Design Visionary Yves Béhar on Harnessing Technology for Social Change
Portrait of Yves Béhar by Justin Buell. Photo courtesy of fuseproject.
“Designers should always be at the forefront of what is possible,” says Yves Béhar—last year named the most influential designer in the world by Forbes—from the headquarters of fuseproject, the hybrid industrial design and branding firm he founded in San Francisco. “We are in a great position to make choices that can have huge effect on how we all live day to day. It’s our duty to set the tone and encourage our partners to do the same,” he elaborates. Béhar is continually listed amongst the top of his class by influential outlets and institutions like Fast Company and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. And the designer’s latest coup is the 2015 Design Visionary award, which he’ll receive at the upcoming Design Miami/ fair for his accomplishments—both consumer and civic.
Now a creative force, Béhar’s career began relatively humbly. Born to a Turkish father and a German mother, he grew up in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he developed a taste for design as well as humanitarianism. It is perhaps this Swiss upbringing that is ultimately responsible for projects like his now iconic NYC Condom campaign for the New York City Department of Health, a career landmark that demonstrates the way Béhar leverages his intuitive touch for design to address social issues. Drawn to industrial design, Behar attended school in Lausanne as well as at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California—a move which brought him to the West Coast.
Yves Béhar, NYC Condom project. Photo courtesy of fuseproject.
Lured by the untapped potential of the booming technology incubator, Béhar decided to settle in the Bay Area post-graduation. The designer first worked for tech-focused companies—Frog design and Lunar design—on developing product identities, before establishing his own firm, fuseproject. “There are incredible resources here,” he admits, strategically positioned amongst top-flight engineers and programmers. “The best partnerships always come together organically.” Today, Béhar consults big-name clients like Puma, Samsung, and Herman Miller, though it is clear his real interests lie somewhere between the consumer world and nonprofit sector.
Béhar’s investment in new technologies often goes beyond that of his peers. Unlike most designers who work as consultants during the last stages of product development, he subverts the finance model by getting in on the ground floor—he’s a partial investor in most of his projects and tends to put his money where his mouth is. This startup tactic has played well amongst the Silicon Valley crowd: heavy-hitters like Google and eBay have backed initiatives like his One Laptop Per Child XO laptop (OLPC), a low-cost, low-power computer designed for mass distribution in third world economies.
Yves Béhar, One Laptop Per Child project. Photo courtesy of fuseproject.
This elastic, all-encompassing approach extends to Béhar’s design ethos, too. He doesn’t ascribe to a certain product type—instead, he dabbles, resulting in a body of work that spans domestic electronics and fashion accessories. “We get often called upon to work on game-changing projects that are hard and complex and often run counter to existing trends or ideas about what people think design can deliver,” he explains. “They bring together the notion of design excellence, quality, great function, and beauty, in addition to a surprisingly low price point or unexpected benefit.” His Ver Bien Aprender Mejor (“See Better to Learn Better”) initiative puts these principles into action. Created to improve Mexico’s national literacy rate, the nonprofit program distributes free customizable glasses to schoolchildren—and has now been adopted as a model for other countries.
In addition to his social efforts, Béhar takes pride in promoting sustainability through design and, in his own practice, looks for ways to decrease waste and optimize energy use. His streamlined redesign for SodaStream (an at-home sparkling water machine) implements these principles to maximize the benefits of green products. A more concrete example is perhaps the electric car charging station, GE WattStation, that he conceived. “As a designer, I am empowered to make choices about what materials and manufacturing processes I use,” Béhar says. “It becomes my duty to select choices that create the smallest carbon footprint, while still maximizing the impact of a certain design.”
Yves Béhar, His Ver Bien Aprender Mejor (“See Better to Learn Better”) project. Photo courtesy of fuseproject.
A small retrospective centered around Béhar’s design process will be a highlight of Design Miami/, offering a rare peek into the messy kitchen of product development. “It’s the first time I am doing something like this. I’ve never given people a look at my drafting stages,” says Béhar, whose finished designs are in the collection at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. “I really like that fairs are now considering and engaging the design world outside of the gallery. I thought it was important to demonstrate the same openness by creating a sense of transparency.” To do so, Béhar emptied out his archives, sharing prototypes, sketches, and step-by-step experiments from his past. This paper trail—documenting his failures as well as his successes—emphasizes the rigorous revision process that goes into bringing a product to market. And though it’s not normally contextualized by the work of ceramicists, architects, and furniture makers, Béhar’s work feels surprisingly in sync with his fellow designers and artists, whose preoccupation with new technologies and production methods align with his own. “I wield technology as a tool,” says Béhar. “It’s not my medium.”
Installation view of the Design Visionary retrospective of Yves Béhar’s work at Design Miami/, 2015. Photo by James Harris, courtesy of Design Miami/.
At Design Miami/, Béhar’s contributions to green and socially minded design are the focus. “What draws me immediately to Yves’s work is its inherent elegance combined with an approachability. He is an example not only to other designers, but to the corporate world, showing us all that saving and improving lives is not just for NGOs and nonprofits,” says Design Miami/ director Rodman Primack, who helped select Béhar for the Visionary award.” A celebration of design’s potential, the survey emphasizes Béhar’s and the fair’s commonalities—namely their vision for more meaningful engagement on both an individual and industry-wide level. Says Béhar, “I’m excited we are able to show a different aspect of design—one that is about human behavior and human connectedness.”