How an Author Grew to Love the Immutable Glory of Palm Springs
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Gadgets, accessories, furniture, computers, and even robots: In recent memory, the language of good design has been shaped and driven by Yves Béhar, founder of Fuseproject. On this episode, Dan speaks with the Swiss-born impresario on his early career with Frog Design, what motivated some of his most famous projects like One Laptop Per Child, what he thinks about A.I. and the housing crisis, and his latest endeavor, the all-electric TELO Truck.
Yves Béhar: I really believe in purpose-built designs. The way we built the Jambox and the Jawbone brand or the SodaStream brand, they’re not interchangeable companies. Their own companies with their own aim, their own story. It’s important to me that visual approach and functional approach and storytelling approach be something that can perpetuate and can be long-lasting.
Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel. All the elements of a well lived life. If you’ve listened to The Grand Tourist before, you know that we tend to feature designers and architects with a flare for the dramatic, or those who create objects in spaces that dazzle quite often for the benefit of a select few. My guest today, however, is someone who has elevated the everyday object, a soda maker, a lamp, a shoebox, and in doing so, transformed the discourse of design for decades. Yves Béhar. With his San Francisco based firm, Fuseproject, he found in the late ’90s, he’s created innovative products for everyone from Herman Miller, Puma, and Samsung to L’Oreal, Nike, and many, many more.
Originally from Switzerland, he went to school in California before cutting his teeth at Frog Design, a legendary firm in the field. He called his company Fuseproject because he wanted to combine technology and design in a way Silicon Valley wasn’t exactly known for at the time. In the world of furniture and interiors he also pushed the industry forward. Take his futuristic leaf lamp for Herman Miller. That was an early example of the use of LEDs and a bestseller. Notably, Yves was the brains behind the ultra ambitious one laptop per child program that brought the concept of low-cost computing to millions of children. More on that later.
His latest project is the Telo. A four-door electric pickup truck that’s being touted as the world’s most efficient. And thanks to some of Yves’s good design, it has the same truck bed space as some of the much larger gas guzzling competitors. I caught up with the visionary talent from his offices in San Francisco to talk about his early days in Switzerland, his take on the latest headline grabbing technologies like 3D printed housing and artificial intelligence, and how a new wave of EVs will unleash a tidal wave of design innovation.
I’ve known you on and off for a while, but I guess I just wanted to start it off by asking you … You’ve become synonymous with both design and California, but I actually don’t know much about your early life in Switzerland. So I was wondering if you could share with me what your earliest memories are of life back in your first home.
I grew up in Switzerland in a small town called Lausanne. It’s beautiful. Lots of mountains. A beautiful lake in front. It’s Lake Geneva. And yeah, it was a very small European city upbringing, I guess.
And I read that you had made models and things like that. That you were a kid who liked to craft things and make things in your bedroom kind of thing.
Yeah. My earliest memories were always of being busy trying to realize something, whether it was a complex Lego system. It wasn’t the Lego by numbers that we were doing back then. We just had big piles of Legos and were coming up with our own concepts. I remember very early on drawing a lot of boats. Somehow I had a fascination for three mast sailboats. It felt like it was a very internal life I was living. I think my imagination was what my parents and people around me saw as a little bit different maybe from other kids and my siblings.
And what did your parents do?
My father is a philatelist. For people who don’t know what that means, he’s simply a stamp collector and expert.
And that was his full-time job?
Yes. Believe it or not, that was his full-time job. And my mom was a translator. She translated German, Russian, French, and English.
Oh, wow. It sounds like a Wes Anderson film basically.
Well, the stamp part certainly is a little bit Wes Anderson. But there was something fascinating as kids with stamps because they come from many different countries and they have many different visuals and illustrations. So there is something that always seemed poetic about these very small pieces of paper and these postcards and these letters that were sent hundreds of years ago.
