In October 2003, several hundred graphic designers gathered in Vancouver for the American Institute of Graphic Arts' biennial conference. For three days, they argued, debated, and fulminated over what seemed a daunting question: How could they make the world — especially the business world — understand the power of design? Today, that challenge seems quaint, even antiquated. If anything, companies now face the question's inverse: How can you not see the power of design?
Look around you: The evidence of design's power is everywhere. It's apparent in the mere fact that the bar has been raised. Customers expect, even demand, more from the design of everything they buy. As Walter Herbst, CEO of the product-design firm Herbst LaZar Bell, has said, "Good design is not good enough anymore." Companies as varied as Adobe, Nokia, Toyota, and Virgin understand that great design is a prerequisite for turning consumers into customers. Whether it's software or sippy cups, when something works right, looks right, and feels right, it sparks an emotional connection. People come to love it and loyalty soon follows, along with the three Rs: repurchase, reuse, and recommendations — benefits that fall directly to the bottom line. Such is the power of design.
Design's power became even more evident as we assembled our second annual report on the Masters of Design — the innovators, instigators, and risk takers who are the force behind design's growing influence. Through them, we see how design is shaping the way we communicate and educate; we see how it's a catalyst for reinventing cities and reimagining nonprofits. We see also how companies such as Whirlpool are leveraging design as a competitive weapon — and stealing market share from formidable foes. And in this year's most far-reaching development, we see how companies like Procter & Gamble and Samsung are using design thinking to recast their strategic thinking. As Ideo CEO Tim Brown puts it, "Where you innovate, how you innovate, and what you innovate are design problems. When you bring design thinking into that strategic discussion, you introduce a powerful tool to the purpose of the entire endeavor, which is to grow."
We used some of the key principles of design to create this report. We took a multidisciplinary approach, collaborating with an all-star jury drawn from business, academia, and the design world itself. This custom-made panel put us on the path toward our goal: not only to spotlight great designs but to look beyond demigods like Gehry and Graves to discover new heroes and heroines who define what breakthrough design means today.
Even a quick look at the design world shows that many of today's designers defy easy categorization. They might have expertise in architecture, the graphic arts, or industrial design, but increasingly their work takes in many other fields: animation, anthropology, biology — just follow the alphabet. That's why we devised five categories that encompass all of the design world and reflect this need to break through old boundaries.
Peak Performers have innovated over the long haul; they are design's leaders and influential thinkers. Impact Players are those who, over the past year or so, have demonstrated design's capacity to shape strategy. Game Changers are the agitators who are transforming the way we think about design. Collaborators are allies from outside the design world who work with designers to reinvent their organizations and even their cities. Next Generation billboards the rising stars who are creating design's future.
Taken together, these 20 masters are rewriting the rules for design and for business. Their accomplishments, failures, and lessons learned have meaning for us all, designers and nondesigners alike. If you are leading a team or company, mapping out a marketing strategy, innovating part of a supply chain, or streamlining a manufacturing operation — that is, if you are a decision maker facing a problem — think about this question as you meet our crack problem solvers: What are you and your organization doing to fully seize on design's power and promise?
A version of this article appeared in the June 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.