro bono humanitarian projects. He has collaborated with international firms such as BMW, Puma, Issey Miyake, Prada, Nike, SodaStream, Samsung and Swarovski, and his work is in permanent collections worldwide, including New York and San Francisco’s Museums of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago. His top projects will be shown on a special stand at Design Miami.  

The Art Newspaper: Your designs range from physical products to software and technology. Is there a connecting thread that runs through all of them?

Yves Béhar: Absolutely. I think the thread that ties our projects together is simply committing to a big idea, and design is the narrative we use to turn that idea into an experience. Design is how we relate to, and how we experience, the world around us. Design is about the human intent. We try to keep that in mind with everything we do.

You’ve also done non-profit work for One Laptop Per Child and See Better to Learn Better. How important is it to you that your designs bring about positive social change?

It is the reason why I do what I do. Although it’s extremely important to do projects that make a direct impact, positive social change comes from a mindset around design. It can be about reducing materials and environmental impact. It can be about making our lives more seamless and enabling us to focus on the things that truly matter. It can be about bringing learning or better health outcomes to everyone. Any design is capable of achieving this if you look at it through the right lens.

Which do you enjoy more—designing physical products or technology?

Technology adds a level of complexity and requires multiple layers of skills—digital and physical—to get resolved. Sometimes a simpler product is a welcome break. I recently designed a watch for Movado and was reminded how incredible it feels to design something from a craft and beauty standpoint. On the other hand, there is an untapped world of innovation in better user interfaces. For me, it’s when the two worlds collide that I feel the most challenged and exhilarated. The future of design lies within the cohesive experience of physical and digital convergence in a way that enhances our experience of the world. The goal of technology should always be to make us connected but not disconnected on a human level.

Where does your inspiration come from, especially when designing for future needs?

I draw inspiration from the world around me; the idiosyncrasy of modern life. What is it that people want but forgot to ask for? What is that pent-up demand for something inspiring, something intelligent? Simultaneously, we have to think about sustainability. Will these designs be relevant in two, five, ten years? This is reflected in the value proposition of the design but is also considered in the materials and engineering.

Jawbone pioneered fitness and sleep trackers worn on the wrist. What’s coming next in wearable technology?

We’ve barely begun to tap the potential of wearable technology. When we launched the UP band—the first wrist-worn activity tracker on the market—we knew that people would be interested in the insights it provided about our everyday health and activity, but we had no idea that it would open the door to such a massive level of interest into health and lifestyle. When I go to my annual doctor’s appointment, I’m now able to provide a screenshot of my entire year of activity, my heart health, my sleeping patterns. Imagine what this could mean in the future. The more we know about ourselves, the more we can be preventative rather than reactive.

You’ve talked about user interfaces being the new big thing. What are they and how will they contribute to our lives?

I’m a big believer in the Invisible Interface: information and control of the world around us in a way that does not distract or take us out of the moment. We often think about user interfaces as the apps on our phone and the websites we visit. Ultimately, a good interface doesn’t need to be on a screen. We are in an age where technology can react to us or even anticipate our needs. This can be done through motion, voice, haptic responses and sensor technology, which is becoming increasingly affordable. I imagine a future where we can receive the infinite knowledge of the internet without holding a phone; where we can interact with each other without being distracted by screens surrounding us. It’s a beautiful world and technology should be helping us to experience it in more profound ways.

How Béhar’s designs changed the world

Children in Afghanistan with their affordable laptops. Photo: © Elissa Bogos, courtesy of Fuseproject

One Laptop Per Child (initial laptop, 2007; XO tablet, 2013)

Béhar worked with the non-profit organisation One Laptop Per Child to create affordable laptops and tablets for children in developing countries. The project, which has already distributed more than three million devices, won the Danish state-sponsored Index Award—the world’s largest prize for design that “improves life”.

See Better to Learn Better (2011)

More than 430 million schoolchildren have received free Béhar-designed prescription spectacles via a project that distributes 500,000 pairs a year in Mexico and California. The project won the Index Award; Béhar is the only designer to have received the prize twice. 

Jawbone UP3 (UP, 2011; UP3, 2014)

Now in its third iteration, this slender wristband in a variety of jewellery-like materials and finishes tracks users’ fitness and sleep cycles.

Public Office Landscape (2014)

The ergonomic, modular components Béhar designed for the furniture firm Herman Miller include a “social chair”, which has a wide fabric back made using a 3D knitting technique.

August Home Access (2015)

This new home access/security system comprises a keyless lock, keypad and doorbell video camera. Users can lock and unlock a door—and check its status—via a smartphone app.