ESQ&A

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents - Sir James Dyson is pass­ing on his torch of in­no­va­tion to his el­dest son Ja­cob.

With Sir James Dyson.

Head­strong and rev­o­lu­tion­ary, the as­cent of the Dyson com­pany is noth­ing short of mirac­u­lous. With a lit­tle el­bow grease, hard work and gump­tion, Sir James Dyson’s rein­ven­tion of the vac­uum cleaner has led to a bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness. He has since gone on to other en­deav­ours like the elec­tric car, hairdryer and lamp, just to name a few. On this morn­ing, a day af­ter un­veil­ing the Dyson V10 Cy­clone vac­uum to the Ja­pa­nese mar­ket, we had a face-to-face with Sir James, who looks at ease even af­ter a day of field­ing me­dia. ESQ: What’s your ap­proach to in­vent­ing? SIR JAMES DYSON: I al­ways start with tech­nol­ogy that solves a prob­lem, and it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter how long it takes to solve it—it could take five, 10 or 20 years—I don’t par­tic­u­larly mind that. But I’m start­ing to mind it now that I’m get­ting old but it took us 18 years to cre­ate a vi­sion sys­tem robot. It was a big chal­lenge; it took us 12 years to get our elec­tric mo­tors in vac­uum clean­ers. The tiny mo­tor we put in our hairdryer com­pletely changed what a hairdryer could be be­cause in­stead of hav­ing the mo­tor in the dryer head, we put it into the han­dle, which re­duces the head size and changes the balance and weight. So, I’m a great be­liever in de­vel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy, bat­ter­ies, mo­tors, what­ever it is, and then [mak­ing it] dif­fer­ent.

ESQ: Essen­tially, you im­prove on a core as­pect of the de­vice and then work out­ward from there? SIR JAMES DYSON: Yes, change the tech­nol­ogy and you can change the en­tire prod­uct. By mak­ing a very small, pow­er­ful mo­tor for the V10 and mak­ing it in­tel­li­gent, we’re able to change what a vac­uum cleaner is; from some­thing with a cord that you pull along the ground into a sort of magic wand, [sans] cord. One that cleans your home as well or bet­ter than the big ol’ [corded] vac­uum cleaner. Now, we’re be­ing copied by other man­u­fac­tur­ers.

ESQ: I find your phi­los­o­phy on fail­ure fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause fail­ure is frowned upon from where I’m from. SIR JAMES DYSON: It is in Eng­land as well. I mean, ev­ery­where it is. In school, if you get the an­swer right on the first try, you’re clever. What the schools are not teach­ing is to ex­per­i­ment; to un­der­stand fail­ure and to learn from it. I think it’s a big fault with [the school sys­tem]. But as an en­gi­neer, if you’re de­vel­op­ing new tech­nol­ogy and you fail all day long, you get used to it and you learn from it. It doesn’t mat­ter whether you’re 20 or 50 or 70 like I am, you learn all the time from fail­ure. You don’t learn from suc­cesses be­cause you don’t bother to an­a­lyse suc­cess. If I’m suc­cess­ful, I don’t need to worry. I don’t need to work out why I’m suc­cess­ful. Whereas if you fail, you re­ally have to think about it and it hurts. You avoid it in the future and you build an un­der­stand­ing of how to fail and then suc­ceed af­ter­wards.

ESQ: Is there a proper way to learn how to fail? Do you just throw ev­ery­thing against a wall and see what sticks? SIR JAMES DYSON: That wouldn’t work in en­gi­neer­ing. What you have to do, when it comes to tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment, is to start with an idea, and then it fails, and then you ex­am­ine why that is and try to make it suc­ceed. And very of­ten the so­lu­tion comes by ac­ci­dent, not by cal­cu­la­tion or de­sign. Un­less you are ex­per­i­ment­ing, you won’t have happy ac­ci­dents. You can’t get a pat­tern if you could have cal­cu­lated the so­lu­tion. A good pat­tern is an un­ex­pected re­sult and that’s gen­er­ally true of a tech­ni­cal break­through when de­vel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy; it’s not some­thing you can cal­cu­late, it’s a happy ac­ci­dent.

