Yves Béhar is a Swiss-born designer and the founder of Fuseproject. He has worked on products from well-known companies such as Herman Miller, Apple, Puma, GE, SodaStream, Samsung, Issey Miyake, Prada and others. The 48-year-old is also the chief creative officer of August and Jawbone. Behar, who now lives in San Francisco, is a keen surfer who compares surfing to improvisational jazz.
When Yves Béhar and I met about six years ago, we immediately got along, probably because we both love connectedness, technology, bags and watches. And design too. Or is it perhaps that I can get metaphysical and philosophical about these things when talking with Yves? Regardless, at many of my events, you could find busy Yves and me huddled together, chatting about our common interests.
Over the years, as I have sunk deeper into technology, it’s become important for me to invest in some of the handmade, analog traditions that I value — fountain pens, sublime paper and mechanical watches. And yet I couldn’t help but buy the new Issey Miyake watch, Vue, designed by Yves. Despite its being powered by quartz movement (thus making it digital), the watch’s sheer minimal beauty grabbed my attention. “Why do I need to see all twelve numbers when only one is needed?” Yves said.
He has a special bond with watches. “Watches are a great way to think about how products should be designed to last,” he told me a few years ago, because they “have to withstand constraints of life — water, dust, scratches.” That makes them a pinnacle of design. And thanks to Apple and its Apple Watch, the devices are back in conversation.
Earlier this year, Yves came out with his third watch: the Movado Edge. It too is not mechanical, and yet it is modern, minimal and iconic, much like the Movado Museum Dial watch designed by Nathan George Horwitt in 1947. Edge is a worthy descendant to the Dial, with no numbers except for a solitary gold dot at 12 o’clock, symbolizing the sun at high noon. When I saw the photos, I was full of admiration for the design, which moves away from the current highly detailed two-dimensional graphic designs of watch faces to a more subtle three-dimensional and yet recognizable design. I knew I had to talk to Yves about it. An email later, we were sitting across from each other, nerding out about the watch. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
What Is Connectedness?
Om Malik: Recently I heard a talk by industrial designer Sam Hecht, and my big takeaway was that all of these industrial designers are still designing products from the user experience standpoint, but none of them are thinking about connectedness.
Yves Béhar: For me, whether I look at a non‑connected product or a connected product, they’re always connected, but they’re connected to the human experience. There are no electronics except for quartz movement in this new watch or the furniture system for Herman Miller: They are highly connected to what people want to do emotionally. They’re highly connected to those pent-up desires.
The connectedness can be technological or otherwise. But most importantly, that connectedness has to be what design preoccupies itself with: the human experience. Technology preoccupies itself too much with speed, with efficiency, with features. But design preoccupies itself with the human experience.
Om: Now we as a society are increasingly used to speed and being connected all the time. To think about design without that thing in the back of your mind, I would say that is half the experience, not the full experience.
For example, when I looked at Nest, it felt like a complete product. But the minute it didn’t work as effectively by being connected, it lost some of its beauty. That is becoming a reality now, especially as more and more things have chips in them. What’s to say that this new watch doesn’t become a smart watch? The quartz could be replaced with a chip.
A Watch Is Not Just a Watch
Yves: The idea behind this watch is to draw you into it. A problem with a lot of analog watches but also digital watches today is they keep you at the surface. It is always about the typography. It’s about the brand expression. It’s about digital functionality. But there’s nothing that gets your eye to go inside it.
You have to get a mechanical watch to get into it. That’s why people love to look on the back of their mechanical watches. But how can you draw the eye into the experience or the product? To me, that’s what good design is about. It draws you into itself for itself’s sake, not because it’s just connected. Sometimes objects that are connected push you out of that. It’s all about that connectedness. It’s not about what they actually do and perform for you.
Om: You’ve been designing watches for quite some time. How has the evolution of thinking behind a watch changed in 15 years?
