Dyson may be the world’s most interesting engineering and design firm. It’s not just because they manufacture 40,000 inventive products a day, from high-end vacuum cleaners to fans with no blades, but because it’s a multi-billion dollar empire that’s owned, not by shareholders, but by one man, its founder, James Dyson.
James Dyson is approaching 70, and of three children, he has one son who has been anointed his successor: Jake. (His other son is a musician, while his daughter is a fashion designer.)
While James is known for high-powered electric motors and vacuums, Jake made his name in LEDs, running his own lighting design studio independently for the last decade. Jake joined the Dyson board in 2014 before Dyson bought his company in 2015. Now, Dyson the company sells Jake Dyson’s lighting line as its own. And in one of his first interviews since joining Dyson officially, Jake talks to Co.Design about why he started a studio on his own, his reluctance to join the family business, how he differs from his father, and how his imprint could change Dyson products forever.
Co.Design: Why did you start your own studio? Why not leverage all the resources of Dyson to do the things you wanted to do?
Jake Dyson: I wanted to learn myself, my way. My father has been completely separated–not as father and son–but he hasn’t helped me [professionally] at all. He’s literally been completely hands off. And I’ve made my mistakes, my decisions. I haven’t sought advice from him over the last 10 years.
That feels like a weird father-son dynamic! I ask my dad to do my taxes!
When I see my dad, we don’t want to talk about work. And occasionally I’d say, “Have a look at what we’re doing.” I remember showing him a rig of [the CSYS lamp track system] and he said, “Christ, that’s amazing.” And a year later I gave him a lamp. So it’s been very separate. People probably wouldn’t see it like that from the outside, but that’s actually how it is.
Going back to your question, it was just wanting to learn myself, to prove to myself, that I can achieve this. And just really really enjoying making products. And making products the way I want to do it. It’s my thing.
But then it started to evolve into reasonably serious products. In a way, it’s slightly addictive. It’s like, “I want to do another product. And I want to do another one. Now let’s build the range.” That was the difficult decision in coming into Dyson. It’s like, well, hang on, I want to do another product! I’ve got another idea! And it ended up somewhere like, ‘If you’ve got another idea, why don’t you come do it at Dyson?’
So look, there was the concern my father had about the destiny of the business. Him approaching 70, the company being a worldwide success, having huge ambitions, increasing value but risk equivalently. Bigger scale is bigger risk. And, “is it something the family wanted the burden of? They call it a burden. Should I sell it in my lifetime?” These are probably the thoughts going through his mind. Or at least it was as he was discussing it with me. And his ultimate desire was, if you create something like [Dyson], the last thing you want to do is give it away. It’s not about money. It’s about, this is us, this is the family. It’s a family business.
He wanted reassurance, I think, that someone in the family would be interested in helping to run it. And I am. And have been. It’s partly because it’s what I do, and I enjoy it. I enjoy designing products and that’s really important.
Was there a moment you sat down with your dad, or as a family with your siblings, and this became a talk?
It was like that. Except, we have these meetings called family assembly meetings. We all get together. I don’t like the word dynasty, but that’s what it is. It’s not just a business. There’s a lot going on in the background. There’s a massive global organization. He has been wanting me to join the business for the last five years. And the executives have, too. Partly because they love the lights and wanted the lights. But also because they want me in there as another member of the family. When you have executives, you need backup, someone coming up beneath.
I was the only member of the family who was interested and wanted to do that! My sister is a fashion designer, wants to do her own thing. My brother is a musician, he wants to do his own thing. He’s an executive on the board. That’s important to me–another family member who has got some idea of what’s going on.
It took me three years. [I was thinking] I’ve got my own employees, my own people, my own studio. If I give all this up, how am I going to feel psychologically? It’s your esteem. Am I going to feel lost? Or am I going to feel like I’ve come back home? I had to think it through for a couple of years. Then, basically there was, I wouldn’t call it an ultimatum, but pretty close (laughs). “We need to know in the next year or so whether you’re going to do this or not.”