And I’m also fascinated by your father’s experience. He was a Sephardic Jew and so that mix in your story. And I remember reading an interview where you remembered hearing Ladino spoke at home. Which I guess Americans may not totally realize, but Yiddish is half Hebrew, half German. Ladino is half Spanish, half Hebrew in that same kind of way. Was it an observant household? What are your memories of that?
No. We’re not very observant, but we’re very aware of our story or background. My father grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, and my whole family still resides there. My aunts and cousins all live in Turkey. It was a beautiful contrast coming from Switzerland every summer and going into the crazy busy life of Istanbul, one of the largest cities in the world. I really felt culturally like that was where I was from. Until I understood the full story, which is, as you mentioned, Ladino is the language spoken back in Spain right around the time of the Inquisition. And so the Jews that escaped or were kicked out of Spain continued to speak that language. And my grandparents, I could hear them exchanging words in Ladino. And most of what I liked really was the incredible food. The Sepharadic Ladino origin/Turkish food that was being cooked in Istanbul was really incredible. It’s still incredible. It’s still my favorite meals.
Give me an example of a good Ladino dish.
Oh, lots of beautiful desserts that take a lot of work. These little cheese triangles that we used to eat. Things are cooked, brewed for a long time, and so it creates very flavorful type of dishes.
And we mentioned you making things at home or drawing things like three mast ships and things like that. But I also read that you were into sci-fi movies. And where do you think all that curiosity came from?
I think when you grow up in Switzerland in I would say back then a conservative environment with just a few different types of studies you could do and a few different jobs that you could do. Not a lot of diversity in the choices. For me, I was just letting myself be pulled by things that I felt were adventurous and were exciting and worldly. And so whether it was through food or music or later science fiction became really a draw for me. The notion that we could imagine future worlds in writing, but also in illustration. And that’s where comic books … Which there’s such a huge culture of futuristic, often dystopian comics. All that was, I guess, pulling me into an imaginary world where everything seemed possible and unique. And for me, I got more interested eventually in sci-fi that was positive. Because it’s very easy to imagine negative futures, dystopian futures, but it’s really the same creative exercise as thinking about positive futures and I think that’s more where I landed with my work. I guess that is in contrast with the culture that I grew up in, which was much more about continuity. And when you think about the banks and the history of Switzerland, it’s much more stayed in that way. So I was naturally driven towards action and change in the future.
You went to design school and how did that first happen? Why design school?
There were not many design schools in Switzerland. In fact, my parents had no idea, and most people around me had no idea about what being a designer was about. So there were very small design studios, maybe three, four people max around. And so I got really lucky when the Art Center College of Design opened a European campus about 30 minutes from my home in Lousanne. And I enrolled in that and did two years there and then switched to the campus in Los Angeles in Pasadena.
And what was that like? What was school like for you? Were you a good student?
Well, I was very dedicated. It felt at the time like I was really in a place where I had to make it in that. Because all of my friends went to university. I went to basically what’s called gymnasium in Switzerland, which essentially is high school, but high school that preps you for university. And I was really the only one who didn’t want to go to university, study economics or medicine. So it felt like I was taking this left turn into a really risky area and I had to learn quickly and do well because there wasn’t really a fallback. So I spent two years drawing nonstop and having to really acquire skills that were tough to acquire when you’re 18, 19. Learning to draw, learning to sketch, learning to render, learning to take the ideas from your brain and putting them on paper was quite daunting. But it turns out after two, three, four years of doing that nonstop, I was a good draftsman eventually. But it took just work. Tons of work.
And back then at the school, what were they preparing you for? What kind of design career were they prepping you for at the time?
I was focused on industrial design at school, at the Art Center College of Design. But I was also taking a lot of graphic design classes, photography, film. What I loved about it is the diversity of creative fields that are available there. And I was like a sponge. I was taking in all the different ways that we could be creative and I could integrate that into my design practice.
And when the opportunity came up to switch to the school in California, what was that decision like for you? Did you have to go or could you have just stayed and completed the program back in Switzerland or did you have to go?
