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Designer Yves Behar talks smart locks, wearables and Apple (Q&A)

The famed product creator sits down with CNET to talk about the new devices he's producing for startup August, as well as the design areas he'd love to tackle.

Famed industrial designer Yves Behar co-founded August, a smart-lock maker. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Yves Behar, one of the most famous industrial designers of the past two decades, has a lot to say not just about the way products should look, but what problems they should solve.

Since beginning design house Fuseproject in 1999, Behar has worked with companies such as Apple, General Electric, Herman Miller, Movado, Prada and Samsung. He is chief creative officer at fitness-band maker Jawbone and chief designer at charity program One Laptop per Child.

Behar is also a co-founder of smart-lock maker August, which on Wednesday introduced its newest products. The company's latest smart lock works with Apple's HomeKit software and lets owners of an Apple device ask their Siri digital voice assistant to lock their front doors. A new doorbell includes a camera to monitor who's at the door. A keypad lets people unlock their August locks by typing in a PIN.

August's new smart lock works with Apple's HomeKit, letting you tell Siri to unlock your doors. James Martin/CNET

The gadgets are part of the nascent smart-home market, which will link over the Internet all manner of household appliances and systems, from locks and security setups to TVs and washing machines. Analysts project that in 2018, people will spend $100 billion on smart-home technology and 45 million smart-home systems will be in use.

CNET met with Behar at August's headquarters here to discuss the company's new products and to hear his thoughts on wearables, smartphones and design. Here's an excerpt of the conversation, edited for length.

Q: With August, what were you setting out to do in terms of design?
Behar: There are a lot of tech products out there that are kind of neato, but they don't really change people's lives. At August, the goal is to work on things that actually will make a difference, will allow people to go about their busy lives and will make it easier to do so.

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How do you balance making something look really nice versus being practical? Behar: Designing products that are beautiful and designing products that are useful is really the same thing for me. The beauty makes them useful, and the practicality makes them beautiful. This is really a new standard for what tech products should be. When you bring them into the home, you have to design them well. You have to design them so they satisfy people on all levels.

What's your inspiration for the August products and other products you've designed?
Behar: My inspiration always comes from our users and what they are going to do with the product. It's not a stylistic approach, it's really one based on how are people going to use it and what is the context. In this case...the deadbolt is next to the door handle. It needs to look like a piece of hardware. We didn't want to have a display on it -- yet another display -- that flashes at you and tries to communicate information for you. So when we have lights coming on on the product to indicate functionality, it comes through the metal.

August's Doorbell Cam lets you use your smartphone to monitor who's at your front door, while the company's Smart Keypad lets you type in a PIN to open your door. James Martin/CNET

What about wearables? Behar: The other product I use all the time is a wearable because I'm interested in knowing more about my sleep as well as my physical activity. But in some ways sleep has become a bigger mystery. We have very intense lives. We're running around a lot. And being able to learn what gives me a better sleep experience through motion and heart rate and the kind of information the Jawbone Up, for example, gives me is essential.

(Editors' note: Behar designed the Up 2 fitness tracker as part of his role at Jawbone.)

Smartphone design has seemed to settle on a black rectangle. Is there still room for design and innovation in smartphones?
Behar: I think there is a great opportunity to do something different, to surprise people. So that would certainly be a field I would get excited to give a go to.

How do you keep things fresh and new?
Behar: As designers, what makes a difference in people's lives ...isn't technology. It's how it's being used, how it fits into your life, how it removes friction from your everyday life.

You've worked with Apple, a company that's been viewed as a design leader. Do you think that's still the case?
Behar: Apple has made design really something that people have a very high expectation of, and also people don't have much tolerance anymore for things that are broken, ecosystems that don't work. I would say if you're a technology or innovation company and you're not using design to that extent, in the competitive landscape that we see today, you're likely going to be passed by somebody who's actually using design in ways that makes their product superior.