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.