Subscribe to San Francisco Magazine

Mod Lux Feeds

Now Playing

“You can’t make anything crappy today and think it’s going to be successful. Crappy’s out.”

SAYL CHAIR, 2010
Client: Herman Miller
Challenge: To craft a high-design office chair for half the price of the iconic Aeron chair.

UP BAND, 2011
Client: Jawbone
Challenge: To create a fitness and sleep-tracking band cool (and comfortable) enough to be worn 24-7.

OUYA, 2013
Client: Ouya
Challenge: To engineer an Android-powered open-source gaming console for under $100.

VER BIEN GLASSES, 2010
Client: Augen Optics
Challenge: To make customizable, indestructible eyeglasses for low-income schoolchildren in Mexico.

It’s Yves Béhar’s World. We Just Live (Better) in It.

The man behind the Jambox, the UP band, and, soon, the OUYA (say it “Ooh Yah!”) gaming console is changing the business of product design.

FUSEPROJECT FOUNDER YVES BÉHAR STRIDES across the empty white box of his design firm’s new offices in Potrero Hill, the orange soles of his Undefeated sneakers echoing off polished concrete floors. In a few weeks, this unadorned reception area will be a public art gallery. Beyond the gallery’s white door, 58 Fuseproject team members—digital and industrial designers, user experience developers, branding and marketing specialists—will move into the open space that Béhar calls a “creative pit,” which surrounds a pyramid-like, two-story-tall tower of bleachers. Devoid of cubicles, it’s a noisy, buzzing hive of activity, though less close quartered than Fuseproject’s old, sketch-littered offices in SoMa. (“We have desks now!” exclaims a public relations manager; each station is surrounded by a throng of caged-back Herman Miller Sayl chairs, which the firm designed in 2010.)

Béhar is dressed casually in a black sweater, chest hair peeking from the V-neck, and dark cuffed jeans—a decidedly sexier spin on Steve Jobs’s black-turtleneck-and-dad-jeans uniform. He runs a hand through his trademark tousled curls and pushes up his sleeves. His left wrist is circled by a mint green Jawbone Up Band, a fitness-tracking device designed by his firm in 2011 that records his sleep cycles, walking distance, calories burned, and food intake. The band, he says, broke him of the “delusion” that his 45-minute gym routine was sufficient. Now he keeps tabs on his physical exertion even as he chases his kids through the park or treks up Mississippi Street for lunch. On his right wrist is a tangle of colorful braided bracelets with a small silver totem dangling from one, a memento of his annual surf pilgrimage to Indonesia. He taught himself to surf six years ago, at the age of 39. “Sometimes you can find peace of mind by transferring yourself to different situations. They’re just reminders to stay...calm,” he says. Neither wrist ever goes bare: On one, a gadget that pushes him toward constant activity and dialed-in consciousness; on the other, a mental escape, a reminder of open seas and off-the-grid beaches.

This seemingly contradictory approach parallels Béhar’s business strategy: one part tethered to the realities of the marketplace, the other bent on scrapping convention entirely. Turns out, it’s a lucrative way to operate, and an even better way to solidify one’s status as a visionary. And no one embodies the inwardly type A, outwardly Zen archetype better than Béhar, who, after 20 years in the design business, has vaulted to the very top of the international must-hire list. He recently added PayPal, SodaStream, and the German skincare giant Nivea to his client roster, all the while projecting his patented West-Coast-by-way-of-Switzerland chill vibe. “He seems like the most laid-back California guy there is: He has a house near the beach, he goes to Burning Man, he skateboards with his kids, he surfs,” says freelance journalist Adam Fisher, a friend for over a decade (“since Yves was pre-famous,” he notes drolly). “But underneath, he’s a perfectionist, a workaholic, and a real aesthete.”

Since founding Fuseproject in 1999, Béhar has subscribed to a philosophy that he calls holistic design. Whether engineering a more touch-sensitive vibrator, as the company did for Jimmyjane, or creating a pair of kids’ eyeglasses for the nonprofit program See Better to Learn Better, Fuseproject takes a whole-body approach, tackling everything from the product name and logo to micro-details like the voice you hear when you call customer support.

“It’s in the touch, the name, the ergonomic function, the digital engagement,” says Béhar. “What you stand for as a brand has to ripple through every single thing that you do.”

That means considering the customer an integral part of the story. When starting out at firms Frog and Lunar Design in the mid-’90s, Béhar remembers, “you could build an entire brand around some jingle or 30-second ad.” Now, the entire design process has become a two-step with an increasingly engaged—and, not unimportant, blogging and tweeting—consumer. The buyer is attuned to design like never before. One glitch—and one scathing blog post—is enough to sink a startup. “You can’t make anything crappy today and think it’s going to be successful,” Béhar says. “Crappy’s out.”