Writer: Amy Guttman
Futurespace Magazine talks to British Inventor James Dyson about inspiring a new generation of British designers and engineers.
Whether in an airport, a dark, sexy nightclub, or the sterile environment of an office park, we’ve all experienced first-hand, literally, the benefits of great British design and engineering by the Father of invention, James Dyson. His creations are, at the very core, democratic, accessible to even those of us who can’t afford the beautiful bag-less machine he is famous for. Dyson and his team have been toiling away for nearly twenty years, working with motors, blades and scientific instruments to improve the mundanity of our lives, from the vacuum cleaner, to the 10-second air-jet hand dryers, to bladeless fans, safe for small fingers. For Dyson, forget about a highly styled cup, unless it does something to improve its functionality, the whole point of design is lost. “Good design is about making things work well – function should dictate form. Not the inverse. We engineer technology from the inside out.”
And that’s exactly the same approach Dyson is taking towards the next generation of British design and engineering. He’s at the forefront of an effort to restore the UK’s export market and the Made in Britain brand. From the early start in railways, to the fine motoring design of a Rolls Royce, good engineering is part of the British heritage, but Dyson says low numbers of graduates has put the industry at risk. “We graduate only half the required engineers for the number of roles available and the projections are disheartening.” Starting from the inside out, those disheartening numbers inspired the inventor to create a foundation ten years ago, funding post-doctorate research at Cambridge in specialist fields like airflow and acoustics. Last November, Dyson threw another £1.4m into the educational kitty to sponsor a professorship in Fluid Mechanics to focus on the science and engineering behind air movement. It doesn’t take an aerodynamic engineer to see the connection between Dyson’s ambitions for the nation, and also for more objects that improve our everyday lives. In fact, he’s created a great way to educate future Dyson employees. 650 engineering brains brimming with ideas grace the Dyson campus, and there are plans to hire 200 more, this year, alone. Dyson is very clear about his preference for working with clean slates – young minds fresh from university. “Young graduates are full of fresh, unsullied ideas. They’re not afraid to explore new possibilities. They approach work without misconceptions, and they tackle complex tasks head-on. I believe in inexperience; it always surprises me that others don’t.”
The James Dyson Foundation also supports incubators at the Royal College of Art and an international design award, open to anyone. It’s the combination of technology, design and engineering that Dyson believes is the key to a successful future for the British brand. “Countries like South Korea and Germany have powered ahead by patenting and exporting high-tech goods. Both countries understand that wealth generation is about long-term investment in tangible goods that can be made and sold. It’s about creating the technology of tomorrow.” And Dyson should know. His now iconic bag-less vacuum cleaner contributes to sales in 50 different countries, with a healthy export rate of 85%. Dyson feels the Made in Britain brand is less important than the Made by Britain appeal. It’s an approach that also carries less exposure to the British recession. But one thing the recession is good for is enterprise, something Dyson has tirelessly promoted through his annual international award. Enterprise, ingenuity, and a practical ability to solve problems, are the key elements of the competition.
“I’ve been plagued by the recent water shortages in the UK. We are technically in drought, but I wasn’t alone in noticing the deluge of rain which scuppered my plans for the weekend. So I’ve challenged Britain’s young, aspiring engineers to enter this year’s James Dyson Award with a solution to our water shortage problem. They have the skills, open minds and enthusiasm to design a solution that uses our limited water resources efficiently. The award is open to any young person willing to solve any sort of problem.”
There again, is Dyson’s democratic approach to design. Anybody can do it. And, he points out; one doesn’t need to look very far for inspiration. “Sticky notes lose their stick; paperclips bend and lose their shape and wet umbrellas turn inside out in the wind. There’s always room for improvement with everyday objects. “
We’ll never run out of everyday problems. And if James Dyson can keep getting his message across to the classrooms of Cambridge and beyond, he’ll turn his hard-earned cash into a steady supply of engineers and designers to solve those problems, propelling good British design from the history books, back into a modern-day story.