For Yves Béhar, the Swiss-born, California-based designer and founder of FUSEPROJECT, the pandemic has been an unexpected, but welcome opportunity to learn, listen and progress. From understanding the needs of his own team to applying his studio’s expertise to create products and information to help the wider community, this year has been one of adapting and seeking positive solutions.
SINCE LOCKDOWN IN MARCH, WHAT’S THE MOOD BEEN LIKE IN SAN FRANCISCO WHERE YOU’RE BASED?
Initially people were scared, people were depressed, but it felt like that was temporary. Four or so months down the line and we’re still in the same condition, in lockdown and working from home. For me personally the first week or 10 days, I really felt discombobulated. The news from Italy and France at the time was very sad and that led to a sense of fear and dread, a sense of awkwardness in social situations. But then I started to feel differently when I started working again with my team. Initially we had to address a lot of the working-from-home conditions and making sure the team was okay. As soon as I realised the team was doing well and adapting and able to work remotely we started applying our skills and productivity to COVID-related projects. I think the mood lifted for me, and the rest of the team because we felt like we were being useful and using design for a number of different initiatives. Some were born out of out the studio and some were partnerships with organisations outside. We started designing a brand identity for a vaccine company; we worked on a testing for the town of Bolinas in Marin County, with a population of around 1500. We created an information website and the whole town got tested, the first complete town test in the US. And then we started working on an information poster campaigns and eventually a fast deployment ventilator. We’ve just recently heard that the ventilator is going to go into production and FDA review. And so, of course, the mood for everyone changes when you can apply yourself to be helpful and contributing to society.
OBVIOUSLY SOME GOOD CAN COME OUT OF THESE VERY DIFFICULT SITUATIONS. DO YOU SEE THIS PERIOD SIGNALLING A PARADIGM SHIFT FOR THE DESIGN INDUSTRY?
There are some personal silver linings, such as spending more time with my family, not travelling, not being on the road constantly and being much closer to my community. Obviously there’s seeing nature flourish with less pressure from our recent activity. Hopefully we can take these realizations into the future, so that going back to normal isn’t just about things being the same as in the past, but instead about a more conscious future. When I hear people say, ‘when we go back to normal’ I certainly hope we can interact with each other more normally again, but I think normal has to be rethought. The future needs to be about a new definition of progress that includes the question “how do we move forward in a way that is more balanced?” I think that would be a positive – hopefully we get to think about what’s next, about change and evolution.
SO PERHAPS THERE’S A BETTER PERSONAL LIFE BALANCE GOING FORWARD?
I think what many have learned is that flexibility is a new inherent quality that businesses have to adapt in terms of the work-life balance of their employees. It used to be that the office was more formalised environment. When you come into the office, when you leave, how you dress, your personal life doesn’t enter the work place typically. Since we’ve been on Zoom working remotely I’ve found more closeness, more knowledge about my collaborators’ lives, because it’s more informal. I can see their homes, their partner; I can see their kids, their pets. It feels like even though they are physically distant there’s more of a personal relationship. And the fact that there’s less formality in those work interactions has meant more humanity for me. I think what businesses will learn from this - are learning from this – is that work has to be more flexible, how it’s organised, when it takes place, where it takes place and how people choose to participate: remotely, in person, or a combination of the two.
HOW DID YOUR OWN STUDIO OPERATE PRIOR TO THIS? WAS THERE A RELAXED ATTITUDE TO WHEN AND WHERE?
One of my statements earlier during the crisis about the working from home era, was to take this as an opportunity to reinforce the bonds that we have between our partners and our teams when we are continuing to deliver good work and good solutions. We were able to pivot to work from home, and adapt our creative process to this new condition and show real consistency in the work that we have presented. I know a lot of our partners and clients are really impressed. I did believe early on that by being focussed and dedicated to clients and partners is a way to build our relationships. We are all going through this experience together and we’re all working towards solutions together and that’s really a very unifying message that a lot of businesses have found.
I also think that today collaboration has become more important that competition. People realise that collaborating on projects, that a widely diverse perspective and expertise, will allow us to make the most progress. Unfortunately that mind-set hasn’t been reflected in politics. I think the dual crisis of the pandemic and the reaction of Black Lives Matter to systemic racism is an opportunity for us to come together nationally and internationally to solve problems together. But unfortunately the response to both COVID and to Black Lives Matter has been highly politicised. I do think that people feel differently about it, but the political system is very disconnected when it comes to what people want and feel currently, which is much more about citizenry, being in this together and solving this crisis together, but that’s sadly not coming from the leadership.
SOME CREATIVES BELIEVE THAT FLEXIBLE WORKING FROM HOME IS THE WAY FORWARD, BUT OTHERS BELIEVE THIS PERIOD HAS REINFORCED OUR NEED FOR COMMUNITY AND A COMMUNAL WORKPLACE. WHERE DO YOU STAND ON THAT?
