In Co.Design’s 50 Most Influential Designers, Where’s The Social Design?

Emily Pilloton and Dawn Hancock say there’s something missing from our infographic: the influence of those designing for social good.

We recognize and appreciate Fast Company‘s ongoing effort to promote the value of design and the leaders who are paving the way. In a recent Co.Design post highlighting America’s 50 most influential designers, Cliff Kuang starts by saying “How do you capture the present state of design in one single chart, with only 50 names? You don’t. But, inspired by the effort of those 50, we gave it a shot in Fast Company‘s 2011 design issue.” Kuang goes on to say that this infographic represents “what ‘design’ actually means today.”

[A promotion video for Studio H, a Project H programs that teaches kids about design]

What has gotten us so stirred up about this list, isn’t the list at all. In fact we agree these are great designers who have influenced us in many ways. It’s what’s missing that has us concerned: an element or measurement on the chart that speaks to social design. Design for the greater good. Design that rebuilds lives in Japan after devastation hits like that of the Tohoku Rebuilding Program. Design that makes voting for all U.S. citizens easier and more accurate through AIGA’s Design for Democracy ballot and election design. Design that treats newborn jaundice during the critical first days of life in rural hospitals in Vietnam called the Firefly. We mention these projects not because we feel they are names missing from the list, but because they are representative of a much larger troupe of designers whose vision cannot be ignored. They are less consumer-driven and aesthetic-focused and more about humanity and our desire to use design thinking to solve real systemic problems. If this was not an important and influential part of the design dialogue today, Maryland Institute College of Art would not have created a Master of Arts in Social Design and thousands would not have adopted the Designers Accord, a global initiative to create positive environmental and social impact.

We would hope that in years to come, this list of influential designers serves not merely as a barometer for design now, but a benchmark offered with the reminder of what design can be in the future. We appreciate the admission that the list is incomplete, but by not even acknowledging an entire area of design that isn’t defined by genre or medium, we feel the list may never include many who are impacting social change.

This is what’s happening today. This is what students are coming out of school with a hunger to do. This is what professionals in their 40’s and 50’s are finally realizing has been missing all these years. This is influence.

[Top image: On the Studio H jobsite, these words are a reminder to us and our high school students who designed and build this structure for their community. For the greater conversation, it speaks to how much work we have to do as creative professionals to consciously refine and evolve our practice, and also reminds readers that work is being done–real, hard work in the real world.]


Written by Emily Pilloton and Dawn Hancock.

As the managing director and founder of Firebelly, Dawn Hancock cultivates the studio’s culture and inspires the best work with vision, compassion, and an infallible gut instinct. Dawn started the studio in 1999, at the height of the dotcom era, and cashed in her 401k to start creating Good Design For Good Reason™.


About the author

Emily Pilloton is the founder of Project H Design, a nonprofit that uses design and building as catalysts for community improvement. Passionate about the intersection of design and public education in rural America, Emily lives in Bertie County, North Carolina, where she teaches Studio H, a one-year design/build high school program, with her partner Matthew Miller.