I didn’t have to switch from the Swiss campus to the California campus, but I was excited to do so. I felt they had more majors, so more different fields at the one in Pasadena. And it also felt like there was much bigger worlds to go explore. So as a 20-year-old, I think I made the transfer then. And of course I went from a country of six million people to a city of what, 12 million. So it was exciting. It was a discovery. It was great music scene. But it was a ton of work. People don’t usually realize how much architecture or design school, how much people worked there. How we did all-nighters every week, how we were really focused on getting great projects built as students. We even used to break into the school workshop in the middle of the night in order to continue on our projects. After the school would shut down, there would be a whole bunch of students jumping the fence, breaking the locks, and getting all those dangerous machines, table saws, band saws going again so we could continue to build our mockups, and then exiting discreetly, kind of, at six in the morning before the guards would come in. So it was an exciting time, but exhausting as well.
And I’m just curious, are there any projects from that time that you fondly remember or that did well?
At the time, what was exciting is I had done a competition with Omega, the Swiss watch company, and there were professional designers, well-known Italian design figures that were participating, and then our school did as well. And they selected my project for some reason and built mockups, handmade mockups of the watches. So that was quite exciting. And then when I came to California, I became interested in larger projects. Larger environmental projects. So I did furniture systems, consumer electronics before all that stuff became connected and wifi and Bluetooth. But there was a lot of opportunity to explore potential futures, and that’s what I thought was the more exciting projects.
And did you have a dream path for your career when you were starting? What did you think your career was going to be like when you graduated?
Well, I did a couple of internships. So I discovered the Midwest. I did an internship before graduating in furniture at Steelcase, but that’s also what … Since they’re next door to Herman Miller, what made me discover also Herman Miller in turn. Design was not very diversified or very well known in the early to mid ’90s when I graduated. And so there were not many studios. American design didn’t have a great reputation like you would find in Paris or London or Milan. And most people I would speak to socially had no idea what industrial design was. They thought industrial design was about building power plants or industrial spaces.
So you had to really, I think, go for the best offices at the time. And there were many applicants and not many openings. So I think for me, it took about 150 plus phone calls to just … When I had to go to a payphone and call these offices and ask them if they had received my portfolio. I had to be very, very persistent. And there was an additional obstacle, which is I was a foreigner and when I got my second job at Lunar Design, for example, in Palo Alto, they had never hired a foreign designer. I was the first foreign born designer there. And so the obstacle of getting a visa was also daunting. Again, it felt like a make or break moment in my life. If I didn’t find a job here, somewhere in California, which I loved as a place, I would have to go back to Switzerland.
And back then, what year were you first starting out in the workforce? Was that mid ’90s?
’93. That was the pre tech startup, but there was still a lot of new tech and Apple and that kind of thing. Was that a part of this scene for you personally at the time? Did you know a lot of people working in technology and this startup culture that is much more known and commonplace, unlike it back then?
The startup culture wasn’t really around in ’93. Not in terms of consumer type of startups. But Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics were the newer type of companies that eventually would need to look at their products as a consumer product. Because the early ’90s were just at that starting point where the computer was moving away from enterprise into people’s homes. And that created all kinds of design problems and design opportunities.
So when I first started working at Lunar, we did a number of projects with Apple, for example. And that was quite exciting. And I learned a lot there. I learned a lot by partnering with the folks at Apple. I was able to experiment with the very first translucent plastic parts that got integrated into one of my projects.
And was that translucent project a precursor to the first iMac?
It wasn’t a precursor to the iMac, but I think it was the first time a translucent part got used in a project. It was in a very early server that Apple was designing for small creative offices. But I think it became an inspiration and then translucent plastic became exciting for a lot of folks in the late ’90s. But there was definitely a sense of excitement where Silicon Valley did not have a lot of culture per se and design was really a way to bring these companies, these technologies into a larger world outside of being purely technologically focused and to start to think about how these products live in people’s homes and surround them at work. So that was a historical time. And luckily for me, design was a need.
And when did you go to Frog Design? Was that before or after?
