Billionaire Inventor James Dyson On His ‘Tedious’ Creative Process

October 3, 2016, 3:45 PM UTC

We live in a culture filled with “aha” moments: inspiration “strikes,” breakthroughs can happen overnight, and innovation is all about moving fast and breaking things.

James Dyson takes the exact opposite approach. For the 69-year-old British inventor, who made a name for himself reimagining household appliances including the fan, the hand dryer, the vacuum cleaner and, most recently, the hair dryer, progress comes at a slow, deliberate and incremental pace.

It’s not that his products aren’t inventive or inspired. Take his hair dryer. Shaped like a mallet, the appliance looks — and acts — nothing like traditional models. The miniaturized motor is located in the handle, and the appliance is eerily quiet and incapable of overheating hair. It’s a hair dryer — just better.

But the device doesn’t have a dramatic origin story. Instead, it took 1,000 miles of human hair and more than 600 prototypes to build. Progress was made by discovering a problem, determining the best way to fix by it by building more prototypes and then, when the problem was finally solved, moving on to the next one. The pace was deliberate and, as a rule, slow. It took years.

Related: The $400 Hair Dryer Proves James Dyson Is the Master of Making Boring Products Cool

“You must only make one change at a time,” says Dyson. Attempt more than that and “you don’t know which [one] made the difference.”

Dyson says he’s fully aware some people may find this process “tedious.” But to him the constant testing and retesting, each iteration bringing him a baby-step closer to a superior product, is “fascinating.”

“You are making discoveries all the time,” he says. When he started working on the hair dryer, he knew virtually nothing about the appliance or the science of how heat affects hair. Now he’s an expert.

For more on how Dyson works and to hear his thoughts on failure, watch the video above.