Industrial designer James Dyson is known to wear polka-dot Yamamoto sneakers. He also lives in one of England’s stateliest homes and has personal wealth of £4.4 billion that puts him on par with Virgin founder Richard Branson.
So it comes as some surprise when the eponymous inventor (“you can call me James”) announces himself on the phone with a plummy, diminutive voice.
For an internationally renowned designer and household name, his softly spoken, slightly hesitant manner of speech conveys a character that is more backyard tinkerer than design superstar.
“As an engineer, you look at something and wonder how it works and does it work well,” he says. “That’s easy, because it’s either frustrating or it’s horrid to use – and you always want to make it work better. I do that to everything I see all day long.”
A trained furniture and interior designer and engineer, Dyson designed a sea truck, a fast-moving wheelboat that could travel in water and on land and a modified wheelbarrow, the “ballbarrow”, in the early 1970s before turning his attention to vacuum cleaners in 1978.
He began to look at cyclonic suction systems when he had problems with the filter clogging in the spray-finishing room at the Ballbarrow factory.
Production would have to stop every hour for the screen of the filter to be cleaned of powdered paint collected from the air.
Dyson knew sawmills in the area used cyclonic suction systems to remove sawdust from mill sheds and decided to apply the same principle to develop a more efficient filter at the Ballbarrow factory.
When it worked, he began to wonder if the same system could be used on a smaller scale to give “more suck” to vacuum cleaners. Five years and 5127 prototypes later, he found out.
Dyson released his “G-force” bagless, dual cyclone vacuum cleaner in 1983.
Difficulty with finding manufacturers in Britain prompted him to license the G-Force in Japan, where it became a popular product.
Royalties from Japanese sales enabled Dyson to begin manufacturing the machine under his own name, the DC01, in 1993, from a purpose-built factory and research centre in Wiltshire.
The bagless vacuum cleaner with the clear bin instantly filled a niche in the British market and went onto become the highest-selling vacuum cleaner in the country’s history.
Dyson launched in the United States in 2003 and by 2005, his machines had overtaken Hoover as the country’s number one selling vacuum cleaners.
Dyson’s company today brings in revenue of more than £770 million. It is still best known for its vacuum cleaners and accessories but recent inventions such as the Airblade hand dryer and Air Multiplier fan have become archetypal in their own right.
Dyson’s is the sort of story that sounds like a lateral progression but he will tell you it took a different route.
“Look at my inventions, you’ll realise there aren’t many,” he says.
“That’s because each one on its own took five to 10 years. It’s a long process.”
It is also immensely costly.
Dyson relied on his wife’s salary as an art teacher and a loan from a bank to finance the development of the G-Force vacuum cleaner.
Today he commits more than £100 million pounds each year to research and development at his Malmesbury headquarters in Wiltshire.
He doubts everyone has what it takes to become an inventor: “I’m not sure everyone is built that way” but is adamant that focusing on a highly specific field will be the best place to start.
Dyson is a devout believer in the Zulu principle, the idea popularised by British accountant, investor and author Jim Slater, who contends anyone can become an authority in a field so long as they set a narrow enough focus.
Slater observed that after reading a Reader’s Digest article on the Zulu people, his wife was much better informed on the subject than he himself was.
He concluded that if she had gone to the library and read all of the books on the subject that she could find, then she would have become one of the leading experts in her city.
If she had flown to South Africa to spend time living in a Zulu kraal and studied all of the literature at South African university she would have gone onto become of the great experts of her country and possibly the world.
Slater applied the principle to investing and advocated an investment strategy that focuses on small growth companies that are ignored by institutions. Dyson applied the principle to innovation.
“I absolutely believe that if you choose a very narrow field about which you know nothing, you could quickly become extremely knowledgeable in a short amount of time,” adding that he only “roughly knew” about cyclonic separation when he started designing vacuum cleaners in the late 1970s.
But there is a caveat to Dyson’s Zulu principle. To design well, one must have experienced the pain and frustration of an existing product not working well.
He recalls the experience of designing an electric wheelchair. “I found it difficult, I didn’t know what to do because I wasn’t the user ... If you want to take a big risk, you’ve got to really understand [the problem] for yourself in order to disregard what other people tell you to do.”
He now says it would be “arrogant” for him to attempt another design he wouldn’t use himself (he claims to still vacuum once a week).
Dyson is also suspicious about market research because he believes most people aren’t able to articulate what would make their lives easier.
“You can’t ask other people to invent things for you ... people want change but they don’t know what they want.”
Dyson says this obsession with making things work better means his life is one of “failure and dissatisfaction”. It doesn’t bother him.
For Dyson, failure is essential to invention. Observing and understanding why things don’t work is part and parcel of a process of elimination that gets a designer closer to their final, functioning prototype.
“The process of invention isn’t clear, it’s plodding, empirical work,” he says. “Every failure teaches you something. It may not have been a revelation [but] you have to eliminate things along the way.”