Right after I went to Frog Design. I think I was 28 years old when I got hired at Frog.
How would you describe Frog to people that don’t know just to start us off?
Well, Frog was the high octane, exciting design company of the time. They were building a lot of products directly with Steve Jobs, so they created the new design language for Apple at the time. But they were also the only one at the time that was really doing international work. I worked with Lufthansa on their airplanes and interiors. I worked on many projects in Israel, projects in Italy. There was a real globalness about Frog Design that made it quite different from, I would say the more management run agencies in California then.
And so how did you find your job there? What was that like? What did they hire you for?
Well, I was very young. I was 28. They made me a design lead, which put me in the cross-hairs of some of the most powerful people in the design world, which was really fun and exciting. I would be flying to places all the time. And as a 28-year-old, it felt very much empowering because I would show up in meetings and the people in those meetings, boardrooms and conference rooms would be much older than I. They would be PhDs and scientists and people who were incredibly accomplished. And at some point in the meeting, they would turn to the 28-year-old and say, “Well, what do you think?” And as I was sketching all the time, I would show some drawings and I would see their eyes light up. Suddenly, everything that they had been talking about, their vision, their passion, the things that they had built was taking shape.
And for a European to have people look at you and expect you to contribute in a senior meeting, it definitely felt completely different. It felt powerful. It felt incredibly empowering for me. In a way, it reshaped my brain from being a bit more Swiss and introverted to being comfortable in situations where you’re being asked questions, when you’re being asked your opinion. And that was really the miracle of being a young designer in this emerging culture of technology and innovation. It felt miraculous to be honest. My friends back in Switzerland could not believe that I was being sent to far away places and I had a voice. I had something to say.
And I understand that from an interview you had once done that you said that you felt that something was missing from the creative process at Frog that fueled what your ambitions were for Fuseproject. And I was wondering if you could maybe elaborate on that and tell us what you saw as a missing part of the process at Frog that made you go, “Yeah, but if I had my own studio, we could do it like this.”
Yeah. I think there was always a little bit of hubris when you’re a young designer or a young entrepreneur. You’re like, “I can do this better.” And I certainly felt that the part I was excited about was the notion that design wasn’t just a siloed practice. That design at its most impactful was a mixture of different practices, different disciplines of design. Strategy and brand and industrial design. Environments. And when you brought people from all these different environments to collaborate together, it felt like the outcomes were just so much stronger.
And I think when I started Fuseproject in 1999, we were starting to see that emerge from people like Apple. The way the product, the software, the user experience, the interface, the digital, the retail, the way all that started to work to together was quite miraculous and quite exciting. And I felt that’s what really companies, businesses needed and what the world of design needed is a more integrated multidisciplinary studio. And that’s when I founded Fuseproject. Something that was being talked about in the industry at Frog and other places, but I didn’t see it practiced. And I was like, what would it look like if we actually practiced this notion of integrated design, of multidisciplinary design?
And what was your first big project when you struck out on your own? Your first big commission?
Well, there were no big commissions. I mean, I was just a one-
I was a one man show, and eventually I got an intern, one of my students from when I was teaching at CCA, California College of the Arts. And I started with a lot of really humble projects, which made me learn something. Is that design can make a difference with a humblest of opportunities. The first two projects I did was a shampoo bottle for my hairdresser who was ambitious and wanted to launch a new concept and then similarly, a perfume bottle. And it was fascinating because these very small projects with very little money in them were getting all this attention because they were unique, they were different within their own fields and industries. And they got me these commissions in Europe with much bigger entities because what I discovered is that fashion and especially European fashion is very curious. They’re looking for the next trend, the next emerging idea. And I was able to show concepts that really drew these bigger commissions in. Including actually one concept I did for a shoe for the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. A futuristic shoe. Got me Nike as a client. So I-
Was that Birkenstock?
