The index of James Dyson’s autobiography doesn’t include the word innovation, a curious omission for the ultimate innovator.
From a ball-wheeled wheelbarrow to a skiff capable to transporting a Land Rover over water, the bagless vacuum cleaner, a supercharged fan and heater, hand dryer and a washing machine, Sir James’s career and brand are built on innovation, yet in his 2002 book, Against the Odds , the theme is invention, not innovation.
It’s probably because innovation as a business concept didn’t come into fashion until after his book was published. But few would argue Sir James is not an icon of innovation.
For the Briton, it’s always about the design, interface and efficiency. He might not have invented the vacuum cleaner, but he’s made it much easier to use, more efficient and somewhat sexy. At least as much as a vacuum cleaner can be.
An arts student turned industrial designer turned engineer, Sir James has several innovative designs in his portfolio. I’ve interviewed him twice in Toronto for different publications, including the The Globe and Mail, and followed him with interest.
He is a casual yet elegant dresser, tall and slim with a gentle yet direct and forceful speaking tone. He is unguarded about his passion for design and R&D. He makes no secret that bad design and poor usability draw his ire and ultimately his considerable resources in a quest to innovate the hapless machine.
“A big motivation for inventors has been frustration: frustration about things that have been around for years, doing an okay job but not anything like as good a job as they could,” he writes in the foreword to The Mammoth Book of Great Invention, co-edited by Sir James and Robert Uhlig, which catalogues human inventions that changed the world. “The breakthrough was realizing things don’t have to be the way they are. It can be enormous fun to think up new ways of doing things and then to prove they are no mere pipe dreams by turning them into real, live products sold around the world.”
Machines must not only be functional, he has told me, they must be intuitive and easy to use, and it’s that aspect, perhaps, which has been Sir James’s hallmark.
“It’s semiotic design [the science of interpreting signs], the thing itself should tell what it does for you,” Sir James said in a 2008 interview around the concept of failure by design. “That’s what we’re trying to do with our product. You don’t need instructions because it is obvious. People don’t have to think about it.”
Good design at all levels changes the relationship we have with something, he said, and that’s where innovation pays off.
“When you buy something that works well but looks horrid, it’s hard to fall in love with it,” he said in a 2007 interview. “If you buy something that looks great but doesn’t work well, you fall out of love with it and hate it. How something works is the most important thing, but if it can look good as well and has impressive function and if it can excite, then looking good is a virtue. But the most important thing is how it works and how long it lasts.”
After modest success in the 1970s designing a fibreglass landing craft that allows a Land Rover to drive on and off, and then a wheel barrow, the Ballbarrow, with a ball-shaped wheel that could be manoeuvred but didn’t sink into the mud and get stuck, he launched his obsession with vacuum cleaners in 1980.
It took 12 years and 5,126 iterations. Sir James’s vacuums may cost more but the market seems eager to buy because they are efficient, stylish and easy to use. Today, Dyson vacuums are the world leader, replacing the ubiquitous Hoover – whose name is ironically synonymous with suction. The Dyson brand itself has gone to greater heights, all built around taking a standard household appliance and reinventing it.
Not everything has been a success, however, but that, too, is part of Sir James’ DNA. In 2005 he killed off his line of contra-rotating washing machines, which were sold only in Britain, because they were losing money and priced above what the market would bear.
“I really enjoyed getting into washing machines and understanding how to make them better,” he told Bloomberg Business Week in December of 2012. “We all had enormous fun doing it. It just so happened we didn’t make any money on it. But it was well worth doing. A huge amount of what we do is wasted because it doesn’t work or it’s the wrong direction or whatever. That’s the nature of being an engineer. That’s the nature of R&D. We spend $2.5-million a week on R&D, and a lot of it is failure. But you learn a lot from all that failure. Making this washing machine was the most wonderful educative failure. Success is not always as enjoyable as you might think. When something’s a success, the results are clear. Failure is an enigma. You worry about it, and it teaches you something.”
Persevering against the odds, as his autobiography title suggests, is integral to Sir James, now approaching 67.
In the books, he delights in recounting how he was told: “But James, if there were a better kind of vacuum cleaner, Hoover or Electrolux would have invented it.”
Dogged determination got him through the iterative design process, which nearly bankrupted him, and it is part of what drives successful entrepreneurs and innovators.
“Doggedness is the most important,” he said in the 2007 interview when asked about the most important trait of an inventor. “It’s not as difficult as it sounds because if you are an engineer, you love experiments, making discoveries. And the mistakes – you learn from your mistakes. You enjoy trying to break things, doing the impossible, thinking the unthinkable and doing it with a dogged determination to see it through.
“I have always found that the very moment you’re ready to give up, that if you go on a little longer, you end up finding what you’re looking for. It’s one of life’s rewards for perseverance.”