The Swiss-born designer, who founded San Francisco's fuseproject in 1999, has gained a profile as an innovator across a remarkably wide range of design endeavor. Behar has been a significant voice in bringing good design to more people and more categories, but he's also become known for pushing toward the future, working with new technology and forms to expand the parameters of what a product, and what design can be, and bringing a sense of responsibility and sustainability to many of his projects.
Behar famously breathed new life into Birkenstocks and created a series of lifestyle products for MINI; he pioneered new lighting forms with the award winning Leaf LED light for Herman Miller and his dramatic experimentations with Swarovski.
More recently, Behar designed the critically acclaimed, best selling Jawbone bluetooth headset for Aliph and at the end of last year became Aliph's VP and creative director, overseeing all design and brand expression and assuming a stake in the fortunes of the company. He has participatory relationships with other brands he works with and is exploring new entrepreneurial territory, developing products like Y Water, a healthy beverage packaged to change kids' perceptions of disposability.
And then there's One Laptop Per Child. Perhaps no other designer can claim to have taken the democratization of design to such lengths—helping to create the so called $100 laptop, to be used by the poorest children in developing countries around the world. Created by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte and designed by Behar and fuseproject, OLPC (aka the XO) launched in countries in South America, Asia and Africa this year. Behar has undertaken a number of other socially-minded projects recently, including designing a condom dispenser for the City of New York Department of Health and a bicycle helmet for the city's transportation department. In the meantime, Behar has been working with big brands like Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson, to explore big picture design opportunities including those in the area of sustainability.
Here, Behar talks about his recent projects and the extent to which design really informs the brand world.
Marketers are talking more and more about the importance of design, as are agencies. Are you seeing a shift—are you seeing more resources and thinking being applied to design at every level, or just more talk about it?
There is a lot of lip service to it. You have to judge people on what they do not what they say. Based on what is being done, if you look at the results, projects that are truly unique from that standpoint are very small exceptions. Everyone wants to do it, few understand the commitment it demands or why those commitments should be made. To me the returns are immense. We define our selves around this fusion of brands and design—but I'd say it's still a fringe in the realm of the majority of projects out there.
Aren't consumers demanding it? Better design is so much more accessible now.
Absolutely consumers are demanding it. The same applies to the green issue and sustainability—and consumers don't listen to green washing either—they want to see it. There's an expectation of quality of products—the first thing that comes to mind is Apple. But consumers are mostly uninspired by what's actually being made today.
Look at (OLPC). It's amazing to me. It's a project that nobody has seen in person, they've never worked on it or experienced it in any way. But the excitement around it is so high because it's different and new. They sold 24,000 of these thing in first nine hours of the Give One Get One initiative (an OLPC program whereby consumers are invited to buy two XOs—with one sent to a child in a developing country and one to a kid in their life. In the program's first 21 days, 111,000 computers were ordered. The program continues through December 31).
How did OLPC come to you?
That is such an amazing wide reaching project. Nicholas Negroponte came to us two and a half years ago. He was lining things up and he could see launching in next year or two. He wanted to align himself with a design company that would be able to do something both strategic and game changing but at same time implementable—something that could get made and get in hands of kids.
What were the big challenges of OLPC, of designing a computer within such strict parameters?
There were strict parameters but at same time what defined this project is how unique and different it is—it's completely original at every level. We were mostly focused on the design of the product and we're still working on peripherals. There was 100 percent of dreaming in that project and 100 percent of reality.
You have participation in the Aliph Jawbone headset that you designed. Is that something we'll see more of?
50 or 60 percent of our projects have participation where we get royalties or we have equity. We have a great partnership with Aliph Jawbone. The product has been in the markets for less than a year and it's the number one bluetooth headset. We are building many other products with them. I also have an internal and external role with them—as VP/creative I direct all creative for jawbone, everything from their web site to packaging, graphics, branding and design.
There's also Y Water—an organic health beverage that replaces high sugar soda. It's a brand that fun, expressive and healthy. It's launching in Whole Foods in January. We called it Why, which is asking a question kids ask a lot. We came up with a new way to think about reuse of the product—the bottles are symmetrical in every direction which means that with a simple connector they turn into a Lego-like system. So kids will play with them and start building things with them. In a way for me this is setting a new expectation that hopefully they'll never think it's OK to throw a bottle in the trash.
Another example is Sling Media and Singbox. Sling is a name that we came up with. We created integrated design, the product language and design for the company. This was a project that was design-driven from the beginning; design created the ethos around the brand.
You're also working with big brands like Johnson & Johnson and Coke and Kodak.
With J&J and Coke those are long term relationships we have. We work on numerous different projects with them that have to do with moving the brand needle or developing a sustainability strategy behind their products. For example on new initiatives around recycling, one product we finished is a recycling bin for Coke made out of a single sheet flat material so it's easy to ship and assemble and consumes little energy as far as product itself. Design can make a difference on a lot of different opportunities and capture a new way to breach a subject with the consumer.
You are on the faculty of California College of the Arts. How do you think students differ now in terms of the way they look at design.
They all see it as integrated and connected. They want to deliver every facet of the experience at. Not just a product that brings financial value to the company it's made for, but a product that responds to the right values that people care about right now in the world. This is what I see in my students. It makes it exciting to teach; they want to do it all, which is exactly what the industry and the world needs.
Talk about Swarovski Morpheus (the Morpheus chandelier, Behar's latest project for the luxury brand, a seemingly magical configuration of 16,000 crystals that changes shape with the movements of the observer) and what a project like that does for the company.
For a design firm like ours to try and stay on the edge of innovation and application it's important to do new experiments. It's like an internal laboratory. Every year there are two or three ideas that are done—like Morpheus—for a patron like Swarovski that we present to the world as an experiment. Morpheus is an experiment around lighting and movement. It's fun and exciting to experiment but actually we see a direct link between these projects and the other work we have going on. For example some of the experimentation we did early on Voyage (an earlier project) led us to learn and experiment with LEDs. As we did that it became clear that some of the experimental ideas could apply to a real product. Some of those ideas became Leaf for Herman Miller which is a huge departure from a tech standpoint. There is a direct link between that experimentation and real applications.
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