No, it got me Birkenstock as well. So I got two. I got Nike and Birkenstock as clients after doing a project that was called The Learning Shoe, and it was actually a connected shoe, which we haven’t really seen even … That was 1999, so it’s been 23 years and we have yet to see this concept being built. But when Nike came to me, John Hoke at the time said, “I think we’re five years away from building this.” So there is something to be said about being futuristic, being a little sci-fi as we were talking about this a minute ago, and putting ideas of what’s next out in the world and seeing what comes back.
And there was that period where the startups became … And the direct involvement of designers in startups. Tell me about why you started these design ventures. What was the need? And from my limited understanding of how that’s structured is essentially someone wants to start a new company, I don’t know, SodaStream or whatever it could be, and comes to you and says, “Hey, if you partner with me and build me this next great invention that I’m going to take directly to market or whatever, you can get a piece of the company essentially.” As you would in any kind of executive coming into a startup. Is that why that kind of started because just doing the traditional studio work was not sustainable or how did that happen?
No. Studio work is sustainable, but what I saw out there is two things. One, I saw that startups were doing the most exciting work. That they were challenging the status quo. That they were challenging much larger industries. And this David versus Goliath setup seemed pretty exciting, especially when Fuseproject and I were really focused on new to the world type of ideas. But in order to reach startups, we had to find a different business model because obviously they don’t have all the funds available. They’re being more efficient with their capital. And something they understood very, very quickly is that aligning the incentives between designers, engineers, strategists, and what they’re doing creates a much more engaged relationship.
And then on the other side, for me, I’ve always known that long-term relationships between designers and a business, an entrepreneur, et cetera, really creates the best possible work. I was looking at the work that Richard Sapper did for 25 years with IBM. I was looking at the work at Olivetti that Ettore Sottsass and others were doing, and it was clear that the more you work with someone, the better the outcomes, the better the work, the higher the quality.
And so how do you create long-term relationships where the incentives are aligned? If it works out, we all do well. We all work towards success. Not just awards or having something that you can show off to your friends, but really something that will be successful in the market and be good design work. And so that completely makes sense. Design venture made sense from both a quality of the outcomes and the business model.
And your One Laptop Per Child project was so influential at the time and in a good way. And I was wondering if you could tell us the story about how that came about and now some years later, with some hindsight, what parts of those projects were a huge success in your mind? Or was there anything that you feel like could have been done differently? Because it was one of those big lofty ideas to seemingly the biggest lofty idea you could possibly come up with. Tell me about this One Laptop Per Child part of your life.
Absolutely. I mean, every startup is lofty, has some level of hubris, has some level of promised land. And I think you need to have that positive attitude in order for anything to be built in the world. It’s so hard to be in design. It’s so hard to build something new. To find the money and to make it work and then to have people accept it. You have to almost suspend doubt and completely forget about fear and not be worried about maybe even getting ridiculed if it doesn’t work out. But the One Laptop Per Child was a phenomenal adventure for me and for the team because the way it came about is we got a call from one of Nicholas Negroponte’s people from MIT, and he said, “Hey, we’re working on this vision for a $100 laptop for children in developing worlds. They don’t have these tools. The digital divide is getting bigger between the western countries and the developing world, and we think we have a solution.”
And so we actually competed for the project a little bit in the beginning, created some models. It went to a board at MIT, and we got chosen. And I remember that moment when Nicholas called me and he said, “You got it. It’s yours. Let’s go do this together.” Definitely something I will remember for the rest of my life. And then we built this extremely complex, but also extremely simple purpose-built product for kids. Sometimes they’re in the south, sometimes they’re in places that have a lot of electricity or sometimes they don’t have electricity. We had to think about all the different conditions that these laptops would go into, and especially the fact that they had to be built for kids’ lives. Being robust and being simple to utilize and also offer opportunities for discovery, for programming, for different types of languages, different types of education that they could receive through it.
