James Dyson is one of those remarkable people who has the power to rewrite the English
language. Where our great grandmothers might once have Ewbanked the carpet with the eponymous mechanical carpet sweeper and our grandmothers undoubtedly Hoovered the floor with its electrical successor, so might both
generations soon talk of Dysoning the carpet with an altogether funkier piece of domestic kit.
Dyson’s commitment to vacuum cleaners goes back a while, but his company – which designs, makes, tests, markets and distributes the bagless Dyson Dual Cyclone range – is only just over three years old. During that time, the business has increased turnover threefold year on year – kicking off with 3m in 1993, it had risen to 35m last year and projections for 1996 are nearing 100m.
Dyson Appliances has meanwhile boosted staff numbers from a mere handful to 500 (including a design team of around 60 and
rising), set up offices in France and Australia – and created a domestic appliance that combines innovation and style to become one of the most functional icons of the late twentieth century.
At the heart of this impressive empire is a charming, lively man, now in his late forties but seeming much younger. There’s a twinkle about him, and an infectious passion for design
pervades everything he does. Dyson believes that design should embrace the total process, from concept to consumer. His definition includes engineering and manufacturing, and he
dismisses the work of most product designers as “felt-tip design”. The company of which he is chairman fulfils his philosophy.
The factory at Malmesbury in Wiltshire is unlike any other I’ve visited. The colourful reception area and mauve factory walls – with colour schemes chosen, according to tradition, by the chairman’s wife Deirdre – hint at a design studio rather than an industrial process. But it’s on the factory floor and in the canteen that the difference really shows. For a start there are hardly any machines – vacuum cleaners are assembled by hand, Dyson explains, projecting that it’s probably much the same at Electrolux or Hoover. But then everyone at Dyson is so young and the atmosphere casual.
Dyson has a policy of taking on new graduates and young people. The Dyson culture
differs from most, being based on the idea of integrated design and manufacture, which the raw talent coming out of design colleges adapts to easily. “We ask our (industrial) designers to be engineers,” he says, highlighting graduates from the Royal College of Art’s Industrial Design Engineering, from Glasgow and from Brunel as top targets. The company has also entered “teacher schemes” with colleges such as Bristol, Bath and Southampton to have a close involvement with students and research.
And if the 50 or so “product designers” have to have a holistic approach, so too does the eight-strong graphics team. Packaging, promotions and advertising campaigns for the vacuum cleaners and related Dyson enterprises all fall to it, though for the TV commercials the team often works alongside Dyson’s long-time advertising consultant Tony Muranka.
Dyson says this involvement in the whole process makes even the lowliest employee aware of the contribution they’re making to the end product. They see it all happen under one roof and go out of the factory in a box.
The casual atmosphere stems from Dyson’s attitude to business. Suits and ties are banned, he says, and only a couple of older renegades on the sales side seem to have ignored his dicta. “We don’t want to be like businessmen,” he says, adding that he’d rather people develop a relaxed style. He confesses to having worn a suit once – at his wife’s insistence – when Prince Charles visited the factory earlier this year, but these are, he insists, rare occasions.
The holistic approach also pays off, not least in ensuring quality of product and service.
Plastics moulding work is, for example, farmed out, but Dyson buys the machinery suppliers need and tools up for them. If a relationship doesn’t work out nothing is lost if he shifts his favours to another supplier.
Similarly, all Dual Cyclone repairs are
handled at Malmesbury, regardless of whether an appliance was sold through mail-order
catalogues – which account for some 80 per cent of all vacuum cleaner sales – or a high street retailer. The faulty cleaner is collected by courier from any place in the UK and customers are guaranteed a new appliance within 24 hours. By bringing repair work back to the source, the designers can identify problems common to particular models or faults that spring from the way people use the machines. Canny stuff.
Dyson has always enjoyed being involved in his products. Starting out at the RCA in the
mid-Sixties, where he intended to study furniture design but ended up doing interior design under Hugh Casson, he discovered industrial design through a visiting lecturer, structural engineer Tony Hunt. Needless to say, Hunt now ranks alongside Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Buckminster Fuller as a hero, and is charged, with architect Chris Wilkinson, with the job of designing a stunning new extension to the Malmesbury factory.
From college, Dyson went into practice, designing and building boats. “There was no way I was going to be a consultant,” he says. “So I decided to originate the technology behind the designs. I then realised I had to make the thing and sell it as well.”
Boats he describes as “capital goods”, and, wanting to design “something I could use”, he evolved the Ball Barrow wheelbarrow. And so on to vacuum cleaners. “The vacuum cleaner industry attracted me because it’s such an
enormous market,” he says. “If you’re putting work into the tooling, you need a big market to get your money back.” The “big names” in the industry were not doing much to change the technology, he maintains, effecting merely
cosmetic changes, so the challenge was there. Enter the controversial pink G-Force model, now made under licence in Japan, the US and elsewhere.
The idea behind the later Dual Cyclone ranges was to do away with the bag and so increase suction – and product performance. Ergonomically, the concept “starts with the idea of the user being blind, wearing ski gloves and wanting to wreck the cleaner”, but the important thing, Dyson says, is “to get the muck out of the home”.
And so Dyson set about rewriting history. Small innovations such as different filters and attachments are constantly being added to the Dual Cyclone range. The new purple version, named Absolute, was coming off the production line when I visited and he was about to pay homage to Dutch great Gerrit Rietveld with a red and blue De Stijl model created to coincide with this autumn’s shows at Glasgow’s international design festival and London’s Design Museum.
But the story won’t end there. With capacity increased by the new factory extension, who knows what comes next. Dyson does, but he’s not saying. What’s the betting that one day he’ll take on the automotive brigade?m
Dyson will give masterclasses at the
Glasgow International Festival of Design on 16 September. A retrospective of
his work is set to go on show at the Design Museum in London’s Docklands on 16 October until 16 February 1997.