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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.

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The "cool" factor is critical, says Béhar. In Mexico, low-income children in need of eyeglasses often don't get them partly because of cost, and partly because the low-end products look, well, not cool.

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The Ver Bien para Aprender Mejor glasses come in five frame styles, three sizes, and seven colors. The mix-and-match design, as well as the low cost of incorporating the lenses, has lowered the manufacturing cost to about $10 per pair, according to Béhar. Half of that cost is being borne by the Mexican government, and the other half by the nonprofit set up for the program.

According to Fuseproject, a half-million children enter Mexican schools each year in need of eyeglasses. The program will use local optometrists, or visiting ones in villages without one, to come to the schools and provide exams and prescriptions. Within a couple of weeks of the exam, says Fuseproject, the finished glasses will be delivered to the schools and distributed.

Béhar's greatest innovation may be his success in pushing state-of-the-art design into noncommercial spaces, at costs that enable poor Mexican children to have catchy eyeglasses, just as poor children in Uruguay, Rwanda, and Haiti have their own uniquely designed OLPC laptops.

That ability to take high design to lower economic strata is built on the foundation of Béhar's commercial successes. His projects include the Jawbone cellphone headset for Aliph, the "Clever Little Bag" green-packaging system for Puma shoes, and the delicate Leaf Lamp design for furnituremaker Herman Miller. Last year Fuseproject won seven International Design Awards.

Béhar says projects done with a high degree of social consciousness, such as the laptops and eyeglasses, have been "the biggest reward in my life." Still, he says his experience is that designing in both realms – social enterprise and strictly commercial – feed into each other. "If you think of using very low energy in a laptop, you can have a huge benefit for the world," he says.

Low energy use, along with a growing number of other green criteria are changing what designers think about, says Béhar. In part, he says, designers serve the function of acting as a sort of social radar for industry, being sensitive to user preferences and emerging social values. He pinpoints the car industry in particular as an industry where "people's expectations are way beyond what is being provided."

That may be just one example of the rather extraordinary period of history we are all living through, according to Béhar, when what people want is changing remarkably fast, and designers and industry are struggling to keep up.

"We are in a rare moment when there is a whole set of new criteria in people's lives that have entered the equation, and industry has the opportunity to rethink how it does things," says Béhar. "Now you know why it's impossible to get up in the morning and not be absolutely fired up about the possibilities."