You start with some­thing that’s wrong, and it fails, but when you an­a­lyse why it’s wrong, and of­ten it sets you on a dif­fer­ent path. Whereas the per­son, who is do­ing what ev­ery­body is do­ing, you’re just like ev­ery­body else. If you do the wrong thing, [you do it dif­fer­ently and] you will be dif­fer­ent.

ESQ: In pre­vi­ous in­ter­views, you talk about how rou­tine bores you. Does that also trans­late into what you wear, be­cause usu­ally tech CEOs tend to wear the same thing? SIR JAMES DY SON: Like a polo neck sweater?

ESQ: Ex­actly. Be­cause they don’t have time to think about any­thing else, so they wear the same thing, like a uni­form. SIR JAMES DYSON: I couldn’t do that. I don’t get much time to shop, but I try to change my clothes all the time.

ESQ: Do you ex­per­i­ment with fash­ion? SIR JAMES DYSON: I’m very lucky be­cause I have a son-in-law [Ian Pa­ley] who’s a fash­ion de­signer, so I wear mostly his clothes [laughs].

ESQ: Could you talk about your friend­ship with Is­sey Miyake? SIR JAMES DYSON: I met him in 1985, here in Ja­pan. He’s been a good friend and a sup­porter of young de­sign­ers. He asked me to de­sign a fash­ion show that Dai Fu­ji­wara did, and the theme was wind, so he chose

“By mak­ing a very small, pow­er­ful mo­tor for the V10 and mak­ing it in­tel­li­gent, we’re able to change what a vac­uum cleaner is.”

me to pro­vide the wind, so that was the main thing I did. Which was fun, I en­joyed that. My daugh­ter’s a fash­ion de­signer as well, they both worked for [Sir] Paul Smith, then went to do their sep­a­rate busi­nesses, so the fash­ion world in­ter­ests me.

ESQ: What is the big­gest mis­con­cep­tion of what you do? SIR JAMES DYSON: [laughs] That’s not my prob­lem. Well, pos­si­bly the big­gest mis­con­cep­tion is that it’s all about the styling or de­sign. The visual as­pect. That doesn’t worry me though, I don’t think ill of any­one who judges it by how it looks as op­posed to how it works.

ESQ: Does‘ func­tion over form’ trans­late to ev­ery medium of what you do? SIR JAMES DYSON: Yes, I mostly de­sign prod­ucts that you can use. But they also sit in the room; I shouldn’t say they’re sculp­tures, that would be boast­ing… but they’re ob­jects that have to vis­ually ap­peal to peo­ple. I think it’s im­por­tant that they don’t look aw­ful sit­ting in the room.

ESQ: The aes­thetic soft he Dyson hand dryer is so fu­tur­is­tic that it’s used in Star Trek as a prop. SIR JAMES DY SON: Oh re­ally?

ESQ: I guess, in the future, hav­ing a Dyson speaks of be­ing… SIR JAMES DY SON :… ul­tra healthy.

ESQ: Also time­less. That even in the future, Dyson is till rel­e­vant. How far do you ac­tu­ally think ahead? You’re in your ’ 70s so how long do you think you can con­tinue do­ing this? SIR JAMES DYSON: That’s a very good ques­tion. Yes. I know that some of our projects will take 10, 20 years and I prob­a­bly won’t see some of them come to fruition. But I have a son in the busi­ness, so I hope he will see them through. We can all die at any point [laughs]. But yes, when you reached 70, you do re­alise that your days are num­bered.

