Swiss industrial design maverick Yves Béhar is acclaimed for holistic products that synergize technology, sustainability, and social impact. Creating identities for the likes of Apple while working at LUNAR and Frog Design led to the 1999 launch of his San Francisco multidisciplinary studio fuseproject, where he’s pioneered concepts like the 2007 One Laptop per Child initiative and products for August Home Lock, Jawbone, Samsung, and more. Additionally, he is the cofounder of San Francisco coworking space Canopy, as well as a handful of other startups. Béhar shares how he ensures his tech-driven projects always have a human point of view.
Were you a creative kid?
Yves Béhar: I loved writing and when I was around 10 or 12 years old, I got into making clothes, furniture, and objects in my parents’ basement. I grew up and studied design in Switzerland, followed by the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena [California].
What did you hope to create when launching fuseproject?
YB: In the early days of designing home computers, I learned to simplify experiences and make technology palatable for everyday lives. Many agencies called themselves multidisciplinary but still practiced in silos. With fuseproject, I believed the future was creating design ecosystems that could be expressed through all product aspects—experience, digital, physical, packaging. When you’re senior in the corporate world, you lose touch with the craft of design. Getting back to what I love was challenging yet exhilarating: sketching, drawing, coming up with strategies and ideas, and executing it all. We’re all learning when we start something—there isn’t a formula or one way to do it. What makes design magical is that it can be practiced in a variety of ways. It’s as much about acquiring skills as finding your own voice.
How can giving back through design create a better world?
YB: Good design is needed everywhere. In 2007, One Laptop per Child became a rallying cry for more human technology that could reach the developing world. Through scale, efficiency, and simplification, we built something customized for childhood education at a low price. Once we proved that purposeful, quality design was possible, other nonprofits realized design can create greater impact. [For example], See Well to Learn Better in Mexico has distributed 6.5 million eyeglasses we designed for kids over the past 13 years.
How has fuseproject evolved?
YB: Design for the developing world became important within in our business, then venture design transformed how we create longterm partnerships with startups—we’ve worked with 90 in the last 20 years, four of which we founded or cofounded. Sustainability has become an anchor for every project. In 2017, I wrote a manifesto about rethinking design principles and responsibilities in the age of smart environments, robotics, and AI, which led to projects like Happiest Baby’s SNOO, the Moxie robot for educating kids on the [autism] spectrum, and ElliQ, a robotic aging companion.
How will AI affect your projects going forward?
YB: It’s important our projects have humanistic points of view, since we know AI can be very exploitative. Designers and entrepreneurs need to remember AI’s incredible promise in social good and healthcare projects. It’s easy to give new technology a bad name. But technology isn’t responsible for the way it’s applied. The people who conceive and deliver it have that responsibility.
What makes you want to work with startups, especially at an early stage?
YB: The professional delivery and reliability we can provide are important for building value, as startups need to remove the executional risks of their ideas and business aims—and design is a good way to do that. What often makes entrepreneurial projects exciting is that they must launch. You cannot bury them. I like that it’s a fast cycle of exploration and learning, and then once the project is in the public, of refinement. The design is never done and, in [most] cases, continues post-launch.
What do you love about San Francisco?
YB: San Francisco is incredibly beautiful and has an unequaled magic mix of business, intensity, and innovation with culture, nature, and socializing. My home in Pacific Heights is an experimental project where ideas about how we can live as a family blend with materials I’ve learned about and apply to furniture projects. It’s a place we love. It’s also where I developed the idea for the Samsung Frame TV that combines art with entertainment. We didn’t want screens, we wanted technology to disappear in our home so we could focus on our interaction as people. It reconciles that dialogue when one person wants TVs and the other doesn’t.
You’ve been working on the TELO EV Urban Adventure pickup truck. Can you tell us more about that project?
YB: I’ve become a cofounder in the mini pickup truck company. It’s something independent industrial designers who aren’t in the car industry would rarely get a chance to create. I’ve designed car interiors and concepts, but they’ve remained secret within big companies. It was exciting to work on something extremely innovative and purposeful that takes advantage of everything EV technology makes possible.
This article originally appeared in HD’s November 2023 issue.