How Dyson changed hairdryers forever.
You’ll commonly see Dyson being called disruptors. To put it simply, they take something and make it better, changing perceptions and expectations on just how well things can work. From vacuum cleaners, fans, air purifiers and most recently, the Supersonic hairdryer that blew our minds last year, everything they touch turns to beautifully engineered and perfectly designed gold.
But just how do they do it?
That was the first thing on my mind when I had a chance to chat with Graeme McPherson last month. Graeme, who heads Dyson’s Haircare Product Development division at the sleek Dyson Technology Center in Singapore, told me everything I wanted to know about what it’s like to work at Dyson and his role in creating Dyson’s first haircare device: the engineered-to-perfection Dyson Supersonic hairdryer.
FEMALE: Tell me about yourself. How did you end up at Dyson?
Graeme: “Since I was at school, I was interested in design. And not just aesthetic design, but how things work. So I went to Glasgow University and the Art School in Glasgow for a joint course – which many of my colleagues from Dyson have done as well – which had mechanical engineering as the degree but with project work that focused on product development. I can’t remember what product I made, but it was really hands on– we built prototypes, we were doing hardcore mechanical engineering, we were drawing, sketching, making models. It was exactly way we work at Dyson now. Exactly the same.
Before I came to Dyson, I did a Masters in Loughborough and then I worked in boat design – designing luxury yachts, that was my first job. But then a university friend who worked at Dyson told me: “this company is going places, there’s amazing stuff going on, you’ll get great opportunities,” that sort of thing. At that time 11 years ago, Dyson was already extremely famous in the UK – they’d just released the first upright vacuum cleaner. So they’d been in the news and I’d heard about them, but always thought it was too tough to get into. Luckily I applied anyway and I got in!
So I started off in Malmsbury – Dyson’s headquarters in the UK – and I worked on vacuum cleaners. The first one I worked on was called the DC25. I remember finally seeing it on the market, and it was pretty cool. It’s your thing – it’s your real, 3-D portfolio that people can buy. ”
F: What’s your favourite thing about working here?
G: “Beyond that, there’s lots of responsibility and opportunities to try things here, with all the new and complicated technology we deal with. Hair and beauty wasn’t something I knew much about, so working on this new area and the technology that comes with it was a great way to discover new things, solve problems, and just have fun.”
F: Why did Dyson decide to go into haircare? And why start with a hairdryer?
G: “Well, we look at all products. We look at everything. And when we see an opportunity, we think: “There’s a problem there. Do we think we can solve that? Can we engineer a better way and develop technology to solve that? What would it take?” That’s what we do.
And so with a hairdryer, we established that it hadn’t been changed for years– the shape may have changed, but it was fundamentally the same. If we could make a hairdryer that’s smaller in some way, more ergonomic, if we could control temperature, if we could somehow make the motor smaller– what would we have?
We started with the idea to make a hairdryer that’s quiet and light. That’s where we got the idea to put the motor somewhere other than the head, and it ended up in the handle.”
F: So how do you identify what problems you should work on? Where do you get your ideas?
G: “We’re all very inquisitive here at Dyson. Sometimes inspiration can come from work we’re doing on another project – so it can be quite organic – or other times we actually take apart products to see how they work. And we’ve got a really open environment, so if you think you’ve got an idea, you can just speak up. Whether it’s an idea about a hairdryer or a car, just start a dialogue so we can decide whether it’s something we want to spend a bit of time working on. Just start small and then progress with the build.”
F: Have there been projects you’ve started that haven’t worked out?
G: “Oh yeah. (laughs) Lots of things. I can’t tell you about it, but yeah honestly there have been lots of things that didn’t work out. And that’s the point. We wouldn’t do lots of prototyping and testing if we didn’t expect some things to not be good enough. We do want to solve the problems, but sometimes if it’s not right, it’s not right. Maybe next time.”
F: How did you push yourself to keep going after all the failed prototypes?
G: “Failing is part of design. If you don’t fail, you don’t learn. You need to push the limit, so I always say you have to be a bit dumb and just keep trying. And failing.”
F: Did you face these challenges in developing the Supersonic? Was there ever a point where you thought it may not work out?
G: “Integrating the motor into the product. The motor is the heart of the Supersonic. Everything about its development was led by the motor. If we weren’t able to make a motor that was strong enough but small enough to fit in the handle, the hairdryer wouldn’t exist. We couldn’t just make the handle bigger, for example. And if we put the motor back in the head, it would just be the same as the past hairdryers.
Everything really depended on us developing the right motor, and we ended up with the V9 digital motor– the smallest and fastest we’ve ever made. It was very difficult technically. I wouldn’t say I was worried, but that was the critical element of the project.
Another challenge was learning about things we didn’t know about. Like we didn’t know anything about hair. But we had to, to develop the hairdryer.”
F: From all that research you had to do about hair, what’s the most interesting thing you learnt?
G: “I didn’t know that the hair cuticle is transparent. And that it’s the cortex that gives you your hair colour. And also the extent that hair can be damaged by high temperatures, I wasn’t aware of that. I did have long hair at one point, and I used a hairdryer often. But I wasn’t aware of the tipping point where irreversible damage happens at higher temperatures, at about 150°C.”
F: Do you have a favourite way or special trick to use the Supersonic?
G: “Apply a small amount of tension when your hair is damp, and you’ll be able to style your hair a bit better. Styling hair is just manipulating the hydrogen bonds between the keratin filaments that make up your hair. When you wet your hair, water joins up with those hydrogen bonds, making it easier to manipulate. So add a little bit of tension when it’s wet, and set it in the position you want with heat that reforms the bonds. Be sure not to let it get hot enough to break those bonds– if enough bonds are broken, you get damaged and brittle hair. That’s why temperature control is a crucial feature of the Supersonic.”
F: What are some other things you should never do to your hair?
G: “Beyond extreme heat, chemicals can damage your hair. If you want to dye your hair, that’s a lifestyle choice, but chemicals damage hair. UV rays too – but I don’t recommend never going into the sun just because of that!
Another thing is being overly aggressive with your hair when it’s wet. When hair is wet, it’s much weaker than when it’s dry. Like I said earlier, it’s because of how easily the hydrogen bonds are manipulated when there’s water in them. And when hair gets wet, the cuticle layer absorbs water so it swells and becomes rougher. Which means if you brush wet hair, you’ll tend to do it harder to beat the friction and there’s a double damage effect there.”
F: So you’ve solved hairdryers. What’s the next big haircare innovation?
G: “I really can’t tell you that!”
F: On a different note, I was happy to see that there were a lot of women working at the Technology Center! But the shortage of women in STEM is quite an issue in other countries. Do you think it affects your industry?
G: “So we go to the universities and we talk to all the engineering students. And traditionally engineering has been a very male-dominated area, but I think things are changing. Certainly for Dyson and its whole range of products, we’ve always wanted diversity. I think it’s a very old thing to think of jobs being male or female.”
F: What’s Dyson doing right to attract more women?
G: “I think we’ve got to be very appealing for everyone. With the things that we make and the technologies that we’re investing in, the portfolio of opportunity we’ve got is quite wide now. Mechanical engineering isn’t just about screwdrivers and hammers. There’s acoustics, fluid dynamics, that sort of thing. And electronic engineering is extremely diverse, with hardware and software. I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere, but at Dyson the opportunities are pretty wide for any interest.”
F: Finally, what’s your favourite product from Dyson?
G: “What’s my favourite product from Dyson?! I’ve tried all the machines here, but I’ll say the Supersonic. I think it’s amazing because of the tech and what we’ve managed to do. Oh, the bagless, cordless vacuums too– they’re awesome. I don’t know what I did before them. I use it for everything. It’s so convenient, small, and fast. I love it.”
(Photography: Dyson and Yi-Di Ng)