June 1, 2010
Eyes on the Prize
Mexican officials hope that free glasses will be the key to a better education for some students.
When he turned 15, Yves Béhar’s eyesight weakened just enough to require glasses. “They were so cumbersome that I never wore them,” says the founder of the San Francisco–based industrial-design studio Fuseproject. In Mexico, the federal government has discovered that roughly 11 percent of schoolchildren get an inadequate education because they’re squinting at the blackboard. “There’s a stigma that wearing glasses looks like a handicap, and that’s made worse when poverty forces kids to accept hand-me-downs,” Béhar says.
Last year a representative of Augen Optics, a lens manufacturer that was founded in Mexico and is now based in San Diego, approached Béhar to create the eyeglasses equivalent of the $100 laptop. The Mexican government and the Mexico City–based nonprofit See Better to Learn Better had been financially backing an eyewear-donation program for a year, but they are now producing Fuseproject’s designs at Augen’s factory in Ensenada, Mexico, at half the cost of imported Chinese frames. Plus, the new specs, which have been distributed to visually impaired kids throughout Mexico since April, are stylish and customizable.
Béhar recalls preferring sleek eyewear as a teenager, and his firm’s design research—which included interviews with parents and children visiting the Mexican consulate next to his studio—confirmed that memory. “Kids wouldn’t touch Harry Potter–style glasses with a ten-foot pole, and they disliked adult looks.” The Fuseproject team conceived five frame styles fabricated in a tough, lightweight Swiss-made plastic that remembers its original shape. The collection comes in three sizes to accommodate different head shapes and growth curves, and it’s available in seven colors—which participants can mix and match, thanks to the two-piece frame. There are also plans to laser-etch each student’s name at the temple, exactly where a logo would have been branded. “It’s a fun DIY puzzle for a kid to assemble,” Béhar says.