You can’t google “vacuum cleaner” without an image of Dyson’s vacuum appearing.
Dyson is ubiquitous for its high-tech vacuum cleaners and hair dryers.
It has almost become synonymous with vacuum cleaners and hair dryers.
But what was the backstory? How did Sir James Dyson invent this revolutionary product, and become an inspiration for the next generation of engineers?
Here are the lessons that I learnt from James Dyson, and hopefully this article leaves you with more questions than answers.
A Personal Frustration
Most good ideas come from “scratching your own itch”.
Similarly, James Dyson was solving a problem that he personally experienced.
Back in those days, vaccum cleaners weren’t as “high tech”. They had bags which stores the dirt and you have to remove the dirt manually.
Exasperated by the poor performance of the vacuum cleaners that were forever clogging up and losing suction power, James Dyson was also convinced that other people would be annoyed at this problem too.
So I was convinced that, well, I was pretty certain that if I could make it work, people would be interested in it. I didn’t know. I mean, I was just assuming that. That, like me, they would be annoyed that they’re losing performance. It’s unsatisfactory. It was partly that I could see it would make a good product and partly I wanted to solve the problem. How do you capture this dust? How do you separate dust from air without having a clogging filter in the way? It was a really interesting problem. Not for anyone else, but it was an interesting problem for me to solve, particularly as I’d been told it would never work. That always eggs me on.
Sometimes we might think that “Technology is already so advanced. Everything important is already created”.
But look at how fast the world is changing. Youtube actually only started 6 years ago, but I bet it’s hard to imagine life before Youtube.
It can be helpful to ask yourself these questions:
- What are some problems that you encounter in your daily life?
- Is this problem interesting to solve and do you think that others are facing this problem too?
Collect these ideas in a notebook and you’ll soon realise that there are plenty of problems yet to be solved in the world.
Think Like an Engineer
James Dyson had no prior training in engineering.
After dabbling in classics and art at school, he studied furniture design at the Royal College of Art.
Although he had an art background, he thinks like an engineer.
What does it mean to think like an engineer? To James Dyson, it means asking these questions:
Sir James Dyson: Whenever I look at anything, I wonder how it works, and then I wonder how it could work better. Could I make it work better? Is there a technology I could use? Is there a way I can reconfigure it? Is there a radical breakthrough I could do for lateral thinking that would make a huge difference? So I just think like that all the time.
If I could paraphrase, it consists of two elements – dissatisfaction and curiousity.
Always being dissatisfied with the status quo. Constantly looking for ways to improve and scale things.
Having curiousity in understanding how something works and then finding a solution for it.
Breaking things down to the core first principles, testing assumptions, making logical deductions and go through iterations.
This leads us to the question, how can we develop curiousity?
To James Dyson, curiosity is not about being taught things.
Rather it’s about learning empirically, through self-discovery and making mistakes.
Well, yes. I think learning by discovering, by failure, by making mistakes, by being curious about things, curious the way you make things, be curious about the way things work. To discover why some things work well and some things work badly. And the thing I’ve noticed with my children is that they too don’t really like being taught things. They all learn empirically, by self discovery.
Being inquistive and asking questions also leads you on this path of developing curiousity.
In fact, he mentions that “the best questions are naive questions”.
I always think that the best questions are naive questions, which is why I love employing students, well graduates and students, because they start you off on a different train, because the trouble with experience is how to do things.
Look at problems from a beginner’s mind and more questions will start to form.
As the famous saying goes, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Connect the Dots
So how did the idea came about? Dyson found his inspiration in a seemingly unrelated field.
Interestingly, the breakthrough solution came from observing how cyclones work.
In cyclones, there is a centrifugal vortex which clarifies liquids and gasses by separating out impurities (in this case, dust).
Applying what he observed about large cyclone systems, he wondered if this same process could be scaled down for use in vacuum cleaners and provide a powerful suction without the need for clog-prone bags and filters.
This highlights the importance of having mental models, or frameworks from various disciplines.
By connecting ideas from multiple fields, it allows you to cross-fertilise principle ideas and come up with novel solutions.
This is how you think outside the box.
Action and Perseverance
In 1979, James Dyson had an idea for a new vaccum cleaner, one that doesn’t use bags.
Five years and 5,127 prototypes later, he invented the world’s first bagless vaccum cleaner.
But his path was marked with challenges. He was in debt, mortgaged his house on a collateral and faced multiple rejections for his idea.
People did not believe that his idea would take off.
“Look, if there was a better vacuum cleaner, one of those big vacuum cleaner companies would have done it, so we’re not interested in it.”
But he did not let non-believers stop him. He was commited and driven in making this work because he saw immense value in this product.
Imagine if he stopped himself, the world won’t see this revolutionary product.