The Artistic Approach to Innovation: Examining Dyson’s Creation of the Vacuum Cleaner
“You don’t replace bags because they are full,” James Dyson.
It is Saturday morning, and you are vacuuming your house, but the vacuum doesn’t work well. What do you do? Most of us would either leave the task, try to fix it, or even buy a new one. But for James Dyson, this frustrating experience led to a journey of invention and, ultimately, the creation of a completely new vacuum cleaner.
Before he became known as an inventor and engineer, many people are unaware that Dyson has a background, association with, and love for art. Despite the common perception of art being solely an object, it is actually a mindset that often translates into the creative process - something Dyson’s story perfectly illustrates. He spent a year studying at the Byam Shaw School of Art, where he met his wife, Deirdre, a painter and art teacher, before going on to study furniture and interior design at the Royal College of Art. Then he moved into engineering.
The simple Saturday morning task of vacuuming his house sparked James Dyson’s decade-long journey of invention. When he faced poor suction in his vacuum cleaner, he tried what many of us tested in the past — emptying the bag and reinstalling it, only to find it still didn’t work. Frustrated, he drove to the nearest store to buy a new bag — he came back, replaced it, and it worked like magic. This observation sparked Dyson’s curiosity and set him on a path of innovation to solve the problem permanently.
Facing the situation, he asked, “what’s the difference between the one I have emptied and the one I just bought.” This question led him to his biggest realization “you dont replace bags because they are full; you replace bags because they are blocked.”
And with this insight, Dyson set out to invent a new kind of vacuum cleaner.
Inspired by a giant cyclone he had seen in a sawmill, Dyson started the long process of miniaturizing the mechanism to fit inside a vacuum cleaner. It took him 5,127 different prototypes and 10 years of perseverance before the final product was ready for market.
If you have been following our work at The Artian, you already know that observations drive artists; they are trained for it (think about the word: “visual art”). These observations lead to questions and ignite curiosity, so they take action — which Dyson did.
Let’s analyze step-by-step the creative process.
Observation — James observed that there was no suction and that the pores of the bag were blocked.
Questioning — This observation led him to ask, “Why does an empty bag not work as well as a new one? Can’t there be a better solution for this?”
Association — He thought about how he could bring the sawmill vacuum mechanism he saw to a smaller scale for a household vacuum cleaner.
Ideation — He started to prototype, making 5,127 tweaks over 10 years before getting to the final product.
The creative process demonstrated by Dyson’s approach to inventing the vacuum cleaner highlights an important point about innovation. Art is often reduced to objects, while technology innovation is often seen as purely a product of engineering. However, Dyson’s approach to inventing the vacuum cleaner exemplifies that innovation is not solely about technical skills, but also about a convergence of diverse mindsets, perspectives, and abilities. By incorporating an artistic approach to creation, Dyson demonstrates that many factors, not just engineering, shape innovation.
He summarized it well: “inventing, engineering, designing, and art are inseparable.”
Interested in bringing this perspective into your own company? Check out The Artian’s trainings!
 Raz. (2018, February 18). Dyson: James Dyson [Podcast]. https://wondery.com/shows/how-i-built-this/episode/10386-dyson-james-dyson/