Architecture student and cofounder,
Mass Design Group
When patients enter a hospital with a broken leg and emerge with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, something is not right. This is the problem Michael Murphy, a 30-year-old student at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, addressed in his design for Butaro Hospital in Rwanda. His solution, conceived in partnership with the Clinton Foundation and Partners in Health, incorporates local climate, culture, and economic conditions. It eliminates the hallways where patients would gather—"actually incubating disease," he says—and encourages them to use the landscaped grounds instead. Inside, a ventilation system moves air from high- to low-pressure areas, industrial fans improve air circulation, and UV lights help kill tuberculosis particulates. "It's not brain science to recognize the initial problem, but it takes dedication to learn about the community's needs," Murphy says. And not just medical needs. The project trained and employed local construction workers. "We can get a bulldozer for $10,000 a month, or we can hire 300 people to hand-chisel out a mountainside," he says. "We'll do the latter. This commitment to artisanal-craft creation is an educational laboratory." —Stephanie Schomer
Product designer, Flocks
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Consider your plastic chair, your coffee mug, your lamp. Where did they come from? What were they made from? Who made them? Modern mass production makes these questions nearly impossible to answer. For Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma, 30, that's what's wrong with design. "The products are blank except for some marketing story," she says. "I wanted to tell real stories." Meindertsma's rugs—woven with 6-foot needles from woolen yarn as thick as telephone cables—and her coiled-rope furniture often have a rough-hewn finish that plainly displays their origins, which she details with documentary precision and poetic photography. Her most ambitious work so far is PIG 05049, a book that details the industrial uses of pig. (Pig gelatin, for example, is an ingredient in ice cream, but it's also used to clarify cloudy beer and jam gunpowder into bullet casings.) The book won her the 2009 Index award and a $130,000 prize. Coming up: an exhibition based on a recent visit to an Inuit village in Canada. "Few people can live only on what the land gives them, and the Inuit have for centuries," she says. "That's a powerful thing to see in real life." —Cliff Kuang
Urban planner and graphic designer, Civic Center
Candy Chang already had degrees in architecture and graphic design when a documentary about Jane Jacobs's fight to protect New York's Greenwich Village from planning czar Robert Moses led her to Columbia University to study urban planning. "That's when I learned there's a lot of talk about participatory planning but no vision to excite people to participate," she says. Chang, 33, has taken it upon herself to provide that vision through design projects—among them a public art installation of Post-it Notes on which passersby recorded (and compared) what they paid in rent and a brochure that translates the city's legalese for street vendors. Now settled in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans, Chang is developing a project called Neighborland to help residents bring the services they need to their communities and working on a graphic novel about the Jacobs-Moses war. "Every day, citizens are trying to navigate their rights as an apartment renter, a taxpayer, a small business owner, a public-transportation user," she says. "There's a real need for designers to help make civic information more accessible and engaging, so we can make great places to live, work, and play." —Alissa Walker
Founder, Project H Design
Bertie County, North Carolina
Eighteen months ago, Chip Zullinger, superintendent of schools in Bertie County, one of the poorest in North Carolina, read about an educational playground Project H had created for a school in Uganda. He immediately contacted Emily Pilloton and asked her to construct one for his district. Pilloton built four Learning Landscapes for Bertie County, then moved her entire operation there. "The education system is broken," she says, "but there are intersections where education meets design, and that's where the opportunities are." After redesigning the district's computer labs, Pilloton, 28, and her partner, architect Matt Miller, began teaching high school in August, using design and shop classes as a vehicle for community development. "We're not making birdhouses for your mom," says Pilloton. "The goal is to allow us to offer summer jobs to our students to build something for the community."
Project H is "bringing community pride back to Bertie," says Zullinger, who knows how hard it is to deliver change. After the school board suspended him over disagreements about the cost of alternate education programs, he resigned. Pilloton and Miller work for free, so their efforts will continue, to Zullinger's relief. "They're making sure the kids can integrate writing skills, product design, and service, because the future is for kids who can articulate ideas." —Stephanie Schomer
Fashion designer and founder, Bodkin
"Bodkin is as much a reaction to what's already in the world as it is a manifestation of a vision," Eviana Hartman says of her meticulously sourced line of women's clothing. Daughter of an architect, sister of an environmental microbiologist, student of cradle-to-cradle guru William McDonough, ex—fashion journalist at Vogue and Nylon, and former ecology columnist for The Washington Post, Hartman brings together all her skills and interests in Bodkin, which she launched in 2008. She spends hours every day rooting out offbeat, often cast-off, materials—such as the fabric remnants discarded by mainstream manufacturers that she regularly finds in dusty warehouses. But what makes the 33-year-old a talent to watch in a field that can be more earnest than stylish is her uncompromising eye. There's no trade-off between her devotion to sustainability and her hip sensibility. Her most recent collection for fall/winter is a sophisticated, streetwise riff on '80s Japanese avant-garde fashion. Coming up for spring: the intense colors and rich layering of Malawian women's clothing. Her label will always be a work in progress. "Nothing is ever truly sustainable," Hartman says. "Bodkin is an open experiment; sustainability is always changing, and it's always a reflection of the market." —Cliff Kuang
Bobby C. Martin Jr.
Graphic designer and cofounder, Original Champions of Design
"Social change is personal. It should go where your heart is," says graphic designer Bobby C. Martin Jr. As a student, his heart led him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a 200-year-old Harlem institution close to where he was living. He created a visual identity for the church, inspired by the Ethiopian Coptic cross, then conceived the church's remarkable campaign that displayed positive messages for the community on billboards once devoted to ads for liquor and cigarettes. That led to stints as design director for Jazz at Lincoln Center and senior design manager at Nokia in London, where he was charged with a unified and sustainable worldwide packaging initiative. Now Martin, 33, is back in the U.S. at his own firm, rebranding yet another client with a social mission: the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. His job is not just refreshing the logo, Martin says, but building a kit of graphic tools for the organization. "We're passionate about creating beauty and crafting systems," he says, "and about connecting to the audience." —Alissa Walker
Fashion designer, Exception de Mixmind and Wuyong Zhuhai, China
"We must make a better future for Chinese design," says Ma Ke, 39. Upon graduating from the Suzhou Institute of Silk Textile Technology, she set out to change the perception of China as a cheap manufacturer rather than a creative nation. "My journey in seeking the essence of design began alone," she says. In 1996, when she couldn't find "a company that made clothes out of passion and creativity rather than the hunt for profits," Ma started Exception de Mixmind. Known for its 100%-natural minimalist daywear, it is now one of China's most popular brands. Ten years later, she launched design studio Wuyong, which means "useless" and is dedicated to reviving traditional Chinese crafts. Wuyong's highly structural pieces would look at home in an art gallery, and that mix of fashion and art has earned her accolades — Ma was named Best Asian Fashion Designer at 2007's Elle Style Awards, and has shown in Paris for Fashion Week and Haute Couture Week. "Our ancestors said, 'The truth is simple to understand but difficult to carry out.' I try to carry out the truth, using only natural materials. Everything is handmade, the same way people did it 200 years ago," she says. "I hope people in the coming future will discover the tremendous meaning within this useless value." —Stephanie Schomer
A version of this article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.