ESQ: Are you slow­ing down? SIR JAMES DYSON: [Quite] the op­po­site. Time is

“I am par­tial to some of the

early Citroën mod­els like the DS. And the orig­i­nal Mini,

which is still beau­ti­ful and con­tem­po­rary today as it was

60 years ago.”

run­ning out but I don’t hurry any­thing through. That’s al­ways been true be­cause we’re a pri­vate com­pany and I own all the shares, so we don’t have to show our fi­nan­cial per­for­mance to any­body.

ESQ: Do you have time to read? SIR JAMES DYSON: I read the oc­ca­sional bit of fic­tion, but mostly non-fic­tion. I lis­ten to a bit of mu­sic, a bit of opera. Or­ches­tral.

ESQ: Do you sing? SIR JAMES DYSON: No, but I oc­ca­sion­ally play the bas­soon.

ESQ: Aside from your prod­ucts, what prod­ucts do you think are time­less? SIR JAMES DYSON: That’s a good ques­tion. I am par­tial to some of the early Citroën mod­els like the DS. And the orig­i­nal Mini, which is still beau­ti­ful and con­tem­po­rary today as it was 60 years ago.

ESQ: Do you not like the new it­er­a­tion of the Mini? SIR JAMES DYSON: Yes, even with the con­tem­po­rary stylings, it bor­row s heav­ily from the orig­i­nal and I think the orig­i­nal will al­ways be time­less.

ESQ: You’ re work­ing on the elec­tric car. Do you think that this is some­thing peo­ple will quickly adopt? SIR JAMES DYSON: I hope so. I’m not a petrol­head but the cur­rent tech­nol­ogy we’re de­vel­op­ing—the bat­ter­ies, elec­tric mo­tors, air pu­rifi­ca­tion, nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems, vi­sion sys­tems—a lot of these, I be­lieve, are ap­pli­ca­ble, to the future of cars. It wasn’t my am­bi­tion to get into the car busi­ness, but rather it was my am­bi­tion to use our tech­nol­ogy to change what a car could be.

[And like our vac­u­ums], we have ideas on how a car could be dif­fer­ent; it’s not just to in­tro­duce our new tech­nol­ogy and make it the same as ev­ery­body else’s, but to re­think the whole prod­uct.

ESQ: Could you talk about building a bet­ter bat­tery? I know you’ re work­ing with Shakti3… SIR JAMES DYSON: We have sev­eral projects go­ing and that’s just one of them. We started work­ing 60 years ago on bat­ter­ies be­cause we re­alised the sig­nif­i­cance of them—we’re big bat­tery users and we use 100 mil­lion cells a year. A torch gets dim­mer be­cause the bat­tery is used up and the rea­son for that is the di­min­ish­ing volt­age. So we in­creased the amps to keep it at the same max­i­mum level. Of course, it means you use up the bat­ter­ies quicker, but you al­ways have max­i­mum power and then sud­den death.

We de­vel­oped a very dif­fer­ent bat­tery pro­file for our vac­uum. What we didn’t want was for the per­for­mance of the vac­uum cleaner be af­fected by poor bat­tery life. With our bat­tery, that per­son gets that per­for­mance al­beit for a brief time, but at least time isn’t wasted us­ing an in­ef­fec­tive vac­uum cleaner. But we’re man­ag­ing to make that power last much longer now. You could go on for an hour. We’re the only peo­ple to put a trig­ger onto the vac­uum and that’s im­por­tant be­cause when you run a bat­tery cell, it gets hot and that di­min­ishes the bat­tery life cy­cle. But if I re­lease the trig­ger, it stops and cools down in-between rests. It’s dif­fi­cult to ex­plain that to a cus­tomer so you’ll see peo­ple com­plain about us­ing the trig­ger that will give its bat­tery a longer life cy­cle.

ESQ: In your view, what’s the role of the in­ven­tor? SIR JAMES DYSON: Well, some­thing like Fire­fox, that type of im­prove­ment of a prod­uct by a community is quite a new thing. It would be pos­si­ble with hard­ware, when we prac­tice a form of it, where we lis­ten to what ev­ery­body says about our prod­ucts. We don’t nec­es­sar­ily lis­ten to it, which is not to be funny; we lis­ten to them, un­der­stand them, and then pro­duce some­thing un­ex­pected and bet­ter for them than they could have imag­ined.

