In the Fast Company view of how companies innovate and compete, design matters. It has always mattered.
As we launched the magazine in November 1995, fast companies were beginning to understand that they fashioned products not for retailers, but for the people who would actually use them. Steelcase, Apple, and Samsung—by creating a new generation of cool, human-centered wares—made the consumer their customer. Design was the differentiator, the thing that helped them show they "got it." They understood that relationships between companies and their customers were changing, that the nature of work was changing, that business itself was changing. Design mattered.
It mattered, too, on an individual level. A new informality in work clothes signaled that the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was over. The look and feel of the tech tools we adopted—from cell phones to laptops to the Internet itself, heralded a new way of working that was open and collaborative. And more than a few cool companies rejected the Dilbertized view of a bland-on-bland workplace and created environments that were fresh and authentic.
And now, nearly nine years after Fast Company's debut, we're as passionate and committed as ever to design—not least because design matters now more than ever. Most companies understand that a product must be more than the sum total of its functioning parts—because today's customer first experiences a product through its design. Whether it's Jonathan Ive's iPod or Tom Ford's final collection for Gucci, a product must speak to a customer's emotions—and emotions are sparked by design. And so design, when it is done well, is deeply rooted in a corporation's culture. It reflects the real idea behind a product and, by extension, behind the company that created it. Design shapes a company's reason for being; it has become an undeniably transformative force in business and society.
Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, says as much in a recent essay, when he writes that design "has emerged as a new competitive weapon and key driver of innovation. Leveraging the power of design across all aspects of a business can establish and sustain an organization's unique competitive advantage."
So who are the people who demonstrate design's power and promise? You're about to meet them. We've assembled a first-of-its-kind report on 20 masters of design: the high-impact innovators and creators who reveal the scope and dynamism of design. They define what design means today.
In putting together this series of profiles, we followed a key design principle: collaboration. Recognizing that a designer's true power comes through working with many partners, we sought out the help of many design pros—11, to be exact. These mentors to the masters—who hold top posts at universities, cultural institutions, and companies—scouted out the tops in the field for this inaugural package. (See "A Jury of Their Peers," below.) We asked them to look beyond the legends—grand masters like Frank Gehry, Philippe Starck, and Michael Graves—and point us to fresh heroes and heroines who are designing new ways of working, competing, learning, leading, and innovating.
We also sought to mirror the real world of design. Today's designers frequently cross disciplines, from architecture to graphic arts to industrial design to film to animation. So we created five categories that reflect this boundarylessness—that embrace all of the design world and reframe it in a new way.
Peak Performers are design leaders and influential thinkers who are at the top of their game. Impact Players have recently completed a product or project that's moving markets and advancing design thinking. Game Changers are redefining and reconfiguring the rules of design. Collaborators aren't designers per se—they're allies who help make great design happen. The Next Generation presents the rising stars who will lead the design world in the next 5 to 10 years. Taken together, these 20 masters are in the vanguard of today's design revolution. They are shaping the future of business.
As we researched this package, we realized firsthand that design's power runs far deeper than aesthetics. Chris Bangle, BMW's design chief, once said that the "definition semanticists use for 'design' is meaning. Where there is meaning, there is design." Put another way, behind every design is a process—a thought process. And that process transcends design itself. If you are mapping out a sales strategy, or streamlining a manufacturing operation, or crafting a new system for innovating—if you work in the world of business—you are engaged in the practice of design.
For design, like business, is all about solving problems. The result, as Roger Martin observes, is that "design skills and business skills are converging." Every design process confronts a time problem, a material problem, and a function problem. And there are problems that spill over into the wider world of sales and marketing: What's the first point of customer contact? Where is the product sold? And what does the design do for the brand? The implications are clear: Design matters—to all of us.
And so, as you meet our 20 masters, think about this question: What's your design—for work and for life?
- Peak Performers: Four masters who are leading the world of design
- Impact Players: Four high-impact projects that shaped the year in design—and the people who launched them
- Game Changers: The risk takers and agitators who are rewriting the rules
- Collaborators: Champions who help make great design happen
- Next Generation: Meet four rising stars who are charting the future
- A Jury of Their Peers
- Introducing 11 jurors—top leaders from universities, cultural institutions, and business—who helped us select our 20 Masters of Design.
- Lessons From the Masters
- These five ideas will help you incorporate design principles in your work — and better connect with customers and colleagues.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.