And so we got endorsed by the United Nations, and it became this controversial project where the powers that be and the big computer makers were against it because it didn’t serve their aims. And so it was David versus Goliath. But eventually we built it, we launched it. Some countries adopted it at a very high rate. A country like Uruguay. Every single child in Uruguay had a One Laptop Per Child. Peru. And so I think about three, three and a half million of them made it out there. And for years they were part of education systems. And when you go back, there’s been actually some studies that were made and in some of these countries, they really identified the fact that the One Laptop Per Child, the OLPC, really created the proof points that these countries needed to invest in IT education. Countries that adopted it en masse like Uruguay and others actually are doing well from that standpoint.
But of course, when we opened the door, the larger companies, the Dells and the Microsofts of this world, saw this not as a nonprofit opportunity, which we were a nonprofit, but they saw it as a business opportunity. So in a way you could say, well, the One Laptop Per Child failed because we didn’t ship a laptop to every kid around the world, but I think we proved a point that made everyone else ship a laptop to every kid around the world. So I don’t see it entirely as the fact that we missed the ultimate goal. I just saw it more along the lines of a food aid nonprofit that suddenly got McDonald’s and Wendy’s to compete with them and ended up feeding everybody. Hopefully it was better food. So in retrospect, I still feel it was a game changer, and I’ll add the fact that it really showed something new.
It really showed nonprofits around the world that design can make a really big difference because it can be very efficient, it can satisfy the people that these nonprofits are trying to serve. And then we were able to do that with other incredible projects around the world, whether it’s VerBien in Mexico that is distributing six and a half million pairs of eyeglasses to children in school, or whether it’s with the ocean cleanup. Design is now seen as not something just for rich corporations and their customers, but also something that makes nonprofits and non-governmental agencies function better and achieve their goals.
And moving on to another one of your more recent projects is 3D printed housing. And I guess as that is the technology that is still growing and evolving and becoming more accepted in communities with regulations and specifications for what can be housing and all that kind of thing. I feel like since you first started working on that project and when I first started hearing about it, today, the idea of housing and affordable housing is even worse than it’s ever been. The need has exploded. And I was wondering, you must’ve done a lot of work in this field. You must’ve done a ton of research and spoken to a ton of people. What do politicians, critics or observers not really understanding about why we can’t house people more? What are we not getting about this crisis?
Well, affordable housing is in need everywhere. Whether it’s in developing world places like Mexico where we actually built a little village of 50 houses with 3D printing, whether it’s with ADUs, the need is there. The policies have changed dramatically. So California and many other states now are accelerating permitting and allowing people to add a small building in their backyard, whether it’s for family or for rental. And so there has been quite a bit of change where the consumer has been given the opportunity to do that. But I would say the need is at an industrial scale today because of homelessness that is being experienced by so many people and clearly the housing prices have gone crazy.
And so prefabs, which we have also shown some prefabs and worked on prefabs as well as affordable housing, whether they’re 3D printed or not, is one of the solutions to this problem. It needs to be absolutely accelerated. I think the challenge is funding. There’s also a challenge with homeowner’s resistance and developers that are not finding the money in those. So does it need to accelerate? 100%. Are the technologies in place? This is a continuing battle in so many ways. But there are some homeless housing communities that are being built in Texas around Austin, I believe, that are 3D printed as well. So it’s emergent. It needs to be accelerated. Usually the accelerant for startups is profits, market success. In this case, that needs to be more along the lines of policy, which we have yet to see.
And do you think that this is purely a policy issue or can we design ourselves out of this crisis? Do we need more better design to fix some problems, or is it really just a matter of political will more than it is design?
I think political will and design can be great allies and make it happen. I mean, when you look at Finland, the whole system is designed in Finland so people don’t fall through the social safety nets. The minute you are homeless in some northern European countries, you’re given a house, you’re given social services, you’re given advisement around employment, you’re given a paycheck. And the result of that is that 85 to 90% of people who find themselves in that situation get out of it and get back on their feet. And by the way, it’s a lot less than we’re spending in New York or California on homelessness. So there are solutions. The political will to apply them throughout and maybe the resistance from different counties and cities, the legal complexity that we live in the US makes it a gigantic challenge to go after.