Yves: When I worked on the Mini Motion watch, I was all about the digital display. Specifically, I was interested in the ability of a display to switch from horizontal to vertical, to give you a choice. It was the first display that switched directions. It cost us nothing, because it was purely graphic design. We programmed the numbers within the display to be about the same proportion, and then we just allowed with one button to turn it. Of course, we wanted it to be motion sensitive, but that was in 2002. We couldn’t do that then.
But I was really interested in the digital interface and giving the digital interface intelligence or adaptability to a user’s needs. The other thing I was interested in is, How do you put a watch on without a strap? With the Mini watch you just slapped it on. It became the starting point of how we built the first Jawbone bracelet, the Up and the Up2. It was a complete invention of how to do it.
The first [MiniMotion] watch was invention. The second [MiniMotion] watch was metaphor or idea. Then the idea for Issey Miyake was, it has to be Japanese from a brain-neuron standpoint. They have to go, “Ahhhhh!” They have to make that sound when they see it. It has to tap into the Zen part or the cultural part of Issey Miyake’s brand, which is always about discovery and material invention. He’s more of an industrialist. He designs the machines and extrapolates what could be done out of a new material, a new machine that folds or presses that material.
What I thought about is, which was nearly impossible, “What about if the only number I need is a number that is now? If it’s 6 o’clock, the only number I need on a watch is the 6 o’clock number. I don’t need the other ones. The other ones are useless. And at 7 o’clock I only need the 7 o’clock one.” We devised a way for the numbers to appear and disappear as time passes.
It was also metaphysical, because it was about communicating the passage of time and making people realize that 3 o’clock is going away and now 4 o’clock is coming on. It had this passage of time movement to it.
That was the second watch. The third watch is about depth and three‑dimensionality and a nod to a modernist icon of the 20th century.
Time Is Invisible
Om: One of things that I like about this watch, especially the black one, is that you can tell who makes it. It has that look that makes you say it must be Movado. Especially just the time face, and not the chronographs.
Yves: The one element that I really loved from the original watch, the Nathan George Horwitz design from 1947, is the metaphor of the sundial, or the “Museum Watch” as it’s called, which is the sun at 12 o’clock. But I felt that the icon would be stronger if it was being applied as a flat piece within the watch against a three-dimensional surface. A part of just a surface that communicates everything. It communicates the time. It has little ridges to tell you time. It communicates light and the way light changes as you move it around, and it has reflectivity and movement. At the same time it has a little bit of that branded element. But all within a single surface.
In design you try to do a lot with a few elements. But look at how many elements are inside your [IWC] watch. There’s 50 separate little things that are applied in different ways that are machined and sculpted and turned into a design.
In this new Movado watch there is a single element, and it’s supposed to do everything. It’s supposed to do the emotional side, the sculptural side, the branded side and the whole aesthetic. Inside this watch, you picked a white one versus a black one versus a blue one. With one part how much could we do, how much could we express?
Om: Some of the watches you’ve designed seem more in tune with the commercial needs of the brand. But this one is pure you. It’s beautiful.
Yves: That’s why I was excited about this project. It was an opportunity for me to return to a simpler time, if I may say so. I was cramming batteries and sensors into the smallest possible space and beating engineers up all day long so that something beautiful could emerge out of the mess and the complexity that technology brings to our lives. In a way, it’s the opportunity to be pure and just think about the most emotionally primal elements. How do we assemble them all together?
Om: There’s no branding on this watch. How does a company that spends millions of dollars every year on branding say, “OK. We’re not going to put our name on it”?
Yves: We made all the prototypes, just to explore the shapes, without thinking about the size of the “Swiss Made” or the size of the “Movado,” because to me that’s the thing you do almost at the end. Then when the CEO and I looked at the final prototypes, he was really emotional about it. We didn’t even really discuss it. I didn’t know if I had permission to not put the name on it. I thought maybe legally you have to put the brand name on the face, or “Swiss Made.”
