Design heroes: #2 James Dyson
For a designer, redefining a product or category is pretty much the Holy Grail. So the fact that James Dyson has managed to do this once is impressive. However, when you consider that he’s done it multiple times, it’s awe-inspiring.
Lighting, hair dryers, hand dryers, fans, heaters and wheel-barrows have all had the Dyson touch but it most famously started with that oh-so-sexy product…the vacuum cleaner.
Since the late 70s, Dyson had been frustrated with the now well-documented inadequacies of conventional bagged vacuum cleaners. He believed that cyclones offered better, more efficient suction. He built a prototype and proved it, but he couldn’t get the investment to turn his vision into a reality. The general consensus being: if the big manufacturers could make better vacuums, they would.
Undeterred, Dyson pushed on, leaving his job and devoting all his energy to making his idea a reality. What followed was more than a decade of prototyping, pitching the concept and trying to build the partnerships required to bring his product to market. As you might imagine, it was far from plain sailing – at one stage his design was even stolen.
Bravery, perseverance, risk-taking, and gut instinct - the character traits that define Dyson as an individual - got him through this to the foundation of Dyson Appliances in 1991 and then the final push to bring the first Dyson-branded product to launch in 1995: the DC01.
Back then this thing was a revolution. Its bright yellow and grey plastic looked like nothing else, as if it would be more at home on a space station than at home. Not only that, it had a transparent body, so you could see all the dust and debris your new space-aged vacuum cleaner had sucked up from your floors. Like the rest of the design and the concept, this defied convention. Market research and focus groups had been emphatic - “we don’t want to see that!”. Dyson however, trusted his gut. He felt users needed to see this and understand just how effective his new machine was. He was right.
The numbers speak for themselves.
After launching in 1995, Dyson quickly (by early ‘96) became the best seller, despite retailing at almost double the price of more established brands.
By 2011 their vacuum cleaner sales reached over £1bn and they had a huge 20% share of the UK market by user numbers (and a staggering 46% share of market value), while Hoover - the ubiquitous stalwart of the market - had just 8%.
What he achieved is staggering. When you think about what Tesla is perceived to have achieved with cars in a similar amount of time - they have less than 0.4% of the global market - Dyson’s achievement seems even more impressive.
As we know, it didn’t stop there. Dyson has built a business and a brand based on challenging conventional thinking on established everyday products - especially those where users aren’t even aware that better could exist.
Dyson has applied his thinking and treatment to an ever-expanding product range with great success. In 2017, Dyson recorded a turnover of £4.4 billion with 28% annual growth and delivered a record profit of £1.1 billion.
That’s a level of success that maybe even the man himself couldn’t have imagined while building cardboard prototypes in his garden shed 30+ years previous.
What’s next? Something big. A lot bigger than a vacuum cleaner. Dyson’s next product will be a car - an electric one - and, given his extraordinary track record, it’s hard to think of it as being anything other than brilliant. Will it be good enough to usurp Tesla as the leader in EVs? Time will tell, but it is not unimaginable.
For me, Dyson’s story is a lesson in the power of questioning. Could this be better? What would that look like? How can I make that happen? And also a lesson in trusting your gut, believing in the idea and sheer, bloody-minded perseverance.
Whatever discipline you work in, it’s a lesson every designer can learn from and be inspired by.