The World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies In Design

Much of what is fueling the best in design is the desire to make life easier and more enjoyable.

1. Airbnb

For redesigning the hotel experience. Airbnb, the home and apartment rental service, can boast over 10 million stays last year, and as reported in Fast Company tripled revenue to an estimated $250 million. Key to their success is their stellar user experience design: parsing listings on Airbnb’s site is akin to flipping through a beautiful travel magazine and the company is poised to become a hospitality company and a travel guide company.

2. Nike

For putting sustainability at the top of its design agenda. The sportswear company is aggressively pursuing new materials that can replace the EVA foam and nylon used in shoes. To do this, they're partnering with NASA, the U.S. State Department, and USAID to research the textiles of the future. Internally, Nike has synthesized and compiled nearly eight years' worth of their findings on sustainable materials into a beautiful and graphic app called Making, which enables any designer, anywhere, to create apparel that has less of a footprint.

3. Warby Parker

For turning an e-commerce company into a pioneer for retail design. This year, Warby Parker upended their novel shopping system (a beacon of great user design in its own right—they would mail you frames to try on in the comfort of your home) by taking a seemingly traditional route: brick and mortar stores, first in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, later in Boston. Rather than simply stock shelves and hire cashiers, sales people roam the store in an effort to ease the shopping experience, and half the countertops in the store are filled with text and memorabilia that outline the beginnings and growth of Warby Parker. They company is also compiling and analyzing data to improve the in-store experience.

4. Nest

For solving yet another pain point in building the smart home. Two years after releasing its game-changing “learning thermostat,” Nest released the Protect smoke detector, again infusing a previously design-neglected home appliance with a smooth user interface and a modern industrial design worthy of Dieter Rams. From the Protect’s hands-free silencer and voice controls to its smartphone notifications and battery monitor, Nest has produced the first non-annoying smoke detector. Perhaps the company's biggest triumph, though, was capturing Google's attention: the Internet giant bought Nest for $3.2 billion. That kind of support signals an even brighter future for the company, which now has all the resources imaginable to keep designing the connected home that consumers will actually want.

5. Philips

For having one light bulb moment after the other. Not only did Philips respond with alacrity to the new federal restrictions on incandescent bulbs, by tapping their global design team to build a flatter, friendlier LED bulb, they’re leading the charge in a new area of experience design: mood lighting. Sure, mood lighting has always existed in candlelit restaurants. But what about bright blue mood lighting that cues your wake-up time? That sort of interaction is the promise of the Philips Hue lighting system.

6. Fuseproject

For designing gadgets with the human touch. At a time when much of the design world is fixated on systems and user interfaces, Yves Behar’s San Francisco-based studio is still creating heroic objects. They do so for Jawbone, for SodaStream, for startups—the list goes on. The Fuseproject approach to designing ergonomically means weaving in user comfort. For the August keyless door lock, “moments of experience are carefully crafted in the hardware,” Béhar says. “So the speaker is facing outward, and you will hear it,” confirming that the door locked behind you.

7. Starbucks

For refusing to become the McDonald’s of coffee. The mega-sized global coffee purveyor began rolling out concept stores a couple of years ago, all crafted with the neighborhood in mind. Their work continues this year: A new store in New Orleans's French Quarter nods at the city’s history as an import-export shipping port, and a pop-up Starbucks installed into a Swiss commuter train brilliantly caters to one of the most frills-starved groups out there: travelers.

8. Dyson

For behaving like its machines: self-cleaning and technically way ahead of the curve. Last year James Dyson’s vacuum company took a big step forward in the invention game by opening an $80 million factory in Singapore, dedicated to building their new magnetic motors. The motors power their new Air Blade hand dryers and vacuums. The point of the motors? Speed. “You might ask, why do you want to go faster?” Dyson says. “The faster you go, the more efficient it becomes, and the lighter it becomes, and the less material you can use.”

9. Quirky

For unleashing simple connected products for the cautious consumer. When his invention-crowdsourcing startup decided to make a play for the smart-gadget market, CEO Ben Kaufman realized, Who wants to buy a garage door or a lock from a company called Quirky? So he partnered with GE, which not only invested $30 million but shares Quirky’s vision for a simpler connected home that won’t intimidate customers. The first five gadgets hit the market last fall.

10. Jawbone

For hinting at a future where fitness trackers do more than just count our steps. The UP24 is Jawbone's most recent iteration of its wearable wristband, the Up, and besides enabling it with Bluetooth, so it can sync seamlessly to a smartphone, the UP24 monitors your habits (like sleep) and can then communicate to other apps on your phone to streamline your life (like turning on a connected lamp at the optimal time to wake up in the morning).

[Image: Flickr user Orin Zebest]

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6 Comments

  • Joshua Nash

    Starbucks? What in the tarnation. I'm sorry, but when you add a drive through to your stores, mass produce coffee, under pay staff, have a negative impact on the developing world and don't know the importance of artisan products you are the McDonald's of coffee.

    And where the heck are Tesla, Apple, Google and Pinterest?

  • Tracey Olmsted

    Good list - dont want to be a hater but Starbucks? Really? Starbucks in Target, Stop and Shop, Safeway, Macys, Marriot and several dozen other grocery stores, airports, colleges, hospitals, military bases and resorts. Innovative? I say Starbucks is the next Krispy Kreme.

  • Brad Nicholson

    I couldn't disagree more. A few years ago, when I was a Store Manager with Starbucks (I left in 2010), I actually felt like that (and used the same analogy about Krispy Kreme when we were opening too many stores and cannibalizing sales). However, the transformation from 2008 to today is nothing short of amazing. Even their licensed stores (like you mentioned in Target and many airports etc) are run by incredible people who receive the same level of training as corporate store Partners. Providing access to amazing coffee does not make them anything like KK, and they have already proven that their business model can far out-weather the economic climates that shuttered the donut shop. That they've done it all while remaining focused on providing their employees with unsurpassed training and access to great healthcare is pretty innovative in my opinion.