I’ve got kids, and I have been traveling constantly dealing with manufacturing issues, selling my products around the world, and then, we launched the new tall CSYS, supplied them to over 280 dealers, and I got a phone call saying the paint was bubbling on one of the bases. Then I went to the warehouse, unpacked 100 boxes, and every single one of them, bubbling paint. And so, I had to recall all of the products from all of our dealers. Fly out to Malaysia. Go get to the bottom of it. That was a f– a reputation thing. Everything I’d done for the last 10 years was on the line here.
Because of paint.
And then at that point I thought, “Christ, if that was through the machine of Dyson’s manufacturing structure, that wouldn’t have happened.” This could have been someone else’s role to monitor this and sort it out. I had to do everything. Looking at the scale of what we were doing, and the number of people in that studio, it was pretty scary. So it was a combination of things.
I’m going to be completely honest. [My business] was growing to a scale where, I was going to need to invest 20 million pounds into the business to take it to the next level. And not only that, I’m going to have to employ another 100 people instantly, and train them up. It had hit this point where, that form of investment, and that commitment, had to happen to take the business forward because we were starting to do quite serious things with quite serious demand.
I literally went on a holiday for two weeks and decided [going to Dyson] was the best thing to do. The thing that really tipped it was, I’d already started to be in board meetings for a year, and I started to see the complexity and scale of the business, and that scared me. In other words, if I’d left in another five years, this is going to be more difficult to get to grips with the business. That was the turning point where I might as well just combine the two, get everything going on lighting, scale it up, and start to learn the business.
And I get to see my kids a little bit more as well.
I’ll be honest–from the outside, it looks like you’re really just into lights. Are you into the other stuff?
[Laughs] Of course I’m into the other stuff. In fact, I now spend more of my time on the other stuff. We have a category, an engineer-design team on lighting. I steer it. I sort of supervise it and guide them, and it’s my ambition and direction and vision for lighting that they’re following. So I can’t divulge where we’re going with that, but it’s quite exciting.
We’re thinking about what lighting could be in five or six years’ time. Not what it’s going to be tomorrow. And it revolves around changing the way we light spaces.
But my time is spent with other design teams on all of the other categories of all the other projects, looking at new technologies, [following] the involvement and design of products, contributing to their design, making decisions to sign off so they can proceed. I’m also on the Dyson board. And I set a strategic approach that we should be thinking 10 years ahead from now, not four years. I’m quite involved as well on the strategic executive level. So, [I’m] broadly involved over the whole business.
So you’re actually overseeing a lot of different products across teams?
I wouldn’t say overseeing. Well, yes. They present where they are with a project, then you come up with ideas and agree on a direction for them to move forward. And that’s what my father does. So if you like, I’m sort of simulating what he does as well. So I sit in on meetings with him. I sit in some without him. Getting up to speed, you’d call it.
Dyson plans to put out a whole lot of new products onto the market by 2020. I can’t help but to look at a company like Apple, another great design company, that used to have a much simpler lineup, and in many ways, all these new products seems to have been bad for them.
If you try to do 20 new things all at once, and you’re not prepared for it, you’re gonna have problems. So we’re very very focused on three fundamental areas at the moment. And they’re areas that people really really care about. One is hygiene and cleanliness, so we’re able to clean floors and carpets and houses beautifully and perfectly. One is purification and air treatment, so it can clean air. And the other is personal care. So that is things for your body.
Well what are the two most important things to someone else? Health and beauty. Two key areas where we ought to focus on for product development.
You didn’t say transportation.
No, I didn’t say transportation.
So [health and beauty is] where we have to be focused. And we’re very very focused now on what we’re going to do. We’re not so much tinkering, experimenting with hundreds of different things. We were like that two years ago. But it means you will see, in the next couple of years, products that you would never have imagined for us to do, come to market.
Dyson is famous for coming in and reinventing something known. Have you considered pure inventions? Being a company that builds things that people literally haven’t seen before?