I actually agree with both, we need both. I think businesses and workers all around the world have shown an incredible ability to respond and adapt to this change. People have changed their homes, habits, personal lives, while often home-schooling their children too, which is extraordinary. It’s also reinforced the fact that human contact is crucial, emotionally as well as professionally. We have discovered that brainstorming is possible on Zoom, and that we’re able to sketch together and partner on a diaply, but at the same time, being close to someone and understanding the context, perhaps the nuances and just spending time together either for work or just socially, is still so important. I think the future is not generally just black and white. We are going to see that it’s not one or the other, but rather that there will be greater flexibility about what is the appropriate way to meet and gather either virtually or in person. Maybe the obligation to travel, the obligation to commute and jump from one meeting to another in a rush isn’t so productive, which I think we all knew already pre-crisis.
SO HAS THIS PAUSE GIVEN YOU A SENSE OF SECURITY AND CONFIDENCE TO MISS A FEW IN-PERSON MEETINGS HERE AND THERE?
I think that’s the right word: confidence. A stronger sense of confidence that remote work and remote meeting is a solution that we can adopt in many cases. I’ve actually adopted this for years as I’ve advocated for more virtual meetings, I’ve asked many conferences to have me speak remotely. There was some reluctance to this approach before, but I have to say I’ve participated in more conferences in the past few months than I have in years. I’ve done conferences, students seminars and crits for summer projects, numerous virtual webinars, given speeches and it didn’t mean a lack of interaction with the audience or with other speakers. In fact, I’ve spent more time in green rooms with other speakers actually getting to know them than I have when I’m travelling to a place and rushing to get on stage and then leaving as soon as I’m off the stage – that’s the sad reality of the international speaking circuit that you don’t actually end up spending time with the other great people who are speaking. I feel like I’ve done more of that in this new context. Again, it’s creating that flexibility. We need to think of how we work, how we interact in the world not as a binary approach, but as a multi-choice approach and I actually think there’s an exciting future in that.
ARE YOU FEELING OPTIMISTIC ABOUT OUR IMMEDIATE FUTURE?
Being optimistic, I believe, is fundamental to being a creative. Change is always hard and there’s always resistance to change in our work, but you can only move forward because you think things will change for the better. Design has a big role to play in helping people change and move to a new solution, a new experience, and so, yes, I’m optimistic. I think there is a great opportunity for change post this crisis and I can see that some of those changes are being enacted in ways that will have a long-term positive impact.
WHAT SORT OF CHANGES ARE YOU FORESEEING?
I think, for example, that the BLM protests were not limited to people of colour. I think we’ve seen large and small towns, all people coming together: people of colour and white people coming together to demand that change and that’s very different from previous protests. There’s a real movement that feels universal towards understanding the plight of people of colour and how our society has to evolve, to be non-discriminatory and non-racist.
CERTAINLY IN THE DESIGN INDUSTRY WE ALL HAVE TO ANSWERS QUESTIONS ABOUT THAT?
Oh, absolutely. I think at every level of this industry we can and need to do better, so I see that as progress. We’re all looking for opportunities to improve, to learn and get better. I’m finding that businesses are more open to change; whether it’s about our natural environment, or whether that’s about discrimination. It gives me hope that we are more open to change because of the experience we’ve been having over these past few months.
YOUR STUDIO IS FOCUSSED ON FINDING GREAT SOLUTIONS TO MAKE LIFE EASIER. WHAT YOU THINK WE NEED POST-PANDEMIC IN TERMS OF DESIGN?
There’s a strong desire from people to consume in a conscious way and I think that has actually been accelerated. Whether that means buying from sustainable sources or lower energy consumption, whether it’s the process of production and logistics being fairer, I think conscious consumption is becoming more and more important. That means conscious design has a greater, more significant role. We do also have a big role in designing resilience into our projects by helping companies pivot their ways of working because of new government regulations and evolving to contactless retail and entertainment, for example. Both education and distance learning, as well as tele-medicine are finally seen as viable solutions. A majority of businesses will have to adapt, and design has a tremendous role to play.
AS PART OF THE BRANDING DEVELOPMENT SIDE OF YOUR BUSINESS, WHAT SORT OF CONVERSATIONS ARE YOU HAVING WITH CLIENTS ABOUT NEW DIRECTIONS?
I think we’ve helped a number of partners and clients because we have been able to codify the way we organise our work, the way we brainstorm, the way we schedule people throughout the day. We have shared these learnings and methodologies with clients and partners. Some industries are less agile, they tend to be less digital than we were already, so we created documents for some of those partners about the learnings from COVID and how people feel after too many consecutive Zoom calls, and what it needed in terms of breaks as well as how collaboration can be enhanced by certain tools online. It’s also important to tend to people’s personal circumstances that are obviously quite different, people with families, people with aging parents, people who live alone – the experiences are quite divergent for different groups of people and we certainly saw that with our own employees. These are good insights that increase our resilience and our partners’ as well, not just for today’s crisis, but for the future too.
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