Industrial designer Yves Béhar and automotive designer Gorden Wagener.

Conversations:

Yves Béhar and Gorden Wagener have shaped the world.

Shared passion.

Let’s kick off this conversation by talking about your shared passion, surfing. What drew you to it?

Gorden Wagener: Growing up in Germany, I was windsurfing a lot in the North Sea, but also started to travel around the globe and eventually became pretty good at surfing. I even considered turning pro when I was around 18. Unfortunately, I went into design. But I’ll always be a surfer. You don’t lose that.

Yves Béhar: For me, it was very similar as with you, Gorden. I’m from Lausanne and I started windsurfing when I was 16 on Lake Geneva. For me, surfing was sort of an escape as a teenager. To be able to go out on the lake and feel the elements, this to me was a way to leave my teenage anxiety behind. When I came to California in my twenties to study, I continued to wind- and kitesurf, but I got into surfing waves as well.

In what ways does surfing inspire your work as designers?

BÉHAR: For me surfing represents a moment of Zen. Also, it’s about getting a different perspective: When you’re in the ocean, you’re looking from the water backwards to the shore. Most people experience the ocean from shore, looking out onto the ocean. It reverses your traditional perspective. The water is a place where you have to be entirely focused. 

Yves Béhar.

Patience and adaptability.

You can’t be distracted. You have to really pay attention and be in sync with nature, the waves and the flow. And I think when you’re a designer, it’s similar in the sense that you have to think ahead. You have to be able to read people’s pent-up desires and the things they can’t express themselves. Something they want to have in a year or two years, three years, four years from now. So, you have to have that patience and be able to adapt to change all the time. I think those are also characteristics of a good surfer.

WAGENER: To me this is the most important question: What inspires you? I think inspiration is actually an attitude. And to get there, you have to sort of clear your memory once in a while. And that’s what I love about surfing. You go out there and it’s a different world. You just think about waves and elements, and the wind. The most important thing for creatives is to stay fresh, and you won’t be if you constantly sit at your desk. My other inspiration is an aesthetic one: When looking at shapes in nature, everything flows, everything seems right. And even if it’s a very complex system, it still has a structure and a certain symmetry. Nothing is ugly in nature. Everything is beautiful. And of course, there is the shape of the surfboard itself. It’s fast and clean and follows very nice lines. 

Gorden Wagener.

Design: heart and brain.

How is this reflected in the design of Mercedes-Benz?

WAGENER: To me, design consists of two things: the heart and the brain. Here at Mercedes-Benz, we define our design work on a scale from hot to cool, from intellect and intelligence to emotions. We develop all our designs along this matrix. And we strive for harmony, knowing we will never achieve it perfectly. But we try to be close.

Mr Béhar, what does beauty mean to you as a designer?

BÉHAR: Beauty is certainly something I think about every time I hold a pencil in my hand, ready to draw a line. I am very much interested in things that are not merely beautiful but surprising as well, as I believe that sometimes our souls need to be shown things from a different angle, from a different perspective. I love the fact that when our designs go well, people feel smarter and more engaged, like they are discovering something. They feel like they’ve progressed and that they are able to move forward through the experience a product can give them. 

You both cite Syd Mead as an influence. Mead was a legendary designer who worked in science fiction, inventing many spectacular vehicles for movies – including the ones for the cult film “Tron”.

WAGENER: Syd Mead’s designs are fantastic and they keep being an influence. But current science fiction is also super fascinating. If you look at the set design of some of those movies, it’s such a great inspiration. That’s also why it’s always a huge honour to work with creatives like director James Cameron.

You’re referring to VISION AVTR, a concept car that was inspired by the movie “Avatar”.

WAGENER: Yes. To me that was a dream come true, because in the end, as designers, we all want to do science-fiction movies, I guess.

BÉHAR: Totally! And what I love about Syd Mead is that many of his sketches show complete worlds, not only the cars. They’re very utopian. I’m very taken by these sorts of positive and utopian ways of imagining technology. Of course, there’s also plenty of great films that are dystopian. But what’s interesting for me as a designer is that we’re very good at imagining both futures: a utopian and a dystopian future. In a way, we like to imagine positive and negative futures which take a scenario all the way to its conclusion. In fact, I think this is actually the core purpose of being a designer: to create the future. Because, you know, the past has already been written.

WAGENER: What we create will be the future. In the car industry, at least. We work up to ten years ahead of the market. We’re constantly thinking about and deciding on the future of cars. We’re making science fiction every day. It’s an essential part of our job.

But how does it work – how do you “create the future”, as you say? I’m sure there are no crystal balls in your studio.

BÉHAR: There is this great quote by Alan Watts, which is: “no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” What this means for a designer, looking three, five, ten years ahead, is to really be in tune with where the world wants to go. People have certain desires, expectations, dreams about how they want to live that they can’t formulate. They intuitively know but it’s just not there yet. As a designer, my job is to take on these unmet expectations knowing that it may take three years, five years or ten years to get there. So, I think you have to be deeply connected to the human now, to the psyche and idiosyncrasies of modern life. In the end, my job is about coming up with unexpected ways to show people that the future they’re dreaming about is possible, that it can be affordable and beautiful. That it can lead to a bigger, more enriching experience.

Gorden Wagener: For Mercedes-Benz, he developed the design philosophy of Sensual Purity. He has headed the Design division of Mercedes‑Benz Group AG since 2008.

Gorden Wagener: For Mercedes-Benz, he developed the design philosophy of Sensual Purity. He has headed the Design division of Daimler AG since 2008.

A great moment.

Working so far ahead, do you ever get impatient with the future, wishing that it wouldn’t take so long for people to experience what you’re designing?

WAGENER: Sometimes it can be a bit frustrating that it takes so long, yes. That’s why we love to work with show cars – they only take around a year to build from the moment we have the idea. There are just way less restrictions compared with production cars: from costs to legislation and technology. If a newly designed production car sees the light of day, we’ve known it for five years already. Still, it’s such a great moment to see a new model on the street for the first time. The cars always look so much better on the road and in actual sunlight. And that’s a thing I really enjoy. It’s so cool to design an object and at some point being able to drive it. That’s the fun part. And I think you have to have fun to stay inspired. I keep saying that sometimes our job is a bit like playing in the sandbox with toy cars. As designers, we have to try and maintain that little kid in us. 

What you describe there, Mr Wagener, this ability to maintain a childlike curiosity – I would think that this is something very crucial for designers in general?

BÉHAR: I think it’s very important for everyone, not just designers. But of course, as a designer, you kind of live for the excitement you get when you first sense that there is something to improve, that innovation is possible. And at the same time, I think it’s good that as I got older, I learned about patience. In the sense that the first idea, the one which creates that spark, also deserves refinement and to be perfected over time. The biggest mistake I can think of being made in design is a great idea that’s rushed to market. An idea which hasn’t been fully resolved and which then ends up, you know, not being convincing.

As you see your designs progress from ideas to actual products, they undergo this whole process which, I assume, probably costs a lot of energy. How do you deal with that?

WAGENER: In that respect, design really is a tough job which touches you on an emotional level. Every time you present an idea, you put your feelings onto the table, leaving you vulnerable. But that’s just what it is. Design is like the Champions League: 100 people start drawing and eventually there will only be one solution left. So 99 ideas get lost. And in that process, designers might also lose a bit of themselves too. There’s a lot of destruction in finding the better idea, the idea that is most suitable for a particular job. That is why it’s important for us designers to have a voice. Because to do good design is one thing, but it’s a whole other story to bring it to a big organisation like Mercedes-Benz. Luckily, we make those design-based decisions in the very small circle of the board. By the way, our CEO, Ola Källenius, has a great understanding of design. 

Mr Béhar, as a designer who works for more than one company, can you relate to that? 

BÉHAR: I agree with Gorden when he says that you have to have allies who understand what great design could do for the company. Not only in large organisations; it’s similar with start-ups too, which represent about half of the work that we do. Putting the human experience at the centre of any development is essential today – especially as the technology is somewhat evenly distributed within industries in terms of everybody having access to it. So, the difference between a great application and something that is maybe too complex and challenging to use is design. To make that difference, design teams need to have power and support. In a way, good design is like an unfair competitive advantage today. And I think most companies, small and large, understand that. 

What about consumers? They also have their expectations towards product design, usually wanting what’s already there, just slightly updated. How far can you go in challenging them and how do you deal with feedback?

Feedback is always appreciated.

WAGENER: Feedback is always appreciated. It’s valuable. And we as a car company do panels where we test our designs. But we always have to consider that this feedback comes from someone living today. It’s not coming from someone who’s already living under the future circumstances we have been designing for. In the end, we need to make a decision about the future, which should be a designer’s decision. I always say that design is not democratic. Somebody has to say how to do it. And then hopefully you’re right and create something truly new for the future. Just look at my project with Virgil (Editor’s note: Abloh), where we’re doing something completely new, redefining luxury in a very different way. And when something hasn’t been there before, the result can be shocking at first. And maybe a lot of people say that they don’t like it, but then it grows on them and they’ll love it in the end. That’s another quality of good design: first, you might not understand it, but then it grows on you and will become way more substantial than something you like immediately but discard the next day.

BÉHAR: I find it less challenging to convince users or consumers than it is to change industries. Big corporations tend to be very static, whereas consumers are looking for what’s next. Actually, one of my favourite quotes about design is this: “Design accelerates the adoption of new ideas.” All the new ideas already exist. They’re around us. It’s our job as designers to capture those ideas and make them real in a way that they will be truly adopted. And more than ever today, we need that acceleration. 

Yves Béhar: The Swiss-born designer is considered one of the most influential in the USA. With his company, fuseproject, he has been working for numerous companies from Samsung to SodaStream..