The job of the en­gi­neer or in­ven­tor is to come up with an un­usual and un­ex­pected per­for­mance ad­van­tage that consumers could not imag­ine. Peo­ple might not use a hand dryer be­cause it takes too long to dry so they wipe their hands on their trousers. You lis­ten to that and see it as a prob­lem to solve. That’s a great source of in­spi­ra­tion.

ESQ: Do you have a lit­tle black note­book that you al­ways write your ideas in? SIR JAMES DYSON: Yes, yes, yes. Ev­ery [Dyson] en­gi­neer has that .[ The note­books are] num­bered and then we keep them in our cup­board.

ESQ: How was cu­rios­ity in­stilled in you as a child? SIR JAMES DYSON: My child­hood wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the child­hood you would have ex­pected. I was in­quis­i­tive. I took things apart and I tried to make things like model aero­planes. My par­ents were both teach­ers—my father was a clas­sics teacher and my mother, an English teacher. We lived in the coun­try so there were no fac­to­ries; there was no en­gi­neer­ing. So even though I [put to­gether] these aero­planes and elec­tri­cal light­ing in the gar­den and all that, it wasn’t par­tic­u­larly an en­gi­neer­ing up­bring­ing. It was only at the Royal Col­lege of Art in Lon­don that I dis­cov­ered en­gi­neer­ing. I went to work for an en­gi­neer­ing com­pany and there I re­ally learnt about R&D.

ESQ: Do you ever tend to look back at your older prod­ucts and think they could be bet­ter? SIR JAMES DYSON: Of course. That’s the trou­ble with en­gi­neers; by the time the prod­uct is launched, you know what the next one is gonna be. In that sense, it’s like fash­ion, where they’re al­ways two sea­sons ahead but for us, we’re al­ways five or 10 years ahead.

ESQ: So, it’s never per­fect. SIR JAMES DYSON: It’s a very un­happy life. We’ re al­ways dis­sat­is­fied [with] a per­ma­nent mis­take.

ESQ: Are you able tole tit go? SIR JAMES DYSON: No, no, no, no. The next prob­lem is a day af­ter day af­ter day of fail­ures and try­ing to solve prob­lems, but it’s a great life [laughs].

ESQ: What’s your big­gest pet peeve? SIR JAMES DYSON: Oh. A lot of things[ laughs ]. In par­tic­u­lar, when you use a tablet or some­thing, pop-ups ap­pear to tell you to do some­thing and you have to get rid of them. This in­ter­rupts one’s thought, I hate that. I hate the warn­ing at the be­gin­ning of a movie. That’s the sort of be­hav­iour by Hol­ly­wood that’s an in­tru­sion.

ESQ: You don’t like dis­rup­tion. SIR JAMES DY SON: No. No traf­fic lights.

E SQ: No one likes them. Do you be­lieve in a Higher Power? SIR JAMES DYSON: I don’t be­lieve in it but I don’t not be­lieve in it. I’m fairly ag­nos­tic about it. There’s cer­tainly a sort of force, or spirit, so I be­lieve in that like most peo­ple, some­thing in the ether. Both of my par­ents died when I was very young so I think about them a lot, I’m aware they’re with me, so [in a sense, that’s a lit­tle spir­i­tual], isn’t it? It’s dif­fi­cult to talk about or de­scribe it but they’re with me all the time. Is that a form of re­li­gion? I sup­pose it is.

ESQ: It’s a form of be­lief. You’ve men­tioned that Dyson is not Ap­ple but it seems like Dyson is go­ing to be ubiq­ui­tous as Xerox? How do you feel about be­ing… SIR JAMES DY SON: Ave rb?

ESQ: Sure. SIR JAMES DYSON: Be­ing a verb is fine. That’s nice. Noth­ing wrong with that.

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