Speaking of big challenges, obviously sustainability and mobility have been a huge part of your career, and now you’re working on the Telo. Am I pronouncing it correctly? Teh-lo or Tee-lo?
I say Teh-lo, but Tee-lo sounds good too. Yeah, mobility, transportation is in a very exciting phase with EVs. Electrical vehicles are really an incredible environmental solution, but they also are … The cost of ownership of an EV is completely different from a gasoline engine. It costs very little to nothing on a yearly basis compared to gasoline cars that are often in the garage, need service, et cetera. So there is a there there with it, and I partnered with two entrepreneurs, ex Tesla, ex EV supply chain CEO, and we’ve built a car in about a year. And a car-
Seems very fast, right? For the automotive universe?
Well, it is very fast in I would say a conventional automotive environment, which tends to be very marketing driven. But in our case, we built a great platform and it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever worked on because it’s very much geared to what myself and so many of our friends and family needs. Telo really is a completely new solution for an urban environment for a car. Imagine a Toyota Tacoma pickup truck with a nice size truck bed, 60 inch truck bed, four doors, five passenger, and we can replicate taking advantage of size and efficiencies. We can replicate that same performance or that same workhorse type of vehicle, but front to back in the size of a mini. And so suddenly you can have the full functionality of a nice size pickup truck, and yet it’s easy to park, it’s easy to leave your things there because we have a tonneau door that closes up the truck bed. There is just a lot of exciting comfort and configurations as well as safety features that can be built into these cars today. And so there’s really a revolution, I believe, that’s going to happen with EV car design in the coming years.
And what do you attribute to this revolution that seems to be accelerating? It seems like now you do hear about other different types of … Whether it’s EVs like a luxury sedan and people are creating these new companies. How are people able just to do this, which in the past would’ve been, I think, insurmountable with all of the massive machine that needs to go behind creating another Ford Motor Company, for example?
Exactly. Similarly to the way you saw consumer products transformed in the early ’90s, right? In the early ’90s, it became clear that you could contract manufacture your consumer electronics, your computers, your TVs, your phones. In the past, the Sonys of this world, they had to own the factory. You had to build your own factory, you had to own your factory and the tooling in order to put consumer products out in the world. With contract manufacturing, you don’t have to do that anymore. And the same is happening to the car industry. If you’re launching a new car and you need to build a factory for it, that’s a two to $3 billion investment in the production. But Telo is going to be contract manufactured. There’s three or four other companies in the US that are going this route, which means that new concepts, new ideas, can really emerge from good engineers and designers working together. The types of products that we really need. I think the established big car companies out there are pretty much taking legacy products and just electrifying them with EV batteries and engines. But I think for me, that’s not taking advantage of the full potential of electrification, which is what we’re doing with Telo.
What is the ambitions for this car? Is it going to be like a different series of vehicles in different sizes, or is it really focused on this one form?
Well, Telo is launching its first vehicle, which is an urban and adventure pickup truck, and there will be other concepts past that. But of course, the goal is to launch the first successful small scale truck in the United States. And then from there, once you have one model that works really well and that people like, not unlike Tesla and others, that there’s more possibilities.
And why a pickup truck for the first one?
So for me, the pickup truck is really the popular vehicle in the United States and South America. It’s the bestselling vehicle type here and other places. But I don’t see anything being built that is truly different. I mean, they tend to be very large, very aggressive looking. Not so functional actually. And they tend to speak to, I would say, a different type of customer than we’re speaking to. So in some ways, this is an area where we’ve seen not a whole lot of innovation. We’ve seen supersizing. We’ve seen gas guzzlers. But just taking one of these very large hulking type of vehicles and changing them to EV doesn’t fulfill the environmental mission, but also doesn’t really address what people really need. And especially in a more urban environment where streets are tighter, parking is harder to find. Not everybody has a garage. So it really feels like it’s a missing link, a missing product in the very popular area of pickup trucks. And so far, there hasn’t been a single person I’ve showed it to who told me they’re not putting a reservation on it.
