Yves Béhar on How Smart Design Can Propel Social Change
Before Yves Béhar was quite the Yves Béhar we know now—that is to say, before he designed consumer slam-dunks like the Jambox speaker and the Jawbone Up band, and before his name became synonymous with slickly thought-out next-generation tech devices—he designed a bunch of condom wrappers.
The 2008 project was a Bloomberg-era initiative to stymie the spread of HIV by making condoms more accessible to New Yorkers. For the condom wrappers, Béhar created a punchy, circular logo that echoed New York City icons, like subway signage. To make them more available, he built a modern, minimal dispenser—a major upgrade to the frayed wicker condom baskets typically found in health clinics. After Béhar’s design studio, fuseproject, got involved, annual condom distribution in New York City went from 9 million to 39 million.
“The fact that [the dispensers] actually looked attractive meant that a lot of them went from being in the bathrooms and restrooms or hidden way, and stigmatized, to a pride of the venue saying, ‘hey, look, we have the new cool thing,’” Béhar says. “I learned very early that good design creates the kind of draw and attention that projects wouldn’t get without it.”
These days, Béhar, who just won the Design Visionary Award from Design Miami/, both for his social design efforts and his portfolio of ahead-of-the-curve consumer products, is spreading the gospel of good design through Spring. The accelerator program launched in January with a goal of helping startups whose services benefit girls in Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda, and fuseproject is offering design consultation to the chosen entrepreneurs. (The Nike Foundation, USAID, and the UK Department for International Development founded Spring, and cover fuseproject’s design fee.)
The first round of Spring entrepreneurs just completed a six-week-long bootcamp. Two of these inaugural startups are Ensibuuko and Find A Doctor. Unlike fuseproject’s other humanitarian design projects (the One Laptop Per Child tablet, for example, or the Ver Bien eyeglasses distribution project), which hinged on physical products, these startups are based on software and mobile communication. Find a Doctor, for instance, is an app that lets patients in Kenya book a 15-minute appointment with a physician over the phone or through video chat. Ensibuuko digitizes books for farmers’ collectives in Uganda.
Like fuseproject’s social design projects, however, these services are largely about access. “In the case of Ensibuuko, it’s access to money,” Béhar says. “In the case of Find a Doctor it’s the ability to have access and a doctor’s visit.” The studio is helping these entrepreneurs with everything from logos to the user experience design of their apps, but, crucially, these founders are locals. “You often see solutions that are developed here in the U.S. and then brought to the developing world,” Béhar says. In the past, these kinds of social design projects have been criticized for being imperialistic.
Instead, Spring’s entrepreneurs are troubleshooting issues they’re intimate with. Find a Doctor, for instance, responds to a common problem among Kenyans, who are often far away from available doctors and can’t easily dip out of work to visit one. Béhar says the whole notion of going to a doctor’s office and waiting around—the way we do in the United States—is foreign in Kenya. So, Find a Doctor creates digital infrastructure to replace the broken physical one. “The entrepreneurs we work with are seeing modern new technologies and the kind of technologies we use everyday—sometimes for entertainment, or for social networks—they’re seeing these as essential for putting in place the kinds of systems that have failed,” Béhar says.
It’s still early days for the Spring entrepreneurs, but Béhar and fuseproject have a history of nudging niche design trends into the mainstream. (Consider briefly the number of wrist-worn fitness trackers and Bluetooth speakers that have flooded the market since the Jawbone and Jambox rolled out.) Given Béhar’s track record, these nimble, grassroots ventures could well represent the next big wave in social design.