On Wednesday, Sept. 14, Wired hosted a roundtable with Sir James Dyson at our New York offices. Dyson and his staff began by showing off their new vacuum cleaner (the DC 41) and Dyson Hot, a new fan/space heater, which was being introduced later that day.
We asked Sir James questions about every aspect of emerging and commercial technology, ranging from intellectual property and education reform to the overlap between Steve Jobs’ design philosophy and his own. We learned (among other things) why research and development in battery technology and artificial intelligence are critical to the future of household cleaning, and why it’s harder to sell high-end vacuum cleaners in China and Brazil.
Wired’s interviewers included Steven Levy, John Abell, Jason Tanz, Dave Mosher and Tim Carmody. Tim Carmody moderated the roundtable, edited the responses, and wrote this introduction. Except where noted, all images are courtesy of Dyson.com.
On becoming the company’s public face and namesake
Sir James Dyson: The first Dyson was a 13th century female cattle rustler in Lancashire. That’s the origin of the name. And it’s two syllables, so it’s quite nice.
Right at the beginning, the retailers wouldn’t take me, because they said, “you’re not a brand name. Nobody’s going to want to buy a ‘Dyson.’ They’d rather buy an Electrolux, Bosch, or Siemens” or something like that. The only way to overcome that was to be a person. They’re all big, anonymous corporations, and the founders are long since gone. So the thing is to be different, and to be responsible for what you do.
That’s why I put myself about a bit, as you say. And I put myself about a bit now to understand what’s going on in the world, rather than spending my time back where I’d probably rather be, actually: with the engineers, developing new products.
On the relationship between design and technology
Dyson: We’re a technology company. We’re employing more and more scientists, and working in lots of — we may be in more prosaic areas, we’re not in this sort of sexy things. Thing that people don’t bother with, that need technological improvement, which makes a big difference. That’s what interests me.
So that’s our starting point. We look at something that has a problem, whether it’s hand dryers or vacuum cleaners. Then we develop technology. We want the product to express the technology we’re using, so that people understand it. Even if they don’t totally understand it, they might half understand it. Even if they only one-quarter understand it, at least they see that we’re doing something different that makes it work better, and perhaps gives them a bit of pleasure to see that and point it out to people.
[Picks up a copy of Wired] When you say design, everybody thinks of magazine pages. So it’s an emotive word. Everybody thinks it’s how something looks, whereas for me, design is pretty much everything. It’s the technology it uses, how it’s engineered, how it’s put together, the quality, how long it lasts.
I don’t particularly follow the Bauhaus school of design, where you make everything into a black box — simplify it. I want something more expressive. It’s very easy to make something like a heater into a black box. It might look impressively designed for a few moments, but it has no expression.
That’s why our heater shows its technology; the heating component, and that’s the main part, is bright blue. It’s a very simple product, but at least it still expresses what it does. And it looks different, it doesn’t look like an ordinary heater. On the vacuum cleaner, we show the bits that really work, like the cyclones. That’s the important bit, and we want people to understand it, to know that it’s more efficient than a bag, but it also looks nicer than a bag. In the whole experience of using it, the customer can start to follow the trail of the engineers and scientists making it.
The retailers said, “you’ll ever sell a vacuum cleaner where you can see the dirt.” I’m not normally one to do market research, but we did a bit of market research, and the research confirmed it: no one wanted to see the dirt. We made it see-through, by the way, to see what was happening. It was very practical. But the engineers and I loved it. So we decided to ignore the market research. Our competitors had a good snicker about it. But we persevered.