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for people

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“We live in an era in which there’s an extreme lack of concentration. We’re distracted by our technological devices, especially the ones we carry in our pockets, like mobile phones. We need to learn to become less inattentive and more focused. I think that technology can help us in this, as long as we are more responsible in the way we use it and it doesn’t constantly demand and require our attention.” 

In this quote – as in his work – designer Yves Béhar somehow succeeds in the complicated task of combining lucid and informed analysis with a slightly visionary idealism.

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Born in 1967 in Switzerland – “this sense of project integrity comes from my roots” – Béhar moved to California in the 1990s. Here he founded Fuseproject, the multi award-winning company where he works as the lead designer. The brand, which uses the slogan “design brings stories to life”, has high-calibre clients including Nike, Google, Louis Vuitton and Pepsi. 

Right from the start, intelligent technology was a distinctive trait of Béhar’s work. His company worked with the non-profit organisation One Laptop per Child to design the XO Laptop in 2005 – a cheap and durable portable computer that was distributed to primary-school children in developing countries. It made a big impact on education around the world and won much acclaim, as testified by the use of its image on Rwandan banknotes and Uruguayan stamps.

That interest in technology continues in his projects today – Béhar has recently worked with the beauty company L’Oréal to create a wearable UV sensor that tracks sun exposure as a way of reducing the risk of skin cancer. The device takes the form of a small sticker that can be applied to the thumbnail. Battery-free, it monitors real-time data of the wearer’s exposure to the sun via a mobile app, and was shown at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

I spoke to Béhar to find out more about his approach:

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- Let’s start from the beginning. What is design for you and what is its role? 
Design can provide solutions that make people’s lives easier, more comfortable and enjoyable. For me, the designer’s role is not only to create a new generation of existing objects, but to truly invent the future and make it manifest in the present. It’s about bringing inventiveness into the real world. From this perspective, the entrepreneurial aspect of design is essential. 

A large number of companies today are working in response to the more commonplace and obvious demands and needs of consumers. I think there are many undeclared things that people want, but never openly ask for. If you’re a good observer, particularly when it comes to the present, you can come to understand some of the new problems that are intrinsic to our times. 

- And technology?
When I moved to San Francisco, my work revolved around technologies that had already been developed. However, over time, it became easier to intervene in this area and now, for me, technology has become a design tool like any other, just like wood, textiles and metal. Metaphorically speaking, you can cut, assemble and give technology a specific function, just as you can with a fabric. I see technology as another material that can be shaped. 

- And yet you’ve often said: “I want to get people off their screens.” What do you mean by this? Are you talking about the overuse of technological devices? 
I think we are all very aware of this problem on a personal level. The information and controls channelled via our phone screens complicate our social lives, making interaction difficult. Through the development of new systems, I want people to be able to manage things automatically, something that doesn’t happen when you’re forced to check everything on your mobile phone. This is what I mean when I say I want to free people from screens. You can understand or anticipate what consumers want by developing functions based on human behaviour. 

- Can you explain this a bit more? Could you give us a concrete example? 
A few years ago, I co-founded August with the intention of working on these types of projects. With August Smart Lock, when you go near a door, it unlocks and locks automatically. You don’t have to do a thing. You don’t even have to worry about finding your keys. You don’t have to rummage through your bag, pull them out and physically turn the key in the lock, because the lock recognises the person at the door and opens it instantly. For me, this type of technology is better than the ones we have been used to, because it doesn’t interrupt the flow of your life and doesn’t interfere with social interaction.

- Let’s talk about the lifetime of hi-tech objects. Sometimes, it’s often the most innovative products that become out-dated far too soon. 
It’s true that certain technologies, like smartphones, get old quickly. But there are strategies that can be applied to avoid this problem, or at least prolong the lifetime of objects. This is exactly what we did with August and Jambox [the pioneering wireless speaker that could be updated online – it was produced by Jawbone before that company went into liquidation].

- Another important issue that’s often found with technology is its complexity.
I actually think gadgets have been intentionally designed to complicate our lives even further! I believe technologies should run in the background, without requiring constant attention. Most importantly, they shouldn’t require any extra work on our part. I’m a great supporter of the fact that technologies should carry out their essential functions discreetly, without the need for screens, using intelligence, expressivity and immediacy to allow people to focus more on each other, allowing them to concentrate on the important things in life, such as human contact. 

- That sounds like a goal that’s really hard to achieve?
In some ways, yes. We could liken it to the tendency towards minimalism in architecture or design. Making connections invisible, creating structural simplicity is harder than creating something visually complex that’s made up of lots of different elements combined. I suppose you could call it ‘technological minimalism’, in the sense that we still receive the information that technology offers, but we keep it in the background, so it doesn’t distract us or interrupt what we’re doing. 

- Your objectives are certainly challenging. Are you an ambitious person? 
My work is developed around important issues. Success for me is not about money but about achieving new and important results; projects that truly change people’s lives. This is where my ambition lies. 

- Is there anything you’re afraid of?
More than being controlled by fear, I think my life is open to possibilities. I don’t think there’s anything I’m particularly afraid of. I believe in human intelligence and I’m an optimist. You can’t be any other way in this sector. I think that mankind will find solutions for even the most complex of problems. However, one thing that does worry me is that we need to find a balance between innovation and environment. We need to help our surroundings prosper, not destroy them. But I see this as a challenge, rather than a fear.

- Which projects would you like to be remembered for? 
A television we launched recently called The Frame. For the past 60 years, we’ve been living with black screens in our homes. We designed a television that doesn’t have a black screen when it’s switched off; instead, it goes into Art Mode, allowing the user to view works of art by artists from all over the world. The Frame is based on the necessary and in-depth study of something that has been taken for granted and has never really been resolved by designers. I’m proud of the fact that the screen is no longer just used merely for television entertainment, but as an object that allows you to admire beautiful works of art.

- Have you any advice for young designers embarking on your profession? 
First of all, they need to develop extraordinary skill in a specific area. My advice is: become good at something. In the first years of school and also of your professional career, it’s important to keep focusing on developing as much knowledge about the sector as possible. Then you can start to think about working on multi-disciplinary themes from your own personal perspective. Without this basic preparation, it’s unlikely that people will listen to you or that you will play an important role on a team in a multi-disciplinary field – and, after all, this is the future of design.

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