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Sir James Dyson: Design Is Everyday Problem Solving

Beth Carter|Special to CNBC.com
Wednesday, 2 May 2012 | 11:00 AM ET

NEW YORK — Sir James Dyson developed his first cyclonic bag-less vacuum cleaner 20 years ago. It took him five years and thousands of mistakes to develop this disruptive technology. But, he said Tuesday at The 2012 Wired Business Conference, “there’s nothing wrong with things taking time.”

Sir James Dyson
Source: Dyson.com
Sir James Dyson

Of course, there wasn’t much support when the first Dyson vacuum was released. But, as with all good ideas, those who resisted Dyson’s technology soon began to copy it.

The original Dyson vacuum came from a simple frustration (“anger is a good motivator,” Dyson said later), and the removal of the problem that caused this frustration. “Design is just problem solving,” he said.

“I’m a designer and an engineer, I get angry about things that don’t work, like hand dryers, endless paper towels, what a huge waste.” But, he said, “what if you could scrape water off your hands with a blade of air?”

Dyson's Design Chief on Engineering 'Green Products'
James Dyson, Dyson inventor and chief engineer, talks about the new DC41 vacuum.

The Dyson AirBlade, like the vacuum, using a high-speed digital motor, scrapes water off your hands like a windshield wiper, but with air. Not only did the AirBlade remove the frustration that surrounds drying your hands in a public restroom, but it made the process more efficient as a result. It’s three times as environmentally friendly as regular hand dryers, using one-sixth of the amount of energy, taking 12 seconds instead of 40. “But that’s not the reason we did it,” explained Dyson.

“We do lean engineering,” he said. “We use far less plastic, it means they’re lighter and use less energy, makes them cheaper to make, which means we can put in more technology. That’s what engineers do. We wanted our hands dry quicker.”

And how does one keep up this freewheeling spirit of innovation with a staff of 4,000?

By hiring inexperience, Dyson says. He always tries to employ recent college grads, because they have no fear.

“I want people who haven’t done something before and will find a new way of doing it, and that aren’t afraid of failure,” said Dyson. “If you always succeed, you’re learning nothing. Failure is terribly important.”

Beth Carter is a contributor with Wired Magazine.
Follow Beth Carter on Twitter: @elizabcarter

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