I just said, “It looks so beautiful. It almost doesn’t need anything else.” He was like, “Oh, yeah. We don’t need to put the brand on there. We can put it on the back.”
I was like, “Really? We can do that?” It was a fun moment, where it felt like two kids doing a misdeed. [laughs]
Om: Are watches your favorite things to design?
Yves: It’s hard. I don’t know. I like to design things that people use every day. I like to design things that are not once a month or once a week but to design things that you have to live with. That’s why the Jawbones — it’s always something that I felt passionate about. There are a few products like that, things that you’re going to be wearing every day, feeling good about every day.
Om: How did you design this watch? How did you go from meeting the CEO of Movado to where it is today?
Yves: We spent a few months agreeing on how we were going to do it. They hadn’t worked with an outside person, an industrial designer, since, really, that famous watch in 1947. We had to figure out how we were going to do this together, because it has to be a partnership of some sort. Then it was mostly sketching, drawings, then making quick prototypes.
For me the way something like this works is iterative. How thin can you make the edge, the bezel? How deep can you actually make this dish? Because if I couldn’t go at least this depth the concept is dead, right? How can you make this dish so that it’s deep enough to have this kind of reflectivity? Can the hands actually go over the dots? Now the hands are actually floating a little higher. We had to work with their engineers on changing the parts that are attached to the movement. And the movement itself, so that it is stable and it won’t break when it’s at that height.
There is a lot of, like, “OK, we have an idea. We’re excited about it. We think there is potential.” Then you go explore that it’s within the parameters of your imagination, that it actually can have this depth and this look. But you don’t know.
It’s a heartbreaker when somebody comes back and says, “It can be this depth, not more.” You’re like, “I don’t know if it’s going to work.” Then you machine it in the work.
We machine in aluminum. I knew I wanted to use aluminum, and I knew I wanted to machine aluminum. Because that’s the only way to get this kind of precision, this kind of definition of the ridges and the domes and these different finishes out of a single material, out of one piece of material.
Om: That is one thing that I love about these quartz watches, which are $300 to $1,000 watches: There’s a lot of interesting design in there. People playing around a bunch with the watch-face design. It’s a more affordable watch, so you can be experimental.
Yves: Yeah, take more risks. I want to consume things that are experiments. It needs to be something that you don’t know if it’s really going to work. But you hope it does, and you want to be a supporter. You want to help someone forge their dream.
It’s hard to find a new expensive product that I want. There are some great historical pieces that I want. But it’s hard to commit to a brand-new product that is just launching, a luxury product, let’s say, if it’s not an experiment, if nobody’s taken any risks, if it’s just right. Just right is boring.
The Watch Collector
Om: Which watches do you like, apart from yours?
Yves: I have a couple of Pateks.
Om: No, no. Amongst experimental-design ones.
Yves: Oh. All the Lip watches from the ’60s. Lip is the guy who did the TGV train. Of today, you mean? I like Omegas. In a market in Thailand I found the first Omega Seamaster that was digital. It doesn’t have a digital display; it’s an analog display. It looks like a complete volcano. Every surface of the watch goes to the top. Then there’s a circular dial. I supported the first ana‑digi watch I ever saw. Then I also liked the electronic mechanical watch, that Swiss brand.
Om: One of the more ironic things about the Apple Watch is that more people are interested in watches now. We thought that Apple would crush everybody, but now more people are paying attention to the idea of a watch as a fashion accessory.
Yves: Also as a sign of personal style and belief. That’s the issue: Some of these digital products, they don’t give you the opportunity to express yourself, even when there is range. I’ve always been a big fan of range. We were probably the first ones, with Jawbone, to do a range of different headset colors or different Jambox colors and finishes and colors and textures. But most technology products come in one flavor.
When things move to the body — your eyes, your wrist, your feet, the bags you carry, et cetera — that is so important. There is something so visceral about our need to express ourselves through the objects we wear.
Photos by Om Malik. Watch sketches courtesy of Fuseproject.