Wow. And I have to ask, since I have you here, what is Yves Béhar’s take on the doom saying that goes around AI as someone who is a foremost designer in San Francisco?
Well, I’m actually a designer who has applied AI and robotics in many different products. When you think about the Happiest Baby SNOO, the smart bassinet we designed, when you think about Moxie, the education robot or some of the aging products, some of the medical products we have made, they all use AI and some of them use robotics as well. And so my take is that I’m more interested in technology serving people in need, young parents or the aging or people who have a certain condition. And I think this is where AI and sometimes robotics really shine. Because they deliver a service, they deliver on a need that is very clear, very well-defined, and the results are extraordinary. It makes a huge difference in people’s lives. I’m less convinced that general purpose AI, general purpose robotics, the robot that’s cooking your dinner and making your bed, I’m a lot less convinced that that is a positive for society or that it’s even something that will really create any kind of progress.
Why? Because the level of complexity, the level of service that these things need, it’s not very economically compelling for me. I would say, the other thing I’m very worried about is I feel like skills are very important. Knowing how to draw, knowing how to write, knowing how to code. I find these skills to be the type of capabilities we acquire in our teenage years and then our early 20s that really drive us forward. And if there is no more incentive to be a good draftsman, to create beautiful photography, to code, if the incentives are not there, what are the teens out there that are different, what are they going to apply themselves to? And so I don’t really see a big positive. I think we clearly screwed up youth already with social media. And so I’m worried about what this will do to their desire to be proficient at things as well. Because at the end of the day, shortcuts are just too easy. It’s a fallback. It’s something that if the shortcut’s here, it’s very hard to make the choice of taking the hard long road.
And do you have kids?
I have four kids.
Oh, four kids. Do you worry about your kids when you think about … I mean, well, social media is one thing, but also things like AI and technology and how they may not learn how to draft with pencil and paper like you may have learned and things like that.
Yeah, I’m definitely worried for their sense of self and self-worth. Because I mean, I can see in my smaller kids the satisfaction of writing a beautiful poem like my nine year old just did last week, the satisfaction of drawing something beautiful or she made some tight eye t-shirts the week before that. There’s just such a beauty and a drive and feeling like you’re making things. The same drive, the same way that I was able to apply my imagination in my teen years. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know what I would have become. I don’t know if I would have gotten anywhere, really. And so I am worried about our lives being made of shortcuts and us never giving ourselves and especially teens, the opportunity to take the long road, the hard road.
And when it comes to the hard road, this brings to my last question. I was looking through your last book and it reminded me of how many amazing projects of yours maybe never even made it past the prototype stage. And so as a creative person and to a lot of creative people out there listening, whether they’re a designer or an artist, how do you personally, as a creative person, deal with this kind of tension, knowing that a project you could work on for years that you think could really do amazing good or just be a heck of a lot of fun to see out in the world, not get to the finish line? How do you personally deal with this?
Well, I’ve been blessed. I mean, I’m very lucky that so many of our projects have made it out and have made a difference in people’s lives. And I think for me, I often replace the word design with the word intent or purpose. And as a designer, I’m really interested in the notion of purpose. I really believe that design is the first sign of human intent. What is it that you want to see out in the world? What is it that you feel will make a positive difference? So my belief is that really the role of design is to accelerate the adoption of new ideas. And we need new ideas. We need new ideas, whether it’s about our environmental challenges or health and education challenges. Design is there really to address humanistic needs and maybe reconcile some of these paradoxes, the paradoxes of our lives. And so will all of the ideas that you dream up make it into the real world? Absolutely not. I do feel like when your intentions are about satisfying a human need, about not taking over the world, but rather being a companion, a good companion to someone’s life, I think that more of the projects see the light of day. There needs to be goodness in what we do and I believe that that’s what people expect of us.
Thank you to Yves Béhar, Cameron PR and everyone at Fuseproject for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, don’t forget to visit our new website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator at thegrandtourist.net. And follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Til next time!
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