The answer is yes. A product that doesn’t exist? That’s something that’s happening as we speak. There will be something soon that you didn’t think you needed, that you really do need, basically. A product you wouldn’t imagine, be able to sit here and say, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had that?” That is starting to happen. There are references to it. There’s a need for it. But generally people won’t have recognized it.
An answer to your question, yes, we do think like that, as well as tackling existing categories and reinventing them. You were just referring to an iPhone or something? You go back 10 years, no one would have thought of a touch phone that did everything. “Why would you need that? Why would I want that?” Yeah. (nods)
And that brings up a whole area of consumer electronics, which Dyson isn’t really into.
We’re getting there. We recognize that. We have to. We need those things in our products. We need to build that capability in-house. So we are building that capability in-house.
More than just adding connectivity to what you have?
Both. Electronics and connectivity. And we’re scaling up.
So Dyson machines . . . with screens?
Possibly. It’s the way you communicate information, isn’t it?
We’re experimenting. That’s what we’re really good at. I think it’s very very similar to potentially Apple’s original operating system, the Macintosh. It was all icons and user-friendly, completely intuitive. They didn’t do that overnight. That was a really drawn-out process, with some psychology to get it right, and make sure it really clicked with people as the easiest computer to operate and the easiest computer to learn.
That’s the approach we have to take.
Will Dyson need to design differently, with this growing focus on connectivity?
We [already] think about the engineering of the product, and we do think about the way people use that product, but we’re not thinking about the psychology of the person before we do something. And if you design computer software, the first thing you do is think about the psychology of the person using it. That’s a different approach, and much more the approach you see in Silicon Valley.
Our connectivity team, our apps team, our electronics teams, they’re all starting to think in that way. How does a human understand your product? It’s not a computer, it’s a product, but you still have those considerations. How they interact with it?
The interesting thing about this is, you only get one chance. If you made a computer that no one understood, no one would buy your computer again. If we made a connected product that pissed people off that was awkward to use, no one would ever buy our connected products again.
And it has to be a system that’s generic across all your products. So you can’t make someone understand one product, or one operating system for example, and then do a different one on another one. There has to be an identity behind it as well.
We’re not going to make mobile phones or tablets. We still stick to our core. But the integration and connectivity is inevitable.
Most smart products are generally horrible.
We’ve got 150 people–a strong team in connectivity. We have robots, connected purifiers monitoring your air. So it’s something we started a little bit late, but we’re all over it.
But what we wouldn’t do is what a lot of people do, is launch gimmicks. Why would I want to spend two minutes opening up an app, going to a page in that app, to turn my light on? When I could just turn around and flip a switch?
Have you found how you might approach the business differently than your father?
There’s a reason why our products are so successful, and it’s because he has the attention on all of them, and every single detail. If someone says to him, “James, we want to change the radius on this edge,” they have to pass it by him for that sign-off. It’s down to that detail.
As the business grows, it’s going to be more and more impossible for one person to actually sign off every single thing. So I would probably empower more trust into those teams, and some of those designers, to make those decisions. And some of those designers have been there well over 10 years. They know exactly what a Dyson product should be like at the end of the day. They’re not going to go a million miles wrong.
Similar to Steve Jobs, [James] just would not allow anyone [else to make decisions]–it was his decision, every single detail. It’s a sort of micromanaging of the products. But that’s why they’re all absolutely immaculate, perfect. And that’s why they all look like Dyson products. It’s his mind. It’s his vision.
That [vision] will start to be mine in the future. The only great thing is that we both have the same values in products. We both believe form follows function, and geometry dictating the layout of the product. You won’t ever see amorphic shapes in our products. Stretched, conical, blobby, a bit like Zaha Hadid. You’ll never see that on any of our products. And that’s why they’re so recognizable, and pure.
So we have the same beliefs. It’s not like if anything happened to him, in 20 years time, suddenly all the products would start coming out looking weird.
This interview has been condensed and edited.