The mastermind behind the revolutionary Dyson vacuum talks about rejection and his expansion in Asia

James Dyson is the Steve Jobs of vacuum cleaners. The Mark Zuckerberg of air purifiers. The Jeff Bezos of hairdryers. And his vast, all-glass development facility feels like it should be deep in Silicon Valley, rather than a five-minute drive from the quintessentially English town of Malmesbury in the county of Wiltshire. 

But Dyson himself—a knight bachelor with a net worth of £3.2 billion—exudes the sort of intellectual British charm bred in expensive public schools around the country. With an added twist of creative genius, of course. Although after spending a day exploring his extraordinary development centre, I am starting to see him as more of a Gandalf-style wizard than a mortal with an unusual aptitude for improving household appliances.

This is because there is something otherworldly about his ultra-high-tech research centre. There are semi-anechoic chambers with triangular padded walls to test the exact sound frequency of tiny motors. All-white padded chambers that check the electromagnetic interference of new products. 

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Glass boxes that produce prototypes of future products out of little more than a heap of sand. Mechanical claws that run their fingers through a mannequin’s wig to test a hairdryer. Remote-controlled vacuum cleaners that zoom up and down carpets, sucking up small mounds of dust and spilt cereal. And though I know it’s all science, it feels a bit like magic.

But like most extraordinary ventures, the story of Dyson is one of obsession and astonishing levels of dedication. It began in 1978 when James Dyson realised the bag in his vacuum cleaner was not only unnecessary, it was also killing the suction. He decided to find a better system and spent the next 15 years creating 5,126 different prototypes, all of which were rejected by numerous household brands in the UK and the US.

Heavily in debt and supported solely by his wife’s paintings and rug designs, he then produced the 5,127th prototype, which would later become the Dyson DC01. It didn’t lose its suction, thanks to a central plastic cyclone that separates dust from the air, and it also glided along the ground on a large plastic ball rather than a set of unwieldy wheels.

Using the proceeds of the sale of an earlier prototype to a Japanese design firm, he set up a manufacturing company of his own in the UK and the Dyson DC01 became the best-selling vacuum in the UK within 18 months of its launch.

“There is something rather perverse about me,” Dyson says. “If someone says I can’t do something, I immediately think, ‘Of course I can,’ so all those rejections didn’t discourage me. You see, nobody gave me a good reason for not wanting a bagless vacuum cleaner. They would lose sales of bags, yes, but more than that, they didn’t want to take a leap into the unknown. So although it was disappointing that it took so long, it led me to the theory that it was necessary."

I had huge inner doubt and no certainty at all, but that’s the whole point; if you live in certainty it’s very dull, whereas being on a knife edge is very exciting. And luckily I have a determined streak. I think you do need to be a bit obsessive to make something difficult work.
James Dyson

It could be said that Dyson’s entire career boils down to making our lives less difficult. His products are about giving people back their time and taking the drudgery out of daily domestic work. Before he came along, the idea of sexy vacuum cleaners, chic fans, glamorous hand dryers and stylish hairdryers would have sounded faintly ridiculous.

In a similar vein to Apple, Dyson made us realise that, yes, we want our everyday appliances to be functional, but we also want them to be beautiful and to anticipate our every need. And as both Dyson and Apple have also discovered, price becomes a lot less important once we are emotionally attached to our products.

“It’s about looking very carefully at every aspect of the design process and refining it many times,” says Dyson. “I was trained at the Royal College of Art, so design has always been important to me. Of course, I have to believe in function over form, but I still consider design to be an integral part of what we do. It is part of the engineering process, rather than a separate function. How a product works dictates how it looks.”

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The Dyson Supersonic hairdryer is a good example of a consumer product that draws your initial attention for its appearance but makes you get out your credit card for its ability. By shrinking the motor, the engineers were able to place it in the handle, enabling them to design a short, open head that looks impressively high-tech and utterly different from any hairdryer you’ve ever owned.

It’s not just a pretty face—and it shouldn’t be, given that it took 100 engineers £50 million and four years to develop. In that time, these men and women tested prototypes on 1,625 kilometres of human hair and managed to create a hairdryer that is not only unusually quiet (thanks to two extra blades on the tiny motor that push much of the noise above the frequency humans can detect) but also dries hair more precisely and twice as quickly as any rival. Intelligent heat control and a micro-thermistor mean it won’t ever scorch the hair, so we can finally stop feeling guilty about washing it every day.

“Our job has never been to improve on existing products; it has been to create something completely new,” says Dyson. “The only problem is that people have to be educated as to what exactly our products are. Our stick vacuum cleaners [which are wireless and powered by a battery] and our bladeless fans, for example, need an explanation. It’s not easy to make people want something they don’t understand.”

Dyson cites this innovative and highly imaginative approach to design as the reason he has been so successful in Asia. Last year, his sales here were 70 per cent higher than they were in 2014, tripling in China and doubling in Japan, the company’s second-largest market globally.

People in Asia are very open to new technology. They’re not afraid to try something completely different to anything they’ve used before, which works very well with Dyson. Our products also suit the lifestyle out there in Asia—the size of people’s homes, for example.
James Dyson

His line of high-tech, app-controlled air purifiers has been particularly popular, no doubt in response to rising pollution problems across the continent. As a consequence of this sharp increase in sales, Dyson added to his manufacturing hub in Malaysia with the opening in February of a research and development centre in Singapore.

He is investing £330 million in building the centre’s capacity, with the eventual aim of sharing the entire creative and design process between Singapore and the current headquarters in Wiltshire. “I chose Singapore because there are a lot of very good engineers there,” he says. “In fact, 40 per cent of all graduates are engineers versus about 4 per cent here in the UK. We could learn a lot from them.” 

Dyson has always placed a strong emphasis on the importance of employing graduates because he believes experience can get in the way of experimentation—and as I walk around his development centre, I can see that the majority of his employees are young, enthusiastic, shiny-haired and very creative. 

“I like the enthusiasm of young people,” he says. “The lack of fear, the wanting to change the world. If I had my way, I would only employ graduates. I want them to feel like they can do different things in a different way, and if someone has been taught somewhere else, it’s hard to think freely. I welcome any suggestions from any of my employees, and it’s important not to be cynical about any ideas.”

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To continue championing the power of youthful imagination—and to help combat the UK’s weak record on producing engineering graduates—he has not only launched the James Dyson Award for the most impressive prototype by an engineering student or recent graduate, but he is also launching a university, the Dyson Institute of Technology, at his premises in Wiltshire. Each week, the students will work for four days and learn for one and will graduate without any debt and with a job at Dyson.

This preference for graduates is also indicative of James Dyson’s strong sense of self-belief. He trusts his own opinion implicitly and so has no particular need for a team of senior engineers to help him run the creative side of the business.

This complete creative control is compounded by the fact Dyson owns the company outright. No board, no investors, no shareholders. Just him. Which means the company remains completely under Dyson’s control—and every step of the design process gets signed off in the glass-walled office I’m sitting in.

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“What’s nice about being a private company is that there is no need to report to other people,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about what investors might want, so we can do what we think is best without any reference to an outside person. This gives us our own discipline, beliefs and values, rather than anybody else’s.” 

And he’s clearly not in need of a helping hand. Since he launched his first vacuum cleaner, Dyson has been on an uninterrupted upward trajectory. Sales of his products exceeded £2 billion last year and he looks set to double his workforce by 2020. 

But when you have overseen every design aspect of your brand since its inception, how do you factor in retirement? James Dyson turns 70 later this year, after all. When I ask the question, he bats it away, but luckily for a man with such a strong belief in family-run businesses, he has three children, and his elder son, Jake, appears to be something of a mini-me.

Jake has spent the past decade designing desk lamps that not only last for up to 40 years, but also emit a light that is far better for your health than the light produced in offices around the world. He initially sold them independently but his designs have now been incorporated into Dyson and Jake works from the Wiltshire headquarters.

“He was very loving, very supportive, but he was also very, very driven,” says Jake of his father. “He’s got a lot of energy and a great attention to detail in everything he does, sees, touches and focuses on. He is a perfectionist, and so am I, actually. Maybe it’s a gene thing, but we both completely believe that form follows function, and in seeing how a thing works, and in products almost being sculptural.”

These two men will be taking Dyson into the future—a future where they will be relying more heavily on artificial intelligence. Their eventual aim is to produce appliances that are no longer dependent on human commands but instead can behave intelligently and anticipate the needs of the room, be it for extra cooling, warming, cleaning or purifying.

Tatler Asia
Above James Dyson receiving his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2006; Image: Courtesy of Dyson
I want people to be freed from their screens, or at least able to use them for different purposes.
James Dyson

And as Dyson continues to innovate more rapidly than any of its rivals, it seems probable that I am talking to a man whose name will one day become a noun or even a verb. “I need to Dyson the floor later,” or “Shall I Dyson my hair before dinner?” are sentences we may all be uttering in the next decade.

While his name might be on the verge of entering our vocabulary, it turns out his job was never about magic. “It all comes down to one thing,” he says. “People buy products if they’re better.”