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Yves Behar: Designers must 'put the sexy back in green'

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Industrial design visionary took the stage at the Greener Gadgets conference in New York City to urge designers to make green sexy and use smart design to spur social change.

NEW YORK -- 'Green' must be the sexiest tool in a designer's toolbox, and the industry must extend its focus to the long-term and bring design everywhere it is needed, said industrial design visionary Yves Behar.

Behar gave the keynote speech at the CEA's Greener Gadgets conference here on Thursday, where he showed a number of projects his firm, Fuseproject, is working on to demonstrate that the intelligence and social impact of products rests firmly in the hands of industrial designers around the world.

A leading figure in the field of industrial design, Béhar has worked with Herman Miller, Mini, Nike, Cassina, Microsoft, Johnson and Johnson, Swarovski, Toshiba, Sony, One Laptop Per Child, Target and Coca Cola, and his work is in the permanent collections of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and New York's Museum of Modern Art and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Behar urged design firms to work more closely with clients to improve their businesses, rather than simply fulfill a project order.

He explained some of his recent projects to demonstrate that extra needed step: social-minded underwear company PACT, which restricts its entire production process within a 100-mile radius; Mission Motors, which makes high-performance electric motorcycles; and Bluetooth earpiece company Jawbone, which reduced its product packaging by 80 percent.

"If it's not ethical, it cannot be beautiful," Behar said. "But if it cannot be beautiful, it probably should not be at all."

But perhaps Behar's most high-profile project is One Laptop per Child, which offers $100 laptops for the developing world. Behar revealed that 1.4 million OLPC XO models have been shipped to every continent, and that the venture expects to distribute two million before the end of the year.

"Design is only experienced -- let's be honest -- by maybe only a billion people each day," he said. "Design has an opportunity to contribute to the wider world."

Using the South American nation of Uruguay as an example, where every child between the ages of six and 12 receives an OLPC XO from the government, Behar argued that designers should rethink their one-size-fits-all approach to product manufacturing.

"This program was for me an incredible revelation," he said. "Nobody thought it was possible. Everybody thought [MIT Media Laboratory founder] Nick Negroponte and me were insane."

Behar lamented the lack of design in consumer electronics, and said that Apple was the only company visibly practicing conscious design.

''Laptops are designed by marketing people. They're not designed for you, for your particular needs and usage. A laptop specifically designed for one user. Imagine that!"

Addressing the future of the OLPC, Behar revealed conceptual art for the next generation model, the XO3. A "slate" tablet-style, all-plastic, ultra-thin touchscreen device, it's intended to be used by more than one child at the same time.

"When two people can touch and interact on a single screen, to me, that's not called personal computer anymore ... that's interactive computing," he said. "That's the role of One Laptop per Child...to push. To push the industry."

In a similar vein, Behar showed off his firm's concept of a "hackable" car for the developing world, a vehicle in which the parts that make up its front and back (such as the headlights, windshield and bumper) are identical, to drive down cost and foster customization.

"You do something like this, and suddenly people like us in New York and San Francisco want one," he said. "I want that cute car. We need to find someone to make it."

Behar also demonstrated concepts for a sustainable Swarovski crystal, a "Twist Light" for use underneath cabinets that uses just 8 watts of energy and the symmetrical "T Water Bottle," which is stackable and can be used as a children's toy.

The key to all this? Designers must work more closely with clients in intimate partnerships that foster not only products, but a brand and ethos, Behar said.

"What is our role in supporting, helping and building new business clients that allow us to create what I call 21st century-style companies?" he said. "How do we create companies that challenge the status quo?"

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure