The science behind that $500 hair dryer.
Vanessa Craft discovers what it takes to truly innovate the beauty tools we take for granted.
I first got my hands on the Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer at a media preview in Toronto last spring—a full six months before it was retail-ready. It was a cloak-and-dagger operation: The dryer, which was four years and $100 million in the making, was revealed in a Pulp Fiction- style padded briefcase, and I had to sign my life away with a contract promising I wouldn’t tell anyone about it until the global announcement in the summer. I kept the code of silence, but it wasn’t easy. I’ve seen a lot of beauty innovations in my time as an editor (battery-powered ionic hairbrushes, Shellac polish, online virtual makeovers), but this was truly a marvel. The humble hair dryer, with its loud, angry fan and bicep-burning heft, has been in need of an overhaul for decades, and here it was, completely reimagined by British inventor James Dyson into something resembling a pop-art-style space-age ray gun.
Adam Grant, who calls himself an “organizational psychologist,” studies people he refers to as “originals”: nonconformists who champion new ideas and drive creativity. He believes that originals share certain traits, one of which is that they are “improvers.” “To be original, you don’t have to be first; you just have to be different and better,” he said in his April 2016 TED Talk. If there’s one person who fits that description, it’s 69-year-old Dyson, a man who has made his fortune turning common household items like vacuums into coveted objects that people no longer shove in the closet but keep in full view of visitors.
A few weeks after the preview, I travelled to the Dyson home base (in the picturesque village of Malmesbury, England, about 150 kilometres west of London) to learn more about the company’s creative nature. Dyson HQ is impressive—it’s a long glass-fronted building with an undulating “wave” of a roof. As we approached, we passed a classic Austin Mini that had been sliced in half and mounted next to a water feature. There was a Bell 47 helicopter taking up three spaces in the parking lot, and—wait for it—a Harrier Jump Jet, a plane that can take off vertically, sat directly outside the entrance.
This is all by design. “The architectural environment and the engineering icons we have here are to inspire people—it’s important,” said Dyson when I asked about the impressive eye candy. But innovation isn’t just born out of an Insta-worthy workspace, even if this is a Millennial hotbed. (The average age of employees is just 26.) “I prefer naïveté to experience,” he said. “Experience means you tend to know why you can’t do something. If you want to do something different, that’s where the naïveté helps: You don’t know it can’t be done.”
I went to lunch with one of the “bright young people” Dyson referred to. Twenty-five-year-old design engineer Elise Fairholm is an Ontario native who studied mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo before joining Dyson. Since childhood, she has had an unbridled curiosity about how things work. In fact, her first project at the company was working on the Supersonic prototypes: tweaking filters and testing functionality, including the (really cool) magnetic-attachment styling tools that never get too hot to touch. “It’s quite open here,” she said of the freedom to explore concepts. “There’s a lot of time to play around with things until you get it right. James wants people to strive for the best that they can do.”
While there, I also took a trip to London to meet with superstar stylist Akin Konizi, who serves as Dyson’s global hair ambassador. A self-described perfectionist, Konizi was brought in halfway through the development process and challenged Dyson to innovate and tweak everything from the ergonomics (the tiny motor of the dryer is in the handle, which completely changes the balance and the stress on the wrist) to the weight of the cord. Konizi pushed back on an early issue he had with the control buttons. “Women using this will have good nails; what if they’re too long to make these buttons work?” he inquired during one trial. Dyson changed them.
Regular dryers have power, but not focus. This is problematic because hair gets blasted everywhere, h
causing “the strands on the outside to flay,” which means it dries differently and ends up frizzier, explained Konizi. The Supersonic creates just a 20-degree “flare,” or radius, so the air not only has a more refined focus but also races out of the nozzle—a patented bladeless open sphere— more quietly. That the engineers found a way to get the sound pitched at a frequency more pleasing to the human ear makes it one of Konizi’s favourite things about the dryer. “I want to feel luxury and quality,” he said. “When I go at someone with a normal hair dryer, [that blast of air] feels like an attack. It isn’t a caress.”
And then there’s the heat factor. I’ve often smelled my hair burning when I get a blowout and chalked it up to the price you have to pay for pin-straight hair. Not so, said Dyson. As the wet hair heats up, the water in the follicle bursts, he explained. This causes damage “craters” in the hair shaft, which result in dull, lacklustre hair. While you do need heat, he said, it doesn’t have to be set at the temperature of Mercury to work effectively. So they added a microprocessor that monitors the airflow temperature 20 times a second and keeps it consistent regardless of the setting. The result is shinier, softer and, the company claims, healthier hair. Putting a mini-computer inside every dryer you make comes at a price: The Supersonic is $500. But, according to Dyson, innovation thrives when you take away barriers to creativity. “I want to make products that really work well and are a joy to use,” he said. “That makes them expensive, and that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But that’s what we want to do. When the young members of our team say ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have this?’ I don’t say ‘No, it’s too expensive’; I say ‘Well, that’s pretty interesting. Let’s have a look at it.’” n
Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer ($500). For details, see Shopping Guide.