Dyson is a company that embodies the word "disruptive." Before it arrived on the scene, the world of vacuum cleaners was boring and stagnant, and the machines themselves were essentially commodities. Dyson -- with its novel solution of getting rid of irritating disposable bags by using different suction technology -- shook up the industry and became a household name along the way.
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A fair bit of that disruption came from the design of Dyson's vacuums, which eschewed broom-closet aesthetics for iMac-like modernity. With transparent parts, simple shapes and strategic placement of color, Dyson's vacuums are instantly recognizable. The company has since spread its air-blowing technology into hand dryers and fans.
The man behind those designs is Alex Knox. One of the longest-serving members of the Dyson team, Knox has seen the company grow from three people to more than 3,900. He works at the company headquarters in the UK, where the 650 scientists and engineers based there are greeted every day by elaborate cutaway models on display. Each is an iconic example of great design, and the collection includes the original Mini and a Harrier jet.
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Dropping by Mashable's offices, Knox talked with us at length about his design philosophy, why Dyson hasn't made a robot vacuum and how sustainability factors into his work.
Q&A with Alex Knox, Senior Designer at Dyson
How did you first get interested in design?
My father was an architect, and I almost never had any doubt that I would do anything other than architecture or design. I enjoyed designing and playing with things that I could actually get my hands on. Dad was always up all night drawing things, and product design was always something I was attracted to.
How did you hook up with Dyson?
I was working for a design consultancy in Italy, and I had just read a magazine article about James, who had just released this brand new vacuum cleaner. I was really fascinated. I just thought it would be an amazing place to go and work. So I wrote them a letter and got a job. It was tiny then -- there were just two of us and James.
Was there a moment where things turned, when you knew Dyson had really arrived?
When I first started, it was basically a startup company. I remember thinking, "I just don't know if this is going to work or not. In a month's time, I might not have a job." But then sales just kind of picked up. The sales charts were almost like comedy graphs, going up and up and up and up and up. It been just like a roller coaster ride from then on.
How do you approach design?
By breaking it right down and starting with, "What's the fundamental problem?" We don't worry about what it's going to look like -- it's all about the problem we're going to solve and how we're going to solve it. And then we start thinking about maybe tackling that problem in a slightly different way than perhaps everyone else did.
The vacuum cleaner is a great example. The problem was this bag that clogged up, and by coming up with a new technology, a new idea, a new way of solving the problem of separating dust and air, you can come up with a really interesting machine that doesn't have all the disadvantages of the conventional way of doing it.
And at some point a sexy product just pops out? How does design factor in?
The way our machines look is kind of derived from the way they work. The final embodiment of it all is just kind of a process of fine-tuning the way it works and looking at the usability and just experimenting. There's no time where we sit there doing a sketch and think, "It would be really nice if it looked like this."
Would you say Dyson is "green" tech?
We don't really do green. Green is this word that gets bandied about all the time, and actually sustainability is the important thing. And we think that by doing good engineering, you automatically design something that is going to be sustainable, because it's all about efficiency, and that's what green is all about.
Why is Dyson's technology more efficient?
Because we set ourselves some pretty challenging targets in terms of what we're trying to get out of whatever technology that we're using. And so it's all about what we can get out of that and minimizing what we need to put in to do it.
How important is the design process at any company that sells products?
You'd think it would be central. I'm not sure it always is. It certainly is for us -- it's one of the key things that we do. It's something James Dyson is incredibly passionate and involved in, so even now he spends most of his time in our R&D center. And that's not just looking at things in a top-down strategic view -- it's right down to the tiny little details of design. So he's involved right the way through.
So design and engineering -- since we don't really separate the two things -- is just a fundamental part of what it's all about.
How does failure factor into the design process?
Failure is really important, actually. If you want to push something to the limits, you want to see failures because otherwise you know you haven't pushed it hard enough. So if you're testing or developing anything, you want half of the things you test fail and half of them work. By seeing failures, you can then work out where the limits are -- how far you can push a certain technology or design.
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This story originally published on Mashable here.