Yves Béhar, principal of fuseproject, talked to Curve editor Belinda Stening about how the OLPC project is progressing and the importance of partnering with clients.
In a global marketplace dominated by throwaway culture, it might strike some as odd that a low-cost product for the developing world would need to be designed: wouldn’t a cheap copy of a first-world product suffice? Not according to Yves Béhar. He is passionate about the dignity afforded by good design and believes it should be accessible to all.
“Design is important as it brings incredible value to the function, experience and feel of any object, no matter where people live,” says Béhar. “By owning a practical, beautiful and tactile educational tool, children acquire the pride and dignity they need to learn and grow. This is democratising.”
Typically, technology products for the developing world are hand-me-down versions of their Western equivalents, of inferior quality and utilising lesser technologies. These products are not designed with their specific end-users – or their environment – in mind either.
“This is the paradigm that Nicholas Negroponte, the OLPC team and the designers at fuseproject want to change: for OLPC, low cost means the most advanced and well-integrated technologies and high design – a true departure.”
And the OLPC team seems to have succeeded, with the XO laptop selling for around US$170, not too far from the $100 goal set originally.
Béhar and fuseproject have worked with OLPC for the past two years. They have integrated the many new technologies developed by OLPC so that the end result is functional, efficient, robust and inspiring. The computer’s appearance is friendly and expressive, thus encouraging children to play with it while learning and exploring the world.
“I looked to design a laptop with a childlike visual appeal and that would also stand up to the environmental conditions in these developing countries,” he says. “The XO is specifically designed for kids, and is not a simplified version of an adult laptop. In fact, when making every technology or design decision, the only question we had to answer was, will the kids like it?”
“The design was a priority from the start: the laptop is designed as a compact, durable and yet expressive product. When closed, the entire unit is sealed, protecting it from dirt, and, when opened, it has a whimsical, tactile richness, with the WiFi antennas (called Rabbit Ears) giving the OLPC a character-like personality. There is no mistaking what it is and for whom it is intended.”
Everything on the laptop serves at least two purposes, to maximise economy and efficiency. With its ‘transformer’ hinge, it easily assumes several configurations: standard laptop, e-book reader and gaming device.
Antennas double as covers for the USB ports, the handle doubles as an attachment for a strap, and the surrounding coloured protective bumper is also a seal to protect from dust. The coloured screen converts to a high-contrast black-and-white screen readable in bright sunlight outdoors. XO is the size of a textbook and lighter than a lunch box.
“The complexity of the project led us to explore numerous different schematics and internal configurations, each leading to a unique aesthetic and product feel,” he says. “Many iterations and models were considered, balancing low consumption of both power and materials with the need for visual clarity and uniqueness.”
Even though the development phase is pretty much complete, fuseproject continues to be involved in the process of refinement and with various ‘add-ons’.
“We are working on many other aspects of the project such as human power, school server, solar-powered satellite antennas and multiple laptop solar chargers,” says Béhar. “We also have about eight peripheral projects in the works, such as the development of microscopes and periscopes.”
“An important aspect of the project is that the OLPC idea helps bridge the digital divide that developing countries are experiencing, by not only educating the kids but also by giving their parents and siblings the opportunity to experience the digital world. Kids are great teachers themselves!
“We are also following production, and making small refinements on the fly,” he says. “Testing has been going on in many countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Nigeria, Libya, Thailand, Peru, Tibet, Ghana, Palestine and Ethiopia – and the feedback from testing has been amazing!
"We have seen official reports and have received letters from teachers as well. The kids are very focused, truancy has gone down, and the children are learning to play and learn together thanks to the ability to connect.”
“Teachers have also said that the XOs have changed the way they teach: instead of a continuous lecture, they pause every ten minutes so the kids can explore the facts discussed and add to the teaching on their own.
“We have been able to improve the XOs along the way: for example, the kids had trouble recognising which laptop was theirs, so we developed a system to help the children recognise their own laptop, with 400 different colour combinations of the XO logo.”
There have been other challenges as well. “School desks in Africa have a steep incline, so we added rubber feet on the bottom to stop the laptops falling off the desks! The detail actually came out quite nicely.”
On design in general, Béhar comments that you need a lot of optimism, and he believes in the democratising power of design. “Design for me is about bringing unique, sometimes revealing and always humanistic experiences to all.”
He urges designers to move away from arrogance. The OLPC, the Aliph Jawbone and the condom project for the New York City Department of Health demonstrate this approach.
“The Department of Health wanted to create a groundbreaking program around AIDS and pregnancy prevention. Giving condoms away, by making them fun and branded, was the solution. The condom project is very popular: three million condoms are given away every month.
" The black wrapper has made the condoms a subject of conversation, removing the stigma...and if you get asked why you have condoms with you, well, now you can always say ‘I liked the design’!”
Jawbone, a Bluetooth headset, is fuseproject’s most successful partnership to date, both critically and commercially a success. It’s the highest rated cell phone product on CNET ever, and the best-selling headset with large providers such as AT&T-Singular and Apple.
“Jawbone has been backed by Silicon Valley heavyweights (Vinod Koshla and Sequoia) who believe in its unique positioning,” says Béhar. “The icing on the cake is that we launched with the iPhone in 157 Apple stores.”
Béhar believes it is important to avoid getting into a pattern of pleasing clients, when what they are asking for may not be the best solution for their business.
“That is not how to build a design-driven business or culture,” he says. “It is important to partner with clients. fuseproject has applied this philosophy to its work with some of the world’s biggest brands – Herman Miller, Sony and Target – to design products, packaging, identity and apparel.
"The same partnership principle is applied to projects for not-for-profit organisations like the New York City Department of Health and OLPC.”
“About forty per cent of our projects have some kind of partnership attached to them, in the form of royalties, equity and profit-sharing. I would say about half of the entrepreneurial projects we work on are for already established brands, and half is about establishing new brands.
“Because we are in the business of changing the game for companies – as opposed to continuing on the current course or doing window dressing – we actively seek out clients who are emotionally, organisationally and fiscally ready. It’s hard to do this kind of work, and we know it.
“As such, we’ve diversified our model to include not only standard fee-for-service work, but true client partnerships driven by royalties and equity. The latter, in fact, is the primary strategic direction of the firm. By putting skin in the game – we invest time and effort in every partnership – we feel we can have more influence on the outcome.
"We’re finding more and more potential clients attracted to this model, not because it limits initial investment but because it brings them closer to the design process, and the strategic shifts the designers can affect across the many functions of the company (strategy, engineering, development and marketing). And they want just that. They’re starving for it.”
Béhar says there are some principles that need to be agreed upon with all of fuseproject’s venture partners.
“Firstly, design is not an ingredient. I believe design is at the centre of business strategy, and at the centre of business execution. Design is the glue that can solve problems, create opportunities and shape both strategy and execution.
"Design should be fully integrated in all of the aspects of the venture. For example, on Jawbone, we not only established the principles behind the brand and customer experience, we also drove the execution of the packaging, OOBE (out-of-box-experience), website and so on.”
“Secondly, design is an escape from the commodity trap. Design – whether brand design or product design – enables companies to sell experience, not commodities. Design also creates a first-player advantage, and defensible connections with consumers.
"Design drives differentiation. To battle commoditisation and competition, design gives the consumer something distinct in a sea of sameness and creates or leverages specific advantages unique to the brand. The key is to have the vision and the guts to be a ‘game changing’ company.”
Béhar says, too, that it is important to invest in your own design activity. fuseproject does this by conducting its own internal ‘lab experiments’. Béhar sees these experiments as pure investments, about making and discovery.
Discoveries can always be converted into new products for real clients. He cites the Leaf light’s LED light-shifting ability, which was inspired by fuseproject’s work with Swarovski crystal on the Voyage and Morpheus chandeliers, as an example of this.
fuseproject’s most recent project creates a re-use scenario. The Y Bottle packaging for drinking water provides children with a model for re-use. It’s a re-usable drink container and a construction toy that connects with other Y Bottles to build geometric forms.