Fuseproject's Yves Béhar on the Importance of Affordable Design

Yves Behar.jpg Yves Béhar founded and manages the California-based design firm fuseproject. The company, which has a team of around forty people, received the INDEX award for their innovative approach to socially-responsible design in "See Better to Learn Better," an initiative that provides free customizable eyeglasses to needy students in Mexico. In addition to running Fuseproject, Béhar is an avid surfer, and his love for the outdoors is part of his motivation for achieving sustainability through design. Béhar believes that it is important that design be both ecological and affordable. Here, he explains how Fuseproject approaches sustainability by partnering with organizations and finding ways to "disrupt markets."

How is fuseproject unique from other design firms?

It's unique in that we tend to partner with people over long periods of time and work with them on all aspects of a company or business. By being partners, we're able to do what I call a 360-degree approach to building businesses through design, using all the tools design has. Being partners puts us in a unique position to focus on sustainability or social good, in addition to creating cohesive product and brand experiences.

What are some examples of partnerships fuseproject is involved in?

One example of this would be Pact, an underwear company. We worked with the founders over three years to develop a completely different approach that not only has sustainability and social good at the center, but also to deliver a product that's very comfortable, and also very cool because it changes every six weeks. We provided printed underwear with unique graphics that refer to the cause of these non-profits, so we used a modern version of a Japanese block print for a campaign to raise awareness about earthquake relief in Japan, in partnership with Architecture for Humanity. We're giving ten percent of the sales of each pair of underwear to these non-profits. We did a large project with Puma on redesigning their shoebox; it was a three-year exercise in rethinking the shoebox -- its materials, its logistics, its weight -- to reduce the amount of materials that go into a shoebox by fifty-five percent, and energy uses, too. Forty million of these shoes are being shipped every year in these reduced shoeboxes, and by next year it will be eighty million.

And fuseproject has partnerships with non-profits, too, right?

Fuseproject has an ongoing involvement with various non-profit organizations, like One Laptop Per Child, [which offers inexpensive laptops to children in developing countries]. There's also See Better To Learn Better, which distributes free eyeglasses to schoolchildren in Mexico. Our business model allows us to both put design at the center of those businesses as well as focus on sustainability.

Your website says that your design approach works to "disrupt markets." Can you unpack that concept?

Design is a tool that either allows us to create new markets or disrupt existing ones. Herman Miller is the number one high-end chair-maker. The mid-market of chairs is where they come at half the price, but those products don't follow the principles of the high-end chairs, and have a lower level of design innovation and sustainability. We worked with Herman Miller for three years to develop a very low-carbon-footprint, innovative, high-design product for market -- the Sayl Chair -- that is sold at a much lower price point than most high-end chairs. We used the tools of design to disrupt existing markets.

What challenges do you encounter when trying to work with clients on sustainably- designed products?

The biggest challenge is that when people look at low price point products, they essentially invest less money in development, innovation, and new technology. And in order to innovate at a lower price point, and make sustainability attainable to the masses, you have to invest more. But that's counterintuitive for a lot of businesses. With Herman Miller, who is a leader in thinking differently, we knew that this was a strategic program that would likely need more resources in order to be more innovative. The chair is a frameless back so it uses a suspension material placed on a frame, which uses less materials and is comfortable. But the finance and development it took to get there presented a level of complexity above the development of a high-end chair. On the other hand, the rewards of innovating at a lower price point are commercially huge.

Trying to build a better planet. Read more from this special report.

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Rachel Signer is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. Her website is rachelsigner.com.

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