Fast Company: When did you know you wanted to be an inventor?
Sir James Dyson: At the end of the 1960s, when I was at design college we had a teacher who was an engineer. In my narrow view of the world, I had always thought that engineering and design were separate professions. But I realized then the same person could do both things, like a Renaissance man. So I spent seven years learning to be an engineer as well. Doing both is a better way of working. Instead of being commissioned with a design, you can do it all yourself. You don’t have to wait for something to come along. It’s rather 20th-century thinking that you should split them up. The idea of using product design to sell a product essentially started in the Thirties. Before that, engineers did everything.
I met a few designer-engineers when I was young. The most famous was Alex Moulton, who created the Moulton Bicycle, the bicycle with the small wheels. He also engineered the suspension of the Mini car. He was an auto engineer but also a designer.
FC: You say your products are the result of a series of purposeful failures. Give me an example.
Dyson: When I was doing my vacuum cleaner, I started out trying a conventionally shaped cyclone, the kind you see in textbooks. But we couldn’t separate the carpet fluff and dog hairs and strands of cotton in those cyclones. It formed a ball inside the cleaner or shot out the exit and got into the motor. I tried all sorts of shapes. Nothing worked. So then I thought I’d try the wrong shape, the opposite of conical. And it worked. It was wrong-doing rather than wrong-thinking. That’s not easy, because we’re all taught to do things the right way.
FC: You spent 15 years working on prototypes of your vacuum. A lot of people would have given up. What kept you going?
Dyson: As an engineer, that’s what you do all day long. You build test rigs, and you try out your ideas. You don’t need much persistence because that’s what you get a kick out of. Of course there is a point at which you have done 5,126 prototypes and you haven’t made it work yet. There were times I thought, God, I’m never going to get there. I’m going to go bankrupt.
A lot of people give up when the world seems to be against them, but that’s the point when you should push a little harder. I use the analogy of running a race. It seems as though you can’t carry on, but if you just get through the pain barrier, you’ll see the end and be okay. Often, just around the corner is where the solution will happen.
FC: In a race, though, you know how far you’re running and where the finish line is. You didn’t know how many tries it would take—1,000 or 5,000.
Dyson: I always thought it was just around the corner. That’s good. That keeps you going.
FC: If testing ideas comes naturally, what’s the hard part?
Dyson: I find negotiating the most difficult thing. Engineering is about being open, and being highly receptive to everything around you. But negotiating isn’t quite like that. Essentially, you don’t want to give too much of yourself away. I still think I’m rotten at it.
FC: I read that you’re developing your own design school in England. Why?
Dyson: There aren’t design schools for 14-to-18-year-olds. They don’t exist. We did a poll of 15,000 14- and 15-year-olds, and two-thirds of them said they wanted to study engineering in high school, yet none of them could. The system doesn’t allow it. So they’re unfulfilled. Bear in mind that Britain, like America, isn’t producing enough engineers as it is. What’s even worse is when teachers and parents put them off engineering. They see engineers as people who repair washing machines and cars, not as people who create racing cars and planes and interesting things, even vacuum cleaners.
FC: How do you plan to teach design and engineering?
Dyson: Part of the problem with the current schools is they teach the theory first, and you’re only allowed to do the practical bit afterward. I want to do the practical first, and let students make prototypes and test ideas. When it works, they’ll want to learn the theory behind it. I think you’re more inspired to study the theory, which can be dull and academic, if you’ve seen it in practice.
FC: Where do you get your ideas for new products?
Dyson: As an engineer, you see problems that need solving all around you. It comes naturally.
FC: Tell me about a problem you noticed this week.
Dyson: I can’t [laughing]. I’d give away ideas for new products.
FC: Your new creation, the Airblade, is a hand drier. How did you decide it was a product worth tackling?
Dyson: Hand driers have always revolted me. There’s no filter on it, and the air blowing at you is filthy and contaminated. When you flush in a lavatory, a spray of feces goes out about two meters in an aerosol. That part I thought was utterly disgusting.
Then there’s the irritation of waiting 40 seconds or so for your hands to dry, knowing that evaporation is incredibly inefficient. And your hands feel awful after. You end up wiping them on your trousers anyway. I got angrier and angrier.
FC: Then anger’s a key ingredient to invention?
Dyson: Anger is a great motivational force. Anger and frustration are both great starting points.
FC: How did your experience creating the vacuum influence how you develop other products?
Dyson: I started out working alone in my house alone with an electric drill, and now we’ve got 400 to 450 people working in R&D labs, about a third of our employees. It doesn’t matter how big you are. The research needed to come up with a revolutionary product and develop new technology takes a long time. You have to do a huge amount of testing and proving before you can launch. In the old days, you could rush things out on the market, but you can’t do that now.
FC: How much of a perfectionist are you?
Dyson: I am quite exacting. I learned that from the Japanese company I did a licensing agreement with. They would make hundreds of changes to products after they launched them, often at enormous costs. I asked them, “Why do that?” They said, “Oh, we’re not worried if we don’t make money for ten years. We want to get a perfect product.” They have this wonderful expression, “You’ve got to suffer before you succeed.”
FC: Sounds like something an engineer would appreciate.
Dyson: There’s a famous
FC: How do you balance perfectionism with the pragmatism of getting products to market?
Dyson: We choose to spend an enormous amount of time and money on R&D—about 10 to 12 percent of our sales. That’s expensive, so we have to charge a higher price. But in a way, it’s a good thing, because it demands that our products are that much better.
I’m a private company. I don’t have shareholders breathing down my neck. I can take my time over things. Our vacuum-cleaner motor took ten years. Our washing machine took seven years. I’m not in a desperate hurry to get big. I’m much more interested in making interesting products that solve problems. That’s what gives me a thrill. Getting big is the happy, or some might argue unhappy, result of making successful products.