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Yves Behar's vision of low-cost glasses for students

See Better to Learn Better: Inexpensive, durable – but still 'cool' – glasses from Yves Behar help Mexican schoolchildren to focus.

By Paul Van SlambrouckCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2010

Students wear frames from See Better to Learn Better, a project that aims to deliver 300,000 pairs of eyeglasses to Mexican schools.

Courtesy of Fuseproject

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San Francisco

Yves Béhar can see the swells of change from some distance. As an avid surfer, he's learned the skill of spotting a good "set" and anticipating the lift and thrust that will carry him forward.

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That ability to see what's coming may be part of what has made the Swiss-born Mr. Béhar one of the elite industrial designers in the world. He's successful, in demand, and seemingly always on the cusp of what is new.

"He has no signature," says Joseph Rosa, the newly appointed director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor. That's high praise from Mr. Rosa, who says a designer's "signature," or an element that brands a design, is often a sign of someone starting to flatten out creatively and retread old ideas.

No one would accuse Béhar of that.

In the last couple of months, schoolchildren from poor families in Mexico have begun to see clearly thanks to Béhar-designed eyeglasses that are being given away free of charge.

By the end of the year, the new program, called See Better to Learn Better (Ver Bien para Aprender Mejor) aims to distribute 300,000 pairs of glasses to schoolchildren between 6 and 18 years of age – and then 300,000 each year thereafter. The effort is a partnership between Béhar's Fuseproject, the Mexican government, and Augen Optics.

Béhar says the program is in the middle of a test distribution, and that he could already see that one of the primary goals was being accomplished: to eliminate the stigma of wearing glasses. "The kids were excited and showing off" their new glasses, he says.

Don't be surprised if the eyeglasses, which carry several design innovations, cause ripples in the larger commercial eyewear market. That's the way Béhar's projects often work. For instance, his partnership with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, which has distributed nearly 1.5 million computers to schoolchildren around the world, is credited by some with spurring the low-cost netbook computer market.

"What I'm always trying to demonstrate is that you can get high-quality design at a low price point when a low price is just one of the criteria you are using in creating the design," says Béhar.

Nicholas Negroponte, a founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab and creator of the One Laptop program, recalls how Béhar came into the laptop program when the original design team had hit a wall in 2005. They couldn't get it beyond the prototype stage and Béhar was able to punch through the design barrier and give the project new life.

"The best decision we ever made," says Mr. Negroponte of bringing in Béhar. "He was able to really listen and always come up with a solution or ask a better question."

Béhar's solution for the eyeglass program was an almost modular design where the frames of the glasses, which are plastic and almost unbreakable, are made in two pieces – upper and lower – allowing for a cheaper fusion of the lenses to the frames. As a result, the lenses can be replaced at